31 July 2010

The Royal Cafe, Copenhagen - Restaurant Review

Food and china; seems an odd combination doesn't it? No, I'm not referring to the Middle Kingdom, but to Denmark's illustrious maker of all things porcelain, Royal Copenhagen. In 2007, one of the world's oldest china manufacturers got together with some other famous Danish brands and boldly branched out into the restaurant trade. The team tasked to make this happen was Danish businessman, Rud Christiansen and his wife Lo Østergaard, who are the sole owners of this venture. The idea was to create a new, exciting way of promoting these manufacturers and the end result was The Royal Cafe, located in an old building dating to 1616, sandwiched between Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen's flagship stores in Copenhagen.

The Royal Cafe is a fantastically quirky place. It feels like the very antithesis to those bland identikit coffee shops that now seem to have infiltrated every corner of the globe. The interior consists of a long room with chandeliers hanging from the crazy wall-papered ceiling, and is adorned with objects ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, in a style the Cafe calls "Funky Baroque". The room is littered with objects from Danish design brands such as Kvadrat, Holmegaard, Bang & Olufsen, and Fritz Hansen among others, with the plates coming from Royal Copenhagen and the cutlery from Georg Jensen. The walls are garishly pink and are graced by some enourmous portraits, a huge circular table and a long dining table dominate the two ends of the room. The overall effect is part Mad Hatter's Tea Party and part Wallpaper* magazine photo shoot.

Of course, we can't forget the food. This being a cafe they serve the usual selection of teas and coffees and also have traditional cakes and pastries. However, the main event here is smørrebrød, which is basically an open-faced sandwich that is a national obsession in Denmark. With such a unique interior you wouldn't expect The Royal Cafe to be serving plain 'ol smørrebrød, and indeed, the cafe has come up with a modern, fresh take on the classic open-faced sandwich. They combine Scandinavian ingredients to create bite sized sandwiches, that they rather ridiculously call "Smushies" - a cross between smørrebrød and sushi.

There is a selection of ten different sandwiches on offer that you can mix and match to suit your taste. I opted to try the "Fishcake with Danish remoulade", "Parisian steak with exciting topping", "Smoked salmon with egg and dill cream", and the "Chicken salad with white asparagus".  Mrs. Nibbler, on account of our forthcoming dinner at Noma that evening (see review here), opted for a lighter dish of fresh tomato soup and bread.

I was hoping for the food to be a little more adventurous. Given that The Royal Cafe bills itself as providing a new take on smørrebrød, the toppings seemed to err on the conservative side. Smoked salmon with egg mayonnaise, chicken salad with bacon, and tomato soup, although tasty, just don't live up to the promise of such a quirkily styled restaurant. The 'exciting' topping that came with the Parisian steak sandwich turned out to be nothing more scintillating than pickles, and as far as I could discern the 'sushi' part of The Royal Cafe's 'smushi' concept refers to the portion size as opposed to the actual ingredients used. The food here is not bad per se, it's just a touch underwhelming.

I don't think I'd come back here for lunch, but if you're after an afternoon pick-me-up of coffee and cakes then The Royal Cafe certainly provides a fun and unusual diversion from the cookie-cutter chains of coffee shops. The interior alone is bound to make you smile.

(Update: In October 2010, Rud and Lo opended their second Royal Cafe in the upscale Ginza area of Tokyo. Judging by the photos, the interior design looks to be every bit as eclectic as the flagship café in Copenhagen).

Food:        6 / 10
Service:     6 / 10
Ambiance: 8 / 10

The Royal Cafe
Amagertorv 6
1160 Copenhagen, Denmark
Tel: +45 33 12 11 22

26 July 2010

We're all going on a summer holiday...

... No more working for a week or two. Well, this being Norway it's more like four weeks. Yes, I'm off on my summer hols. The Nibbler family will be in magnificent Chicago so I will not have the chance to blog as often as I'd like.

But fear not, Chicago is a foodie heaven so I'll have lots of good things to explore and write about. So far I have dinner reservations at Alinea, Moto, L2O and Topolobampo. Chicago's very first Michelin Guide comes out later this year so it will be interesting to see how these hotly tipped contenders fare (surely Grant Achatz gets three stars at Alinea?). I also want to check out Chicago junk-food legends such as Hot Doug's, Portillo's, and Lou Malnati's Pizza.

Does anyone have any good Chicago restaurant recommendations they'd like to share?

22 July 2010

Meyer´s Deli, Copenhagen - Restaurant Review

It was the morning after the night before. Following on from our stunning dinner at Noma (see review here), Mrs. Nibbler and I decided to ease ourselves into the day with some brunch at Meyer's Deli in the smart Frederiksberg neighbourhood of Copenhagen.

