Dear Restaurateur Your Fancy Sorbet Sucks

Based in Copenhagen, I’ve found myself seated in one of the world’s hotbeds for culinary innovation and inspiration over the last few years. The rise of first New Nordic and later Nordic Cuisine has been swift, powerful, and delicious. The farm-to-table movement and the re-discovery and integration of traditional ways of preserving foods, cuts of meats, and greens has also been a delightful infusion of fresh flavors and diverse culinary footprints.

It’s great. It’s delicious. I love it.

Except, that is. That high end restaurants: Nordic, New Nordic, or otherwise, continue to all make the same tongue abusing, mouth assaulting mistake.

I’m lactose intolerant. It’s annoying. It’s not severe, which means I can handle butter and milk when it is used to cook baked goods. What I can’t handle is ice cream, many cheeses, cheesecake or anything slathered in lots of cream. I’m not alone. There are a ton of us (25% in the US, 65% of people globally). Especially in the millennial generation where, perhaps thanks to our own choices or those of our parents who embraced alternatives to milk in our teens, the problem is particularly prevalent.We’re the silent majority. One largely ignored, perhaps because it’s inconvenient and a bit embarrassing to say, “No, I won’t get hives and no my throat isn’t likely to block off my breathing – I’ll just get explosive diarrhea so nauseatingly painful that I may also vomit in the process”.

Of course, there are pills. They help. But they’re far from reliable. They’re also inconvenient.

What does this have to do with fine dining?

Amazing Local Thai Food Just Off Khao San Road in Bangkok

One of my absolute must-dos for Bangkok was to sync up with fellow Arizonan expat, and travel foodie master blogger and YouTube sensation Mark Wiens of Migrationology. His food updates from Asia over the last few years have inspired me, and left my mouth hankering for a visit to Southeast Asia. Of the various folks who inspired me to make the trip to Asia and got me VERY excited about eating my way across the region, the two at the forefront were Mark (Migrationology) and Jodi (Legal Nomads).

So, when it turned out Mark was going to be in town and free to grab a quick meal, I was thrilled. After a meetup down in the Khao San Road area, we set out to find and introduce me to some fantastic local Thai eats.

The place Mark and his lovely wife/co-camera woman took me to was situated about 5 minutes walk from the tourist district, fully authentic and situated at roughly at 243 Phra Sumen Rd.

We settled in and I left the ordering to them. What followed was a mouth-watering, aromatic, eye watering, flame breathing culinary adventure and intro to a number of new dishes I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet.

It was good, it was fresh, at times it was spicy and just like a good dish always inspires, I was left struggling not to pick up and lick every plate along the way.

I also learned some great advice and wisdom: Know all those veggies in many Thai soups? They’re there mostly for flavoring, not consumption. Turns out, all these years, I’ve essentially been eating the equivalent of the garnish and wondering why it was so intense and pallet annihilating.

So, without further adieu, here’s Mark introducing the dishes we tried. For more bite-by-bite introductions to amazing foods from the region hit up Mark’s blog. Even if you’re not a food person, you’re going to find yourself watching more than a few videos.

 

Follow Mark at Migrationology or jