My first meal in Copenhagen (if you don’t consider eating hot dogs or Sarah Bernhardt kager) was at Relæ, it was going to be my first real introduction to new Nordic Cuisine and I’d previously read about how it was one of THE places to go to in Copenhagen. Indeed, the chef/owner Christian was a former Sous Chef at Noma and there was part of me that wondered if the food was going to be like what we were about to experience the following day for lunch at Noma.
The restaurant itself is tucked away in Nørrebrø and it was quite an interesting trip getting there; driving through some really gorgeous looking Danish architecture right next to buildings that are slightly less well kept and covered in graffiti, plus the shops were definitely of an ethnic and local variety (and there were an awful lot of kebab and sharwarma shops we passed en route). Indeed, on the main road which we turned off to get to the restaurant, there was a riot van with a couple of local bobbies talking to (what I presumed to be) the local gang of youths. It did feel like we were going to one of the hippest new restaurants in Copenhagen, only for it to be in the roughest part of town. Walking in (and stepping downstairs) into the restaurant, you’re struck by how informal the whole place is with a large number of stools to sit at a high bench either facing the very open-faced kitchen, or a bit more formally with tables in the larger room. The next thing that struck me was that there wasn’t any cutlery on the tables – Perhaps they bring out cutlery along with the dishes? Oh no, each table has a drawer underneath containing not only your cutlery for the meal, but also your napkins and the menu for the night. Genius. Well, except it went a bit wrong for us because we were short of one drawer and the remaining drawers had an uneven number of knives and forks so we ended up having to ask for more cutlery half way through our meal (Yunno, to be a real nuisance..).
The menu itself is incredibly simple and I think, very daring. Basically, you choose between either a meat or vegetarian set meal of 4 courses for (at the time we went) 375kr (which is about £37.50 therefore fantastic value). There is also a wine menu to pair with both menus for the same price and they’re very much into Natural wines here at Relæ which was a new thing for me too. I thought it was incredibly bold to have such a simple menu of either meat or vegetarian. Yunno, in an age where you can be overwhelmed by choice on menus, I loved how it was Omakase-esque in that the restaurant tells you THESE are your choices, like it or eat elsewhere. Of course, we all stayed and liked it – 3 of us going for the meat and 1 going for the vegetarian menu. I somehow got talked into going for the wine pairing, but what I especially liked was how we were offered a glass of bubbly as an aperitif but they offered a juice (think it was cucumber and fennel) for those not wanting any alcohol. There was a great exchange between ourselves and the waiter when he brought over the juice because none of us were expecting it and he (very sarcastically) asked: “What were you expecting? Sorry, we’ve just run out of Diet Coke and chocolate milk…” So cheeky, but immediately put us all at ease and in touch with how laid back they all are there. If that wasn’t enough, they actually offered a juice menu to pair with their menu of choice so that they wouldn’t feel left out from others (like me) who took up the wine pairing. It’s a very simple thing, but makes perfect sense that a juice menu should be offered to pair with food for teetotalers.
Kicking off proceedings was a celeriac taco: a soft homemade tortilla filled with cooked celeriac (can’t remember how it was cooked) and topping with shaved cooked egg yolk and watercress. It may not sound like much but let me tell you, it tasted FANTASTIC! I mean, who takes the time to cook, then microplane egg yolks?! I may not be able to fully replicate this dish at home, but it’s given me some more ideas for the celeriac currently growing in my garden. Oh, I should also mention the bread: a fantastic sourdough with a thick crust and soft interior very much on a par with the exceptional bread at Hedone served with a deliciously fruity Italian olive oil (think he said it was Sardinian). I’m afraid I fell into the trap of eating too much bread with this meal, but when bread is this good – How could I not?!
