There are foods that our eyes tell us must certainly be mouth-wateringly delicious. They are beautiful, they are aromatic, and the ingredients are a collection of meats, vegetables, and spices that are familiar and nonthreatening. Then, there are other dishes assembled with ingredients or in a fashion that leaves even the most stalwart culinary adventurer skeptical.
My favorite is the Icelandic dish, Hákarl. It is fermented shark that has been buried to slowly rot for at least six months before being dug up for preparation and consumption. I always chuckle thinking about the long road of experimentation that led to that discovery. After all, there had to be some folks that dug up the shark at 2 months, 4 months, or 24 months to give it a go. The horror and comedy of it gives me goosebumps.
I have to admit that I haven’t tried Hákarl but, quite often I find that many of the New Nordic dishes end up embracing many of the same principles that led those early pioneers to sample Hákarl.
I’ve mentioned New Nordic, though now that more than a decade has passed since Noma launched the New Nordic movement, there is pressure to move away from the term simply embracing “Nordic” or even more specific niche terminology invented by a plethora of restaurants, many of which have been founded by Noma disciples. Each of these restaurants shares some common traits and approaches – a focus on local ingredients, freshness, a head nod to fusions, historic dishes, ways of prep, or hyper-local foods. Yet, each has distinctly unique approaches to how they assemble their menu, the meals they seek to inspire, and how they prepare dishes.
One other compelling hallmark of the Nordic culinary scene is its sense of camaraderie and collaboration. In an era where most chefs are glorified for being overly flamboyant hyper-competitive petulant tantrum-prone assholes, the Danish food scene is, as far as I can tell, extremely supportive, nurturing, and widely collaborative. Traits I find mirrors the organic and healthy nature of the food and which makes me feel good about supporting the chefs and their undertakings.
In the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to sample three of Copenhagen’s Nordic restaurants. One of these visits was for work, one upon the invitation of Visit Denmark, and the third, a celebratory birthday dinner with a friend at a restaurant of my own choosing. These restaurants were Uformel (the new sibling to Formel B, Marv & Ben (Marrow and Bone…not two men’s names), and BROR (which means brother in Danish).
Given the focus of each of these restaurants on seasonal ingredients, it was interesting to see and experience commonalities between many of the plates. Things that stood out in particular were the use of burned cucumber and mushrooms. The burned cucumber was tasty and good across the board with a fairly similar taste, though each had their own unique way of preparing the cucumber.
The mushrooms, however, were much more hit or miss. In general, I’m a big fan of the vast majority of mushrooms and find myself squarely in the mushroom camp. However, the flavor of mushrooms can quickly overpower a dish. I find this particularly true when using more exotic mushrooms which have slightly stronger, and often more acidic, flavors. The misuse of mushrooms isn’t something that has been exclusive to these three. Recent meals in Tallinn at Troika and Mix also introduced mushrooms into the meals which sadly were at best a distraction and at worse overpowered the flavors of the dish and clashed in an unpleasant fashion.
When we arrived at Uformel it was absolutely packed. The ambiance is classy and reminds me a bit of an elegant wine bar with a slightly dark but clean and open feel. The groups around us made conversation somewhat difficult and things were quite large. In general, that’s not something I typically mind. After all, part of the charm for some restaurants is the vibrancy and energetic murmur of voices in the background. However, perhaps due to the groups that night, our location in a corner with two hard walls to either side of us, or the venue itself, it was loud to the point that cross-table conversation was difficult.
My companions for the meal were a rare treat as I was joining Heather, from Heather On Her Travels, and her daughter for dinner. Heather is a prolific traveler and great blogger, so make sure to swing by her site for a look-around and her take on the meal.
The wait staff was extremely friendly and in the process of training new staff. This led to an occasional spot of confusion, but I found that added to humanizing the experience and adding a sense of connection with the waiters and food. They did seem busier than they expected, which, given it was early in the week, makes sense and makes me suspect that I did not experience Uformel at its absolute best.
Instead of opting for the traditional four-course menu, I selected three of my own choosing: scallops, monkfish, and lamb with lamb sausage.
The common thread I found throughout each of the three dishes was that they were perfectly cooked, and tasty, but lacked the depth, complexity, and distinct flavors I’ve come to expect from a lot of Nordic cuisine. The exception to this was the lamb, which came with an accompanying red sauce made with baby strawberries which was the highlight of the meal.
Scallops – This dish consisted of scallops, burned cucumber, pickled garlic, and frozen cream as well as a garnish. Of the dishes I had at Uformel, this was a a definite dud. In addition to being a somewhat disappointing serving, the scallops had very little flavor and were almost completely overpowered by the rest of the dish. The cream was the primary source of flavor for the whole dish and even once removed eliminated most of the scallop’s flavor. What little was left was overpowered by the pickled garlic. The flavor of the cucumber and the garlic by itself when isolated was decent enough with a fresh, light flavor to it that reminded me a bit of Spring. Ultimately, I’d have preferred the scallops by themselves with a hint of salt for flavor and pure taste over the mishmash that resulted when the other ingredients were piled on.
Monkfish – The monkfish,, which is quite possibly one of the most fascinating and hideous fish in the sea, was served with mushroom foam and salted strawberries. The fish itself was perfectly cooked, unrecognizable from its natural nightmare-inducing state and had soaked up a lovely blend of flavors. I’m a huge fan of both the look, taste, and mild but consistent flavor that comes with a hearty mushroom foam. While the menu suggested that the dish would include salted strawberries, I don’t recollect picking up their flavor. Instead, the fish was accompanied by mushrooms and greens. The mushrooms, as discussed previously, unfortunately were a bit overly tart and detracted from the flavor of the fish. The result was a lack of balance that undercut the taste of the fish. It is possible that this tartness actually came from the strawberries combining with or used to prepare the mushrooms – I don’t know and could not tell. Plating for the dish was a bit strange as well. It was minimalistic which scored it some points, but the plate itself and the excessive white space only succeeded in making the portion itself feel a bit unremarkable.
Lamb – This two-part dish came with a serving of Danish lamb raised in southeastern Denmark at a place called Knuthenlund, asparagus, and a lamb sausage freshly made on-site. The asparagus which was lightly grilled was perfectly cooked and delicious while the assorted greens were similarly flavorful and locally sourced from the Lammefjorden here on Sjaelland. While the lamb sausage was tasty, what really set this dish apart was the perfectly cooked lamb and the absolutely fantastic red sauce that went with it. The sauce was a mixture of Danish strawberries, mushrooms, peas, and other flavors and the result was rich, sweet, and a perfect complement that brought out the best in the lamb.
Other dishes I sampled:
Duck – French duck with shallots, blackcurrants, and smoked sauce. The duck was one of the items that Heather ordered that I sampled. It was absolutely fantastic. Despite only having one small bite, it was on-par with and perhaps better than my lamb. Next time I find myself at Uformel, this is the one dish I’d absolutely make sure is on my list. The sauce was excellent, the duck perfectly cooked, and the flavor of the duck robust and melt-in-your-mouth perfect.
Dessert – Salted caramel, yogurt sorbet, and rhubarb. Though I opted out of dessert (as you may recall I’m somewhat lactose intolerant and not a big fan of most desserts in general) I snapped a quick photo of Heather’s daughter’s dessert which she liked very much. I also found it to be beautifully plated and to remind me heavily of butterflies relaxing on a dandelion.
Wines – Both wines were excellent. One thing that Nordic restaurants tend to do exceptionally well is pair their wines and select excellent wines for their wine menus.
(Cremant du Jura)
(Lard, Des Choix)
Summary – I think a number of factors came together to give me an unfair taste of Uformel. As I mentioned earlier, it appeared that the evening was far busier than they had intended which added a certain level of chaos and also seemed to mean that they were training a lot of staff. Overall the food was good, but failed to live up to my expectations and what I had heard about it. Some of the dishes were absolutely excellent. Even when they missed their mark, such as with the scallops, it wasn’t that the dish wasn’t good, it just failed to live up to its potential and lacked the robust flavors I’ve come to identify with Nordic dining. For an enjoyable meal out with relatively affordable pricing (each dish is 100 DKK when you pick/choose your own assortment) it gets a thumbs up. But, for the sibling cranking out ostensibly same-quality food as it’s Michelin star sibling? It has some catching up to do. In truth, I really want to give it another shot, because the food, plating, and flavors I felt we experienced don’t feel like they align with what I’ve seen described and shared via TripAdvisor. The one critique that does seem consistent, however, is that the acoustics in the restaurant are extremely difficult. So, if sampling Uformel, do make sure to take that into consideration and ensure that it aligns with the type of evening you have planned.