Meyer's Deli is a mix of cafe, restaurant, grocery store, and take-away. It's owned by legendary Danish foodie, Claus Meyer, who also set up Noma and first opened its doors in 2005. There are also Meyer's Delis in the Magasin department store and on Kongens Have, and all three stores have been raging successes since.

Naturally, the food on offer here has a Nordic focus. In addition to providing breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, the deli has its own bakery, sells ready to eat take-away foods such as sandwiches, soups and salads, and also sells ready-to-heat food, such as casseroles and braises that you can take home and warm up. The deli also stocks a wide variety of Meyer's own label and other products such as jams, chutneys, oils, sauces, and pâtés. On weekend mornings the deli serves up brunch, which is what we are here for. For a very reasonable DKK 135 (about £15) you get yoghurt with honey toasted oats; red berry compote; grilled sausage with lovage and homemade ketchup; eggs en cocotte with cheese, spinach and bacon; salami with fennel; small pancakes with hazelnuts; cheese, rhubarb chutney and bread crisps; and a basket of bread with butter and jams. This was all washed down with a delicious frozen smoothie made with Swedish sea-buckthorn, verbena, and oats.

Everything tasted wonderfully fresh. The sausage in particular had a lovely dense, meaty texture and was almost as good as the ones in the UK (I'm on a mission to find the perfect British banger in Scandinavia, but somehow it's not something that's done very well over here). The eggs en cocotte (not pictured) was light, almost soufflé like, but maybe a touch overcooked.

I can be a real coffee bore sometimes. My cappuccino's have to be 'just so'. So it's just as well that the coffee here is great too (in fact coffee is generally fantastic across Copenhagen). Meyer's coffee beans are actually roasted in Valby by the deli's sister company. My coffee came with a nice bit of latte art, which in my experience generally characterises a well-made coffee.

I would like to come back and have dinner here one evening. The dinner menu features smaller dishes of Nordic food such as salted cod, smoked chicken, and Greenland shrimp and looks very promising. But for brunch, Meyer's Deli is a perfectly pleasant place to come for a lazy morning meal in Copenhagen. You can happily sit and linger over a double cappuccino and watch life go by on the pretty, tree-lined Gammel Kongevej.

Food:          6 / 10
Service:       6 / 10
Ambiance:   7 / 10
Gammel Kongevej 107
1850 Frederiksberg
Tel: +45 33 25 45 95

19 July 2010

Noma, Copenhagen - Restaurant Review

(Note: You can read a more recent review from a meal I had at Noma in November 2012 here).

So it was, just after midnight on a chilly April evening in Oslo, that I found myself in front of my computer, finger poised expectantly over the mouse button. Click. A heart-stopping wait of a few seconds, followed by one of the happiest sights a food lover can see - a brief message confirming a table for two for dinner at Noma, currently one of the most lauded restaurants on the planet.

Little did I know that barely a week later, the hype surrounding this restaurant would reach fever pitch as Noma would shoot to the top of the San Pellegrino rankings to be crowned as "The World's Best Restaurant", trouncing rival contenders such as the legendary El Bulli and The Fat Duck. The next day Noma's website would buckle under the strain of over 100,000 booking enquiries and tables for the next three months would be booked solid. Was this a classic case of hype over substance? Can it be possible to get this excited about just food? I simply had to see what all the fuss was about for myself.

Three months would pass until my meal at Noma, more than enough time to build my expectations to stratospheric levels. I did what I typically always do before going to a new restaurant and did a bit of research, read reviews and planned the whole sequence of dishes I would have in my head. OK, maybe a tad OCD but I like to know these things. I read some wonderful reviews, in particular from Luxeat, two very comprehensive ones from Food Snob, and also from Copenhagen resident and Noma regular, Trine Lai at Very Good Food.

Noma is located in an old former warehouse in the fashionable Christianshavn area of town and is run by chef and co-owner René Redzepi. I won't dwell on the history of the restaurant, as much has already been written on that topic, but you can read more on co-owner Claus Meyer's website here.

Mrs. Nibbler and I were warmly greeted at the door and shown to our table. At the suggestion of the 'sommelier' (he also serves some of the dishes himself), Pontus Elofsson, we had Noma's own beer as an aperitif. It was made with sap tapped from local birch trees and was wonderfully refreshing with a crisp, hoppy flavour, which we sipped as we surveyed the dining room.