First up was Lamb from havervadgård, shrimps and dill. Grey charcoal plates with slices of ruby red (raw) lamb sprawled across them were placed in front of us. As Christian explained to us, the thinly sliced raw lamb – from havervadgård, was on top of some lightly pickled slices of onion, dehydrated shrimp powder and dill. For those of you feeling a bit icky about eating raw lamb, this was shaved so thinly that it melted on our tongues. Contrast this to the wonderful pickled onions, dehydrated shrimps and dill, it was a real marriage of bold flavours and textures – So, so delicious and had us all wolfing this dish down. Served with this dish was a Pink Rabbit ’10 – Nicolas Testard, Beaujolais rosé which was fruity and bold. Oh, and the label had a funky 70s vibe going for it (and by associated, it was almost pornographic)
Following that excellent start was Turnip, Chervil and hourseradish (sic). As Christian explained to us how the turnips are slightly pickled before being cooked in butter, I *loved* he had a captive audience in M and YKL. As for the dish, it reminded me of a something hakka people do to preserve mouli radishes where they’re pickled, slightly dried and brined in rice water, only these weren’t quite so pickled, but they were also incredibly rich given the amount of butter they were cooked in. The chervil and horseradish weren’t that strong, but they didn’t need to be when the butter was so rich.
We were then treated to an extra course from the restaurant of potato, cheese and hazelnuts. As M pointed out, this was Scandinavia in a bowl with the root veg, butter, cheese.. As for taste, if we thought there was a load of butter in the previous turnip dish – it was nothing compared to this dish. I’m pretty sure I has butter oozing out of my pores after eating this dish where you could see the pool of clarified butter in the bottom of the bowl. It sounds horrid, but it was one of the best dishes all night. The smooth potato (put through a ricer?) and butter with a slight tang from the cheese and the hazelnuts providing not only a textural crunch, but also a milky taste as they were so young and fresh. Love, love LOVED this dish! So very simple – yet there was some technique to be applied here which made it deceptively simple, but so very delicious.
Next up was Veal sweetbread, cauliflower and basil which by rights, should have been my favourite dish of the night because it included ingredients I very much like to eat (sweetbreads, cauliflowers..), but whilst the sweetbreads were cooked until very crispy on the one side and the jus at the bottom of the bowl really flavoursome and hearty, my issue was with the cauliflower. From what I could gather, it was cooked, then blitzed in a food processor which meant an extra textural edge, but the sheer quantity of it was too much compared to the other ingredients. If they had done like a cauliflower purée or sliced and pan-fried some florets to add more textural contrast, I would probably have enjoyed it a bit more. Still, I finished every last part of the dish..
We were then offered a cheese course and this is where I began to suffer a bit from eating too much bread. We were told it was a goat’s cheese with parsley and what arrived before us was something like a Jackson Pollack painting. A splash of pure white with a deep, brilliant green against the contrast the plate, it certainly looked shocking and wasn’t at all what any of us were expecting. More bread was served with this as we were encouraged to tear pieces of bread and dip into the goat’s milk curd and parsley. Inevitably, there was a lighter green on the plate where the two mixed, and it was both tangy and fruity. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t manage any more bread..
To round things off, we were offered Corn, breadcrumbs and marjoram which was basically an Italian meringue underneath some dried corn and sweetcorn ice cream with some breadcrumbs. I may have been full, but this little dessert revived me somewhat; creamy, sweet with enough of a textural contrast between the corn, breadcrumbs and the meringue. A wonderful end to a great meal.
Except that wasn’t the end, we still had some coffee, or in my case Tisane which is basically whatever concoction of herbs and spices they threw together and topped with water. I spotted lemon zest, ginger, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and marjoram in the jug but it tasted great and really lifted everyone at the end of the meal.
So that was it, my first introduction to new Nordic cuisine and it was absolutely brilliant. The pairing of the wines was so interesting and I could easily see how and why René Redzepi said that the food here was “the most exciting in all of Scandinavia”. I loved not only how laid back and informal it all was, but the way the whole menu has been constructed and the use of those ingredients was something special. I mean, it’s all ingredients you could get back in the UK (well, substitute another local lamb for what we had), but you would never find anything like this in the UK – And that’s what makes it so exciting. Seriously, If given the opportunity, I would happily eat at Relæ every day and the more I think back on this meal, the more I realise just *how* great it was. I can’t wait to go back..
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