Marv & Ben
In the months leading up to my visit, every time I heard the name Marv & Ben I always assumed it was a combination of two people’s names. It was only upon visiting as part of a work function that I finally had it explained to me that Marv & Ben actually means Marrow and Bone. A very clever move and one that makes me chuckle every time I see the name. It has also made it stick in my memory and stand out. The ambiance is cozy, warm, and feels homely but with a slightly upscale hint to it that leaves you quite confident that it is a Nordic restaurant gently radiating that distinctly Nordic feel.
The Snack – To start things off as we were seated, we were introduced to crisped pork skins. I’ve always been a huge fan of pork skins in general, but found these in particular to really set the bar. They were crisp, overloaded with flavor, and extremely savory. With the crispness of a chip but thinness of a heavy stock piece of paper they melted in your mouth and were a pleasure to eat. Their plating also tied into one of my weak-points as I’ve always loved the use of black slate for plates. The mixture of color, different seasonings between the two types of pork skins, and overall freshness meant that these started our meal off on the right foot. Though I was confined to sampling one of each flavor, I could have easy continued on and made a meal of skins all by themselves.
Mackerel – Smoked Mackerel, burned cucumber, skyr, chives, and Danish radishes. I really enjoyed this dish, both in how it was plated and the flavoring. The burned cucumber was fresh and tasty and isolated enough on the plate that I could experiment combining it with various other flavors. In the right amount it went well with the mackerel without overpowering it, while a hint of skyr on it created an interesting blend of flavors. The mackerel had been mildly smoked and was on the more mild side as opposed to the potently smoked side of things. This ensured maximum enjoyment of the mackerel and left me cutting each piece in incrementally smaller slices to drag out each delicious morsel as much as possible.
Potatoes – New potatoes, Lumpfish Roe, and what was either lovage or another type of young sprout. I love potatoes. I love fish roe. I did not love this dish. It gets points for being artfully plated. That’s about it. My biggest mistake was probably that I didn’t douse it in salt to try and bring some hint of flavor back to it. Either way, the fish roe had very little taste and the new potatoes were bland. The dish needed a crash cart to bring it back to life. Unfortunately it was out of juice and left me eager to progress to the next plate.
Lamb – Lamb, new onion, and croutons. The lamb was mouth-wateringly good. Perfectly cooked, in a mild but fantastic sauce, and well accompanied by flavor-filled croutons and a very tasty onion that was grilled to perfection. The lamb was delightfully tender and had a perfectly balanced lamb flavor with a mild aroma that reminded you that you were eating lamb, without overwhelming you with the intensity that some lamb dishes tend to pick up. Of the three dishes that made up our meal, this was the one that left me wanting to lick the plate clean. Nicely done.
Wine – Default wine pairing menu. The wine was good, but given the poor level of service, it was not something I was able to document.
Dessert – Skipped as I had a previous post-dinner engagement and had to step out. Also: See my general lackluster interest in dessert noted above.
Summary – Of the three restaurants in this post, Marv & Ben had the greatest contrast between its best and worst dish. Overall though, the quality of the dishes, the one dud excluded, definitely left me feeling like it lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, where they really docked themselves a lot of points was on service. I’m willing to give some leeway because we were a large group, which is always a challenge. However, the two staff that were serving us both came off as somewhat dismissive with a hint of snootiness, which for a Nordic restaurant was quite unusual and a bit shocking. There definitely seemed to be a difference in how responsive they were to various members of our group based on how formally dressed they were and basic inquiries such as what each dish was, or what wine was being served, had to be made repeatedly before answers were given. One of the things I absolutely love about the majority of Nordic restaurants is how friendly, welcoming, and engaging the staff are. They don’t just serve you the food, they tell you the story behind it and deep dive into what you’re being served. I really do hope that it was a one-off exception or a bad waiter. What gave me pause, however, was that both staff members seemed to be equally difficult to engage.
