When the weather in England wasn’t satisfying our cold weather craving, we booked a trip to Copenhagen in February to fulfill our chilly, snowy needs. Our winter weekend getaway wasn’t chosen at random though. I picked Copenhagen because I had high hopes of dining at Noma, ranked best restaurant in the world for the past three years. Months in advance, I made many phone calls to Noma, which only resulted in being put on waiting lists (that were who knows how long), so I wasn’t any closer to getting a reservation. I wondered whether I should book the trip to Denmark, without having reservations to Noma and before I started to over think it, I hit the confirm button for our flights. David and I were going to Scandinavia with or without dinner at Noma, and we just hoped for a blustery, cold and snowy weekend away.
Unlike much of our winter travel within Europe that seem to involve delays and/or cancellations, the travel gods were with us and we landed in Copenhagen on time, where light snow had started to fall hours before. I researched our transportation out of the city (ahead of time for a change) and 12 minutes later and for only 36 DK, we arrived at the Copenhagen Central train station. I packed light for once in my life, which made the walking around in circles
lost looking for our hotel much less stressful. When we travel, I am adamant about finding the perfect boutique hotel, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s expensive. A little research from travel books and the internet can go a long way in helping find a hotel, inn or B&B, that oozes local culture and relaxing atmosphere. Hotel Axel Guildenmen was rustic, but elegant and boasted of warm, wooden beams, and comforting features. As we started to make plans for dinner I decided to call Noma one last time, hoping for a last-minute cancellation that would allow my dining dreams to come true. A friendly woman answered the phone and a look of surprise came across my face as the woman informed me that a party of two had just canceled. We were in! I went into shock and I was flustered giving her my credit card information, but luckily I muttered a polite thank-you before hanging up the phone. I let out a girlish shriek, and waved my hands around like I had just won the lottery.
With our Noma plans in place for Saturday night, David and I bundled up and headed to the meatpacking district nearby for a late dinner. While we were walking, the bikes were whizzing past us and it didn’t take more than a few minutes to realize how bike friendly the city was (similar to Amsterdam). We were told that the restaurant Kødbyens Fiskebar had the freshest seafood in town and it was frequented by many chefs in town (including Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma).
We sat at the hip, dimly lit bar, sipping extraordinary herbal cocktails and sucking back local oysters. Once we were seated, we indulged in Razor Clams with Maltbread, Fennel, Tarragon and Dill and local Sea Urchin (hand-dived) with Seaweed, Celeriac, Cucumber and Crème Fraiche for our first courses. Both of these dishes were served raw, and the freshness and the taste of them made me homesick for the Pacific Northwest. The use of fresh herbs and vegetables brought out all the crisp notes from the seafood; some were sweet, others were briny and it complimented each other perfectly. For our main course, we had local Blue Mussels steamed in Apple Cider with Herbs, Langoustine Bisque served with Brown Crab, Fennel and Watercress, and Baked Flounder with Celeriac, Brussel Sprouts, Smoked Marrow, Romanesco and Hazelnuts. In between bites, our food conversation was very primal, with lots of noises and the occasional, “wow”, “seriously?” or “oh.my.god ”. We were blown away by the simplicity and the taste of each dish.
I decided to order dessert and I let the waiter choose for me. He brought out Wild Chocolate Bolivian Jungle with Milk Chocolate, Lavender, Licorice, and Sea Buckthorn. Confused? I was too. When my dessert came out, it looked like chocolate mousse with a jungle of chocolate components, along with a duck egg yolk, and many little quail egg yolks around it. The sea buckthorn was easily visible and there were little translucent wisps of what looked like broken glass scattered around the plate. The duck yolk turned out to be apricot sorbet, the quail yolks were lavender gelée, the chards of glass were licorice sugar and the crumbles and bread-like crisps were chocolate of all different textures; All on top of a pillowy, light chocolate mousse. It wasn’t the best tasting dessert I have ever had, but it was delicious and certainly the most complex puzzle dessert I have eaten. Each bite was a textural and flavor bomb in your mouth, literally. David and I walked out of the restaurant and we were both in awe. The bar was set high after our first meal in Copenhagen. I had so many questions running through my head and I realized how much more exploring I had to do in the next few days.
We woke up Saturday morning to a snow-covered city with a light snow still falling. For breakfast we decided to indulge in the hotel’s signature breakfast. I feel that describing the breakfast as an all-you-can-eat-buffet would degrade the quality of the exceptional array of food presented. Homemade whole grain breads and croissants, scrambled or soft-boiled eggs, perfectly crisp bacon, platters of fresh ham, salamis and cheeses, granola, nuts, dried fruits, homemade yogurt and cereals, with homemade jams and butter to finish everything off. Everything was served and eaten on hand-painted, bright blue and yellow pottery that made you feel like you were dining on the Mediterranean coast. We chatted with a lovely couple from Oslo as we enjoyed our breakfast and sipped hot coffee and tea in hopes that it would help keep us warm as we walked around a snowy Copenhagen.
We walked passed Tivoli Gardens which is the most visited attraction in Copenhagen. It’s a place where one goes to unleash their inner child and enjoy the rides, flower parks, food pavilions, beer garden, concerts and fireworks. Unfortunately for us, Tivoli is closed in the winter. It was locked up tight, looking bleak and lifeless, so we walked toward the neighborhood of Strøget. Strøget is centrally located and it is made up of quaint city squares and pedestrian streets lined with eateries and shops. I know the Danes are known for being design-conscious and I heard that the city of Copenhagen is the epicenter. I popped into the Royal Copenhagen Porclein store and the world-famous Georg Jensen’s flagship silversmith store, but sadly I didn’t fall in love with anything. I mistakenly fell into the chocolate shop of Peter Beier (a leading Danish chocolatier) and I made up for the fact that shopping wasn’t going well with a small selection of
two five dark chocolates, marzipan, pistachio, blood orange, chili and calvados, and a beer truffle. We walked past street performers braving the falling snow to share their music, and we enjoyed listening to some very talented folks. We felt very much a part of the community joining the locals, while they did their Saturday morning errands. David and I came across a bright pink sign labeled Joe & The Juice, which turned out to be an espresso and juice bar with a very lively atmosphere, including un-censored hardcore hip hop playing on the stereo. After walking around Copenhagen for the rest of the day , we saw many Joe & The Juice’s on the corners and we realized this boutique coffee shop was a Scandinavian chain (which had expanded to the United Kingdom and Germany). They offered unique combinations of freshly squeezed juices that were smooth and flavorful, as well as the best espresso I’d had since Italy.
My heart was set on the local smørrebord for lunch so we meandered through the streets looking for Schønnemann, which has served traditional smørrebord and other Danish soul foods since 1877. Schønnemann is well hidden from tourists, but after a while of walking around in circles, we finally found it. I hopped down the steps, through the door and pushed my way through to the bar and asked the barman in my best Danish accent, “Taler De engelsk?” (do you speak English?). The barman had absolutely no clue what I said and responded with “How may I help you?” in perfect English. When I inquired about a reservation for lunch, the taller, larger barman laughed and said they book 6 weeks in advance. I wasn’t happy because that was such a rookie mistake!
Still craving smørrebord, and growing hungrier by the minute, we went to plan B. Slotskaelderen is another local institution, which was even older than Schønnemann and founded in 1797. Though this cozy restaurant was packed to the gills, the kind folks at Slotskaelderen still managed to find us a small table. We settled in with the rest of the Danes enjoying their smørrebord and schnapps and shaking off the chill of a cold Saturday, which brings me to the title of the blog, hygge. Hygge refers to the Danish sense of a cozy, warm, friendly environment where people gather together, usually around an open fire or candles (no matter the time of the year). In Slotskaelderen, I was definitely getting the hygge vibes. When eating smørrebord, everyone goes up to a long counter that displays the smørrebord of the day. There were upwards of 40 dishes to choose from. Some were sitting on a small base of untoasted pumpernickel and others were on untoasted white bread; Many had smoked or pickled fish on them and others had cured meats; Hard boiled eggs, fresh herbs and horseradish were popular accompaniments along with onions, capers and remoulade. Overwhelmed with choices, I just stood there gaping at the plates, some of them looking like something I wouldn’t order on my own. David decided quickly on the sampling of pickled herring dishes that were chosen by Frank Dove, the owner and friendly man behind the smørrebord counter. I decided on the less than adventurous smoked salmon with spicy mustard and fresh dill. David surprisingly liked his dish and he was glad he opted to try an ingredient he hadn’t been fond of in the past. I on the other hand wasn’t a fan of the texture between the smoked salmon and soft white bread. It was ok, and I ate it, but I wouldn’t get it again. I was still hungry after my smørrebord, so we asked our server what she would recommend and she said, “Danish meatballs!” They were 100% beef and very large, which normally I would worry about them being dry, but these were tender, juicy and the perfect bite before heading back out into the cold. Doing our best to fit in with the local culture, we ordered two glasses of schnapps, which was the perfect way to warm up from the inside.