The interior of the restaurant is calm and airy, with wood being the dominant material used. Soft lighting, candles and sheepskin throws over some of the chairs added to the hygge and created an archetypal Scandinavian atmosphere. The evening sun flooded in through the large windows and the light constantly changed as the evening progressed, changing the feel of the room. The kitchen was semi-open plan and was encased in clear glass windows, providing a perfect view of the chefs at work - it was an oasis of calm, with chef René Redzepi at the helm, quietly leading a team of chefs from around the world. This evening was also to be the last service before the restaurant closes for the summer, so there was a really pleasant, 'end-of-term' atmosphere.

We both opted for the 12-course 'Noma Nassaaq' menu (you're advised to plan on spending at least 4 hours eating your way through this menu, but a smaller 7-course menu is also available) that includes both classic Noma dishes as well as some newer inventions. We also opted for the wine menu, which paired each course to an appropriate wine. Interestingly the entire wine tasting menu comprised of wines from the Champagne region and really showcased what the area has to offer - blanc de blancs, pinot noirs, still, sparking, sweet, and dry.

Now at this point I must admit the mischievous cynic in me almost wanted Noma to be a flop. Given the amount of hyperbole surrounding this restaurant, I almost wanted to be able to say that the emperor had no clothes. As it turned out, I've never been happier to have been proved wrong. In fact I'm finding it hard to describe the beauty of the meal I had at Noma, other than to say I enjoyed one of the finest meals of my life that warm July night.

Noma is not the sort of restaurant that you can evaluate dish by dish; it would be a bit like looking at an Edvard Munch painting and exclaiming that you liked this particular square inch the best. Eating at Noma really is an all-encompassing experience for all five senses. As such, I think it is best to just present the dishes we enjoyed that night with minimal description and let the pictures do the talking, but I will try and highlight some of the key moments. The key themes you pick up from the food are intense seasonality and the bond with nature that this restaurant has. 'Wild nature' has a strong presence in all the dishes (indeed, Noma employs 3 full-time foragers) and the ingredients used here are balanced more towards vegetables, herbs, grains and fruits as opposed to meat and seafood.

To start with we were offered a series of amuse bouches, or 'snacks', as Noma likes to call them, to whet the appetite.
Snack 1: Sea-buckthorn 'leather' with pickled rose hip petals. Sea-buckthorn berries had been puréed and dried into thin strips of 'leather'. The astringent, tart berries combined with the pickled rose hip petals proved a perfect way of waking up the taste buds.

Snack 2: Savoury cookies with speck and blackcurrants. Next a biscuit tin was placed in front of us and opened to reveal the two savoury cookies. The speck had a nice smoky flavour, but was somewhat overwhelmed by the sharpness of the blackcurrants. Although still delicious, it was maybe a touch too acidic for me.

Snack 3: Toasted rye bread sandwich with chicken skin, smoked cheese and fava bean cream. This dish was as much about texture as it was taste. The crisp rye bread and chicken skin giving way to the smooth, rich filling.

Snack 4: Pickled, smoked quail's egg. A classic Noma dish next. A porcelain egg was placed on the table and opened to reveal two quail's eggs as a wisp of smoke wafted out of the dish. The eggs were lightly smoked and pickled and consumed in one go with the warm yolk still runny and velvety smooth.

 Snack 5: Radishes in 'soil'. Again, another classic Noma dish next. Radishes were served in a small terracotta pot. Everything was to be eaten, including the leaves, which were pleasantly bitter with a peppery kick. The 'soil' being made from a layer of crushed malt, hazelnuts and beer that sat on a creamy dip made from sheep's milk yoghurt with tarragon. It was really fun to pull out the radishes and scoop up the 'soil' with them.

Snack 6: Toast with cod roe, wild herbs and vinegar powder. Crisp toast provided a nice contrast to the soft roes, with the vinegar powder adding a bit of punch. It looked just beautiful on the plate.

Bread: Warm bread with freshly churned butter and pork fat. A felt package was placed on the table, which we opened to reveal a warm loaf of bread. This was served with delicious house-made salted butter and pork fat.

Course 1: Beetroot with sorrel sauce and malt. This dish consisted of thinly sliced beetroot with crunchy malt 'puffs' and sorrel sauce. The black beetroot obtains its colour by being cooked in ash.

Course 2: Dried scallops with biodynamic grains, hazelnuts and squid ink sauce. The second dish was crisp slices of dried scallops with al dente grains, hazelnuts and a smooth squid ink sauce. A real variety of textures but I'm not convinced that drying the scallops is the best way to showcase their flavour, I would maybe have preferred a couple of grilled fresh scallops instead.