These guys have a deeply humble approach that permeates everything about the restaurant and makes it an absolute pleasure. The cookery feels like rescued heritage dishes and adds an old-time homey feel to the meal. The meats and approach to the food is also modernized traditional with a focus on what we would otherwise avoid or outright refuse. This approach to alternative eats and meats specializes further on various edible sexual appendages, ingredients or alternately some sort of animal head bringing a whole different context to the name “BROR” which means brother in Danish. While the snacks tend towards naughty bits and edible thinkers’, more traditional dishes typically make up the main menu. This was my second time at BROR, having written my previous review [view it]. It did not disappoint and held up, despite having sampled more Nordic cuisine over the past year.
The famous, mouth-watering, and awkwardly sexual snacks include a number of fixed items that get re-imagined on a seasonal basis. During my previous visit I had sampled their Bull’s Balls, Mackerel Sperm, and Cod Head each of which I found to be absolutely fantastic to the point that they challenged the main meal for flavor and memorability.
The Bull’s Balls where every bit as good as I remembered and were spiced up with a very hilarious and unique take on the Danish birthday cake. It was a ballsy move, but one that was utterly brilliant and left both the birthday girl and me laughing hysterically. For those unfamiliar with Danish birthday traditions, it is an unwritten law that you must include Danish flags, a cake, and of course the traditional candle. When I mentioned to the staff that it was my companion’s birthday, I expected that they might spice up the dessert … instead, they delivered our Bull’s Balls with a flaming candle and proud Danish flag. As you can see in the image attached, it was perhaps one of the most unusual birthday cakes I’ve ever seen.
The Mackerel sperm was fried this time and full of flavor, served on tapioca crisps. It was far more obvious, both from the creamy texture, and the size of the sacks that it wasn’t your ordinary slice of fish. Flavorwise, it was less complex and fresh than upon my previous visit, but still very good.
The biggest disappointment of the whole meal was the Cod head. Where previously the sauces had left us licking the bowl, sucking the flesh off the lips, and devouring every last morsel – this incarnation had been cooked in a different way. In addition to making the head look even more demonically daunting, it lacked the incredible sauce that I enjoyed previously. It was still brilliantly cooked and perfectly tender with a pleasant flavor…but it was just that. An interestingly plated, utterly ugly, and flavorful but neutral piece of fish. The lack of the sauce also made particularly fatty areas much more bland and gooy. The consistency and texture was just too much. Especially for how so-so the taste was.
We were surprised with two additional snacks, one of which impressed and the other of which stole the show (sorry birthday balls – you WERE delicious). The first of these consisted of Danish tomatoes on sourdough bread that had been toasted to a texture reminiscent of croutons. The tomatoes were fresh, wonderfully sweet, and something I would have gladly made a meal out of. Accompanied by light seasoning and a pinch of rosemary salt, targhitis (sp) stems/flowers, and sauce made from pizo (a Nordic version of miso using fermented yellow beans mixed with creme fraiche), they’re something I’d love to try making at home. Simple. Elegant. But with a lot of character.
The second was a sweetbread rhubarb puree which had an incredible mixture of layered flavors and depth. It was perfectly balanced, beautifully displayed, and left me utterly enamored with what I’d just eaten. With a mixture of sweet, earthy, salty-sour, and fresh it felt a bit like I’ve always imaged the entire-meal-in-a-cube dishes featured in some futuristic scifi-shows would taste.
One other ingredient that is popular and varies widely from Nordic restaurant to Nordic restaurant is the butter. Most deliver excellent (and still warm) bread accompanied by fantastic Danish butter. Some infuse it with sea salt, others with bone marrow, yet others with various other ingredients which make the butter something to really look forward to and enjoy. Far too often I naturally assume that all butter is relatively similar. Woe to me for making that most basic of mistakes.
The main four-course menu followed with a focus on fish. While I have to admit to being a smudge disappointed that the cuisine of the day was fish, those slivers of disappointment were short lived.
Mackerel – I really enjoyed the plating on this dish which consisted of fresh mackerel, smoked mackerel roe (with lots of flavor), burned and perhaps slightly cured cucumber, croutons and seaweed. The seaweed brought with it a fresh saltiness and light sea-flavor that accompanied the mildly smoked mackerel in a lovely way. The mackerel itself straddled the line between smoked and raw perfectly ensuring maximum taste and flavor. The croutons and burned cucumber brought a bit of crunch and added depth to the flavors that rounded out the dish quite nicely.