Thanks to our stop at Slotskaelderen, we had enough hygge going on to keep us warm for a canal boat tour of Copenhagen’s waterways. Before jumping on the boat however, I popped into Emmerys, a local bakery chain to grab a chai latte and pastry. Økologisk tebirkes is a type of local Danish pastry that is a croissant filled with apples, marzipan, then covered in poppy seeds, and it was amazing. The canal tour was well worth it despite the low temperatures and falling snow. We covered all the tourist basics including The Little Mermaid statue that commemorates the fairy tale by the local favorite and famous Hans Christian Andersen, the National Copenhagen Opera house, which was one of the most expensive Opera Houses ever built at 500 million dollars, and the colorful, picturesque houses along the Nyhavn canal.
On the walk back to the hotel to shower and dress, we passed many flower booths that were bursting with tons of gorgeous, fresh flowers (especially for February). All of the fresh flowers were another parallel that I saw between Copenhagen and Seattle, and I felt very much at home. As we got closer to the hotel, we saw a large crowd gathering at town hall for a Chinese New Year celebration. The men were dressed in bright red and gold garments, holding the dragon high above them, doing the traditional Chinese dance. We continued walking as fireworks exploded in the sky behind us, while we listened to the shouts and cheers from the crowd.
All dolled up and ready for Noma, we hopped on the bus to take us across town and over the Havnebade canal. We got off at the Knippelsboro bus stop and started walking the 6 blocks to the restaurant. It was eerily calm as the snow continued to fall steadily, like it had been all day. I was waiting for the giddy-girlish side of me to make an appearance, but surprisingly enough I was keeping it together. The walk up Strandgade was quiet and peaceful, and David and I both took it all in and talked about what we thought was about to happen. I knew there was going to be a plethora of courses and that the food would be edible and delicious, but other than that, we had no idea what to expect. As we approached the stark building along a canal, we realized we had not passed a single person or seen a single vehicle around. I began to worry that we were in the wrong place until we saw two torches lit, with n-o-m-a spelled out on the brick wall. As we walked in, I got a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach like I was going on a first date with the most popular and best looking guy at school. I didn’t know what to expect, but I just hoped he liked me.
The restaurant was dark with old, worn, wooden beams and floor to ceiling windows on the two outside walls facing the canals. We were greeted by a very friendly Australian woman, who asked about our journey to the restaurant and where we were from. When we replied that we were from Seattle, she explained that they had a chef from Seattle working there and she would have him come out and say hello. David and I exchanged excited glances and smiles. Now is the time to break the bad news. There won’t be any pictures of our meal at Noma because we didn’t even bring our camera that night. It was partly out of respect for the restaurants reputation and partly because a camera can distract from the actual experience of the meal. I knew I could show some self-control and not be that girl with a camera or cell phone in front of me. As servers swarmed seamlessly around us, we noticed that there were no white tablecloths, which was a pleasant surprise for a restaurant of this caliber. The entire staff was perfectly attentive and friendly without being overbearing, and was educated in the methods, ingredients, and sourcing in a way that almost made me forget that I was sitting at one of the top restaurants in the world. We were informed that there would be 20 courses in total. The first ten courses would be single bites coming at us rapid fire that were meant to be eaten using our hands (my heart started racing. Can you say foreplay before the main event?) and the second ten courses would be larger portions and spaced further apart. Champagne was the first to arrive, followed by a man with a basket of warm towels for our dirty hands, frozen from the icy temperatures outside. Luke introduced himself as the Chef from Seattle and after talking for a few minutes, he said he would be back to talk more later on in the meal. To go with dinner, we were offered a wine pairing or a homemade juice paring. David and my eyes lit up (for different reasons) and in unison, he said ‘wine’, while I said ‘juice’.
