Like many, we enjoy eating out. And while we have our favorites, in general we're pretty open. Chinese or Japanese, Indian or Italian, Greek or even Peruvian, if it has a menu (or even if it doesn't) we're gonna be just fine. Add in the old standbys of burgers, pizza, salads and sandwiches, and the one thing we won't do is starve.
That said, the hottest trend in restaurants is to push the envelope, along with the commensurate price. On the surface I'm fine with that; I enjoy trying new things in new ways, and don't mind paying for something that's demonstrably better. But we're talking about culinary sleights of hand that go well beyond a little extra spice here, or a new way of using cheese. Chefs are taking the building blocks of food, reducing them to their essence and even creating something from nothing. Or in the case we came across, nothing from something.
The restaurant that managed this feat was one of a bunch that served the "New Nordic" style of cooking. I guess that was to be expected, as we were in Copenhagen on holiday, and eating was one of our major activities. The city is full of these high-end inventive and expensive places, partly as an outgrowth of the Noma diaspora. That restaurant was ranked as the "best restaurant in the world" by Restaurant Magazine four times. And while it closed earlier this year, the chefs and staffers who worked there over the years have fanned out and tied to rekindle that same magic under new names.
On top of that, the aforementioned New Nordic manifesto turns out not to be an appellation bestowed by a critic, but an actual thing. In 2004, Claus Meyer, one of the founders of Noma and a sort of Danish James Beard crossed with Bobbie Flay, gathered together some top Scandinavian chefs. They penned a guide to raise the visibility and level of cuisine from their home countries, emphasizing local ingredients and traditional flavors in new ways, with an emphasis on "purity, simplicity & freshness." And so Noma began and begat Amass and Sletten and Barr and a hundred others, and has even landed on these shores with Meyer's own Agern and the Great Northern Food Hall at Grand Central.
But back to the food. Of those three guiding principles, I can most readily corroborate the last. Everything we tried was fresh, like it had just been made, baked, caught, dug up or plucked. As to purity, there were certainly no processed ingredients that stood out: the beef was beef, the chicken chicken and the grilled duck hearts were - well - we didn't try those, so can't say. But I would bet they were the real thing.
It's that last focal point with which I would take issue. To me, simplicity means just that: taking the component part as it is and, well, that's it. Yet these folks seemed to go out of their way to turn that on its head. For instance, the turkey with risotto and mushrooms was fine. It was the garnish of burnt corn that threw us. And not kennels, but popped, like you would find at the bottom of the Jiffy pan. Or the tuna with apple and – wait for it - elderflower & grilled kale. Yes, edible flowers and crispy leaves. And the aforementioned headturner for us, the grilled pork cheeks (don't ask) were topped with onion ash. Not onion itself, but the same roasted for hours until it turned black, then pulverized, turning to ash. Then again, I guess when you can order a dish described as "Bonito, Salted Turnip, Black Garlic, Dried Lambs Heart" you can't really act surprised when that's what they give you.
While all were interesting, and some better than others, dinner was somewhat exhausting. We tried to keep track and discern the various flavors and techniques, but it got to be overwhelming. And so one night we opted out and found a small Thai place. While the menu was in Danish, the owner was only too happy to help us translate it into English. And there we found red and green curries and noodles like we were used to. Unless you're from Bangkok, what does it say about your choices when Pad Thai turns out to be comfort food?
Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to try new restaurants. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.