Course 3: Tartare of Danish beef, wild sorrel leaves, tarragon emulsion, and juniper berries. This is a famous Noma dish that used to be made with musk ox instead of beef. I gather they had difficulties securing an acceptable supply of musk ox so switched to Danish beef instead. This dish is eaten with the hands and the idea is to scoop up some of the tartare with the lemony sorrel leaves, smear this in the tarragon emulsion and then dip into the juniper berries. A wonderful dish that was surprisingly light. 

Course 4: Langoustine with oyster, parsley and seawater emulsion, and rye crumbs. This was a truly stunning dish. The most perfect langoustine, barely cooked, was placed on a warm stone that was dotted with small pearls of an oyster, parsley and seawater emulsion. A purple powder of seaweed was sprinkled over the stone. This was a dish you eat with your hands and we were encouraged to 'make art' as we dipped the langoustine in the emulsion. I closed my eyes and felt transported to a beach on a hot summer's day (with no iPod needed, à la The Fat Duck). Simply amazing. 

Course 5: White asparagus and pine shoots, asparagus and pine sauce.

Course 6: Onions from Læsø with chickweed and onion bouillon. This next dish was all about onions, and as the waiter said to us before serving it, "I hope you like onions". Indeed this dish was a showcase of onions; in the middle of the dish was an intense and naturally sweet onion confit topped with melted cheese. This was surrounded by lightly sautéed onions, small smoked onions, chickweed, and onion flowers. An onion and thyme bouillon with tapioca was spooned over the top.

Course 7: Turbot, 'vegetable stalks', parsnip puréeGrilled turbot was served with a parsnip purée, an elderflower, white wine, and caper sauce, watercress stems and celeriac, and scattered with sea kale and beach herbs. I love turbot - its the rolls-royce of fish - and this dish was wonderful in the sheer quality of ingredients used and variety of flavours that all worked well together.

Course 8: 'The Hen and the Egg'. This was a very fun dish; essentially you fry your own egg. A plate containing some herb butter, spinach, ramsons, and lovage was placed at our table and we were told to await further instructions. A second plate soon arrived bearing a hot skillet placed on some straw. Next to it was a duck egg, an eggshell containing salt, and some potato crisps. Pontus squeezed a drop of hay oil onto the hot skillet and we were told to break the egg into it, he then placed a timer on the table and told us to wait. When the timer went off we added the herb butter and the leaves. This was left to cook for a minute and then a sorrel sauce was pored over. The potato crisps were then crushed and sprinkled over the top. The best fried egg I have ever had.

Course 9: Deer with snails, forest shoots and chanterelle mushroomsThe last savoury course was a relatively new addition to Noma's menu. Here, loin of venison had been cooked at 58 degrees and then roasted to give a savoury crust while leaving the meat meltingly tender. It was served with snails, chanterelles and fiddlehead fern. The idea behind this dish was to imagine being a deer and it includes all the things a deer might walk across in the forest. A nice touch was that we were given a sheathed Sami Puukko knife to eat it with.

Course 10: 'Strawberries and straw'.  Another relatively new dish. Strawberries were served with chamomile, elderflower and small discs of hay parfait. The waiter then poured a cold, thin chamomile and rapeseed oil sauce over the top. This dish was wonderfully refreshing and stunning in its simplicity. The strawberries melded perfectly with the floral aroma of the chamomile and elderflower, and the parfait provided just enough sweetness. Just perfect.

Course 11: Carrot sorbet, covered with buttermilk foam surrounded by dried, raw and blanched biodynamic carrots and pieces of desiccated star anise cake, garnished with carrot leaves and roots. I found this dish the most challenging. This dish was almost savoury and relied solely on the natural sweetness of the carrot. It seemed odd to have it just after the relatively sweet strawberry dish and probably should have been served as the first 'dessert'.

Course 12: Jerusalem artichoke sorbet with apple, shortbread and chocolate discs, apple reduction and marjoram. I also found this dish quite challenging, the combination of flavours is initially so unusual that you can't quite work out if you like it or not. Halfway through eating it I decided that it was indeed magnificent. The earthiness of the jerusalem artichoke combined brilliantly with the sweet and crunchy discs and with the tartness of the apple purée, with the marjoram providing citrus and mint notes. A wonderful way to end the meal.

It is easy to get carried away with the hype surrounding this restaurant, but at its core Noma delivers some of the most thoughtful and, yes, lovingly prepared food I've ever had. Inside the restaurant, the flood of acclaim Noma has achieved thankfully does not seem to matter or indeed to have come as much surprise. After all, this is a restaurant that has been going for seven years now with the singular purpose of creating a new Nordic cuisine, and you get the sense that no Michelin stars, restaurant rankings, or food fads will cause them to deviate from this path. The staff conveys real warmth and pride for what they are achieving here, and it shows not just in the cooking but also in the wonderful service. The fact that the chefs often personally serve you the dishes they have just prepared serves to engender a sense of inclusivity and informality, a very Scandinavian trait, and cements Noma's identity further.