I cannot say that this was the most delicious meal of my life, nor can I say it’s the ‘best’ restaurant I’ve ever been to, but it was certainly the most unique and magical one. The textures, flavor combinations and attention to detail was mind-blowing. We drank soup out of Nordic Coconuts (hollowed out potatoes, so clever), we nibbled on our floral arrangement of Malt Flatbread and Juniper Bark that sat on our table and we ate the most delicious moss (ok only moss) I had ever tasted. We were told that the reindeer lived off of this moss and I loved it so much, that I had to question my blog title and what I treasured most in life. Maybe a pinch of moss is what every dish needs? Each course was one surprise after another, like an exhilarating rollercoaster of food that you never want to end. Noma used ingredients that I would never consider using, and cooked and presented them in a way that was hard for me to fathom. David and I enjoyed some courses so much so, that the thoughtful servers brought out encore courses for us. Chef Luke came out to talk to us more during the meal, which is when he discovered that we lived in downtown Seattle and were very in tune with the food scene there. He seemed excited to have hometown guests in the restaurant, so he invited us to stay for a kitchen tour after the evenings’ service ended. I was so excited, I almost forgot where we were and gave David a humongous high-five (so inappropriate), but I resisted. I felt like we had scored front row seats to the Super Bowl.
Our tour with Luke turned into an hour plus of talking about Seattle, Copenhagen and all things food. We saw the smoker that had fish heads smoking on it, the private dining facilities, library, staff dining room and last but definitely not least, Noma’s test kitchen with a large dry erase board with Chef Rene’s brilliant brainstorm scribbles on it. To finish off our evening, Luke asked us if we wanted to sit in on the weekly staff meeting and watch some of the staff present their food projects they were working on. That’s the point where I knew that things couldn’t get any better. Here we were in Copenhagen sitting in on a meeting of some of the top culinary professionals as they presented their new creations to their peers, and their boss, Chef Rene Redzepi. It was truly an amazing experience and one that I’ll never forget (and it certainly makes ‘Top Chef’ seem a lot less interesting now). We left Noma almost 6 hours after we had arrived and I felt like we had gone on an eye-opening journey. I left Noma feeling closer to the land and nature after filling up on moss, bark, and pine, and like one incredibly lucky person. Did I mention I loved Copenhagen?
I woke in the morning, still buzzing from my Noma high, and discovered that it was still snowing! We got ready and checked out of the hotel early to make the most of our last day in this city that I was falling in love with. We hopped on a bus to the more residential neighborhood of Christianshavn in search of breakfast and to visit Europe’s famous alternative, hippy commune Christiania. In search of food, we found Café Wilder, a quaint spot along the canal that is one of Copenhagen’s oldest and most popular cafes among the locals. I enjoyed traditional Blueberry Pancakes and David went for the breakfast medley consisting of Yogurt with Berries and Maple Syrup, Two Cheeses, Olives, Small Omelet with Chives and Bacon, Ham and Fennel Sausage, Smoked Salmon with Mustard Vinaigrette, Fruit and Mini Pastry. It sounds like a ridiculous amount of food, but each component was two to three bites and it was the true breakfast of champions.
The city was so serene on that Sunday morning and we strolled around the canals, meandering our way towards the main Christiania entrance. The bold, bright murals and graffiti told me we were getting close. We approached the entrance and followed the trail (for pedestrians and bikes only) by passing one derelict, run-down shack or building after another, all covered in beautifully bright and artistic murals. David was clicking away taking photos when I saw a huge plywood sign of a large camera with a big red X through it, and other “no photos!” signs posted on the trees. I had a very eerie feeling walking around this counterculture and the more we explored, the more I got creeped out. It’s said to be the home of tradespeople, environmentalist and hippies, as well as alcoholics and junkies, and I was definitely getting more of the latter vibe as we walked past people selling bongs, pipes and funky knitwear. I saw enough of this lifestyle in Seattle and I was certain I didn’t want to waste anymore of my last few hours in Copenhagen wandering through this neighborhood that was once described a self-sufficient utopian society.
We walked the few miles back to the Strøget neighborhood for some much needed retail therapy. Illums Bolighus is a store specializing in big-name clothing, jewelry, kitchenware, interior design and furniture from local designers. This store was exactly what I had been looking for and it should have taken hours to go through, but time was tight before we had to get the train to the airport. Out of the 100 items that I needed wanted, I left with Danish aperitif glasses to commemorate my first proper schnapps experience. I treated myself to a waffle on a stick that was dipped in chocolate and then sprinkled with fresh coconut (every girl’s dream snack), while I tried to find a neon shirt that said, “I heart København”. On our way to the airport the snow finally stopped, an obvious signal to me that my weekend away was coming to an end. This was truly the perfect weekend. In just three days, I felt so familiar with the city and like I understood more of the Danish culture. There were many firsts through the weekend and countless memories that will stay with me for a lifetime. If it wasn’t for Noma, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Copenhagen, but if it wasn’t for the city of Copenhagen, I don’t think I would have enjoyed Noma as much.