Historically speaking, Denmark was never one of those places I was dying to visit. I wanted to see the Nordic countries the same way I want to see, say, Montana—in a vague sort of way, never with any sense of urgency. Over the past few years, though, as the capital city began to pop up more and more on the food-media radar, it quickly earned a place on the list: I wanted to go to Copenhagen, and I wanted to eat.
When the opportunity to visit with family recently presented itself (thanks, Mom!), the first thing I did after booking my plane ticket was to try for reservations at the best restaurant in the world three years running; sadly for us, happily for our budget, Noma was booked solid months in advance. Happily for us, though, and sadly for our budget, this new-Nordic pioneer spawned a movement that has taken over the city; we would have multiple opportunities to sample modern Danish cuisine—maybe not as highly decorated as Noma’s, but beautiful food nonetheless—during our week here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before experiencing the contemporary version, we needed an education in the basics. Our first meal would be a traditional one: smørrebrød, those iconic open-faced sandwiches, at Restaurant Kronborg.
From our budget hotel in the still-somewhat-seedy Vesterbro neighborhood (the guidebooks will tell you that it’s “a cleaned-up, dressed-up, downright chic destination,” and it may well be, but don’t be surprised to see prostitutes lined up on the streets at night and drug deals going down before noon), the restaurant, located in the city’s center, was a mere ten-minute walk.
We didn’t hew strictly to tradition; thanks to debilitating jet lag, we refrained from sampling the many flavors of aquavit on offer—unlike the neighboring table, where the infused vodka flowed freely. Resisting the temptation to introduce myself and crash that party, I focused instead on the menu. There would be no problem finding something appealing here.
As herring is practically the national dish of Denmark, I felt obligated to give it a try, but scarred by childhood memories of pickled herring in a glop of sour cream—the one dish on the oneg table that only the adults would touch—I let my mother order this one. She settled on the marinated version, and the elegant plate that appeared was nothing like the messy concoction I so feared. Surprisingly sweet, the fish was perfectly punctuated with a few capers and a raw onion slice. I was happy with just a bite or two though, content, for once, to focus on my own selection.
I went with something from the specials board: skagen toast. A massive pile of creamy, dill-laced prawns, with one lonely lemon wedge (and a couple of slices of barely ripe tomatoes) to mitigate the richness, this is the best shrimp salad I’ve ever had, bar none. No complaints here.
Even so, I couldn’t help sneaking a forkful (or five) of my sister’s choice: She went with the roast beef, topped with crisp onions, pickles, and remoulade. The meat, sliced paper-thin, was tender and deeply beefy; I would’ve preferred sour pickles, but even though these were sweet, they still provided a much-needed counter-note to my creamy, heavier dish. And, I suppose, to her dish as well.
That plate’s so pretty it deserves a second look. A gratuitous close-up:
Soon, food coma and jet lag would combine to create an all-powerful nap urge, and even though we knew better, we headed back to our hotel and succumbed. We would need the rest to explore our new surroundings.