Long known as the "fun capital of Scandinavia," Copenhagen has always been a place where people take joy in food. But a culinary explosion in the past few years has made dining out the hippest game in town, and the wave of new restaurants is exciting architecturally as well as gastronomically.
Set in an antique, stone-sided warehouse in Christianshavn, NOMA (Strandgade 93; tel. 45/32/96-32-97; www.noma.dk) champions the cuisine of the cold North Atlantic (the name of the place is short for nordatlantiskl mad, or North Atlantic food). Importing ultrafresh fish and shellfish three times a week from Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, they poach, grill, pickle, smoke, and even salt it according to old Nordic traditions. Chef Rene Redzepi's French Laundry training comes through in his lapidary plate presentations; having also spent time at El Bulli, he's not above throwing in a little intensely flavored foam as well. Inside, NOMA looks spare and white as an Atlantic ice floe.
In contrast, there's the warm-colored cozy clutter of M.R. (5 Kultorvet, tel. 45/33/91-09-49; www.mr-restaurant.dk), named after the initials of chef/owner Mads Reflund. He's been generating loads of buzz with his ever-changing set menus (four or seven courses), featuring dishes like scallops and duck tongue with cèpes and onions, or langoustine in milk skin with woodruff and elderberries. The French-inflected cooking of Kristian Møller and Rune Jochumsen is anything but simple, though the name of their minimalist chic cafe translates to "basic formula:" Formel B. (Vesterbrogade 182, tel. 45/33/25-10-66; www.formel-b.dk). They're fanatical about fresh ingredients -- vegetables from a farm in Lammefjorden, cèpes and chanterelles from their own mushroom grower, dairy products from Grambogård -- and they transform them into seasonal menu items such as monkfish with lemon chutney, glazed quail with chanterelles, or rack of veal with foie gras and fresh cherries.
While venerable Michelin-starred places like Kong Hans Kælder and Kommandanten still wow the expense-account crowd, lately they've been getting competition from a brash new rival, The Paul (Vesterbrogade 3; tel. 54/33/75-07-75), located in the greenhouselike Glassalen in the quaintly historic Tivoli Gardens amusement park. British-born chef Paul Cunningham's sense of whimsy is expressed not only in the restaurant's quirky postmodern decor but in the chatty, offbeat service here; seats at Cunningham's chef's table (Denmark's first) are highly coveted. His exuberant mix of traditions and ingredients yields dishes like a Bornholm free-range chicken served with a confit of veal sweetbreads, or a baked turbot with smoked beef marrow, celeriac, and chives. When the park is closed, October through April, Cunningham travels the world gathering new ideas.
For a much more down-to-earth Tivoli experience, try the hearty Danish fare at Færgekroen Bryghus (Vesterbrogade 3; tel. 45/33/12-94-12; www.faergekroen.dk), a pink half-timbered cottage in a lakeside setting. Even here there's innovation, with two fine house beers produced in the gleaming vats of an on-site microbrewery. The food is what you might expect from a local farm -- Wiener schnitzel, braised lamb shank, fried plaice with melted butter, and a range of smørrebrød open-faced sandwiches -- served in a convivial setting with live music most evenings. If beer is your thing, also head out to the Nørrebro district's Nørrebro Bryghus (Ryesgade 3; tel. 45/35/30-05-30; www.norrebrobryghus.dk), which sprawls over two floors of a converted 19th-century metal foundry. You can sample ten different beers brewed on premises as well as several dishes braised, fried, or stewed in beer -- things like crisp-fried whitefish served with roasted fennel in Pacific Pale Ale, or poached filet of beef served with snow peas, baby carrots, and green beans, under a sage sauce flavored with La Granja Stout. Reserve a seat at the "brew master's table" for a special set menu.
You can't leave Copenhagen without trying some smørrebrød -- but the open-faced sandwiches at designer-sleek Aamanns (Oster Farimagsgade 10, tel. 45/35/55-33-44; www.aamanns.dk) are smørrebrød as you've never known it before. You can scarcely get a seat in this small, hip cafe at mealtime, where crowds dine on these miniature works of art -- smoked fish and meat precisely sliced onto superbly fresh rye bread, then topped with creamy medallions of cheese and crisp, flavorful vegetables. Luckily, they also do takeout.
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