So is this restaurant worthy of the hype it has been generating? Most definitely. The sheer quality and intelligence of the cooking is simply breathtaking. However, I would say that overall I feel Noma is just a touch short of reaching its full potential and I can fully understand its current status as 'only' a 2-Michelin star restaurant. I felt a couple of the dishes were missing that intangible magic that separates excellent cooking from truly legendary cooking. Now don't get me wrong, the food I had here was truly amazing, but you sense the trajectory of Redzepi's cooking will lead to even greater things.

A meal at Noma serves to remind you that sometimes food is not just food and that the combination of perfect ingredients, a sense of location, and brilliant execution can transcend the sum of their constituent parts. It's the sort of meal that becomes laser-etched into your memory, forever to change your palate. Noma excites and delights in equal measures, and I can't remember ever being this excited about a restaurant.

Food:            10 / 10
Service:        10 / 10
Ambiance:    10 / 10

Strandgade 93
1401 Copenhagen, Denmark
Tel: +45 32 96 32 97

16 July 2010

Norwegian Strawberries

Summer in Norway means strawberries and the appearance of the first punnets of local 'jordbær' is always met with much excitement and discussion. Indeed, strawberries hold a special place in all Norwegians' hearts. Even their name, 'jordbær', evocatively translates to 'earth berries' in English, conjuring up an image of a primal fruit as old as Norway itself. Now one might think that the northern climate of Norway is not particularly suited to growing strawberries, but for a few glorious weeks of the year Norway produces some of the finest strawberries I have ever tasted. The relatively cool summers and abundance of light produce slightly smaller berries that are bursting with the most extraordinary concentrated strawberry flavour. They are a vibrant shade of crimson; a colour that extends all the way to the core of the strawberry, unlike some of the giant polytunnel monstrosities that are tasteless and white at their centre.

Strawberries can be found for sale everywhere in Norway at this time of year. They are sold outside grocery shops, by the side of the road, or you can pick your own at the many farms offering 'selvplukk jordbær'. The first strawberries of the summer are always expensive, falling in price as the season progresses. I read somewhere that the average Norwegian consumes around 5kg of strawberries during the summer - if anything this sounds like an underestimate.

Another superlative joy to be found at this time of year is the abundance of wild strawberries, or 'markjordbær' in Norwegian. They can generally be found growing around woods everywhere and provide tiny bursts of the most intense, delicious and intoxicating strawberry flavour. It is common to see kids (young and old) foraging for wild strawberries and making 'markjordbær på strå' by threading these tiny deep-red jewels onto long blades of grass to be enjoyed later. If you're lucky, you may even be able to find some white wild strawberries which, although pearl white in colour, have the same intense flavour as the red ones.

In total there are around 15 different varieties of strawberries in Norway, with the Korona, Senga Sengana, Zephyr, and Bounty cultivars accounting for the vast majority of strawberries grown in Norway. As the season progresses, strawberries from more northern parts of the country start to ripen and the prices of punnets gradually fall. Come the beginning of August, as quickly as they arrived, they've gone. All that's left are some jars of homemade jam to tide one over through the long winter months.

A common sight in summer along the roads in Norway
Freshly picked Korona strawberries for sale in Bygdøy 

Intensely sweet strawberries from Hjembu Farm on the South Coast of Norway
Markjordbær på strå - Wild strawberries on a grass 'straw', picked near Risør
Strawberries and skyr - an Icelandic cultured dairy product, a bit like a thick, sour yoghurt (originally from Norway)
Hulled strawberries ready for the pan (if you can resist not eating them all)
Making jam

Homemade jam - perfect with Norwegian sour-cream waffles or English scones
Simple Strawberry Jam Recipe

1kg strawberries, hulled
500g jam sugar (sugar with natural pectin) - add more if you like your jam sweeter
Juice of 1 lemon

1.  Place strawberries in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat gently until the juices start to run
2.  Mash the strawberries a bit, depending on how chunky you like your jam
3.  Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved (do not let it boil at this stage)
4.  Increase the heat and bring the mixture to a vigorous boil
5.  Boil for 4 minutes (or longer for a thicker jam)
6.  Skim off any foam; spoon into hot, sterilised jars; cover with a disc of wax paper and seal (will keep for a year or so)