Beef Heart – Glazed beef, using beef hearts, egg yolk emulsion, grilled and pickled white asparagus and mixed greens. These beef hearts were delicious. Cut like they were in long thin strips they felt like anything but heart. This way of preparing and cutting them also left them extremely tender and flavorful. In recent years I’ve become a big fan of heart, especially when prepared right. Needless to say served with delicious white asparagus and properly seasoned this version of beef heart was exponentially better than my hair-brained spur of the moment attempt back in 2009 – see the video beef heart disaster.
Pan-fried Hake – The meal’s main dish was Pan-fried Hake with butter, roasted fish bone broth, mushroom ragu accompanied by white herbs and pickeled onions. As an external side, just to make sure we were full, there were also traditional spring potatoes served in butter and dill. This mushroom/fish bone foam and broth was positively delicious. It was the embodiment of what a mushroom foam should be and added both a nice flavorful touch as well as really complimenting the dish’s plating nicely. The hake was perfectly cooked, moist, and thoroughly enjoyable with a clean and crisp flavor and a texture that was still firm without getting mushy. As mentioned previously, this was the one dish that managed to handle mushrooms properly. The mushroom ragu sat as a base beneath the fish and was neither overpowering or overpowered. It was well-balanced without being overly strong and I enjoyed pairing it with the fish and broth.
Dessert – Served on beautiful old heirloom plates, dessert consisted of green strawberry sorbet plated with red and green strawberries, rosemary, fennel, hay, and toasted hay cream. Unfortunately due to my lactose intolerance I was only able to sample the dish with the hay cream in a very small amount. It was sweet, delicious, and balanced out the slightly sour flavor of the green strawberry sorbet which, while interesting, I found to be slightly too tart for my tastes. While the sorbet taken by itself was a bit too tart, when combined with the crackers and a hint of the hay cream the dish took on an entirely different profile and was much more enjoyable – a fitting end to an absolutely lovely meal.
Bulles de Comptoir Champagne – This champagne was a lovely way to start the meal and to kick off a celebratory birthday toast. As my level of knowledge about champagne in particular is beyond rudimentary I’ll refrain from saying more than that. It was enjoyable, refreshing, and went well with several of the snacks we had ordered.
Le Raisin & L’Ange, Ardeche, 2014, Bruine, Cabarnet Sauvignnon – This wine was extremely strange. As an organic option we were warned in advance that it wasn’t anything like what we’d expect and was still on the cusp of its fermentation process with each bottle varying widely in flavor and quality. With a rose-like color and a flavor that reminded me a bit of a mixture of a tart rose mixed with a small bit of champagne, it was anything but the Cabernet Sauvignon I was expecting. It was worth trying as it was interesting, but I have to admit that I’d skip it in favor of a nice red next time.
Summary – Once again BROR stole the show. The atmosphere and level of service was excellent with each dish carefully explained. The restaurant is two-stories with perhaps a total of 20 tables (probably less). From the plates to the small wine-cork horse that decorated the bar everything about this place is charming, welcoming, and relaxed. The staff was absolutely excellent and not only happy, but eager to explain each of the dishes and what set them apart or made them interesting. The dishes offer a wide variety and a fun opportunity to push your comfort level while enjoying rich flavors with excellent depth. Even though two of the snacks fell short of my expectations from my previous visit I discovered several new snacks that more than made up for it. I’ll definitely return to BROR in the future and am happy to recommend it.
Despite the hype it has received in recent years, I find that Nordic cuisine continues to live up to its reputation. Its wealth of creative takes on what are often similar seasonal ingredients make for an interesting assortment of flavors. When done right, the dishes come with a level of depth and a dynamic nature that is compelling and deeply enjoyable. These meals are not exactly cheap, but also far from egregiously priced. Especially when one compares the prices to a similar dining experience in the US, UK, or France. The venues tend towards a relaxed vibe and are generally free of annoying pomposity and snobbery. They offer a wonderful way to explore aspects of Danish culture, heritage, and to sample the Danish landscape. Each plate offers insights into Denmark and the diverse landscape that stretches across more than four hundred distinct islands each with their own unique climates and character. Thanks for joining me on this culinary safari!
*Note that the meal at Uformel was provided by Visit Denmark, while the meal at Marv & Ben was covered as part of an external work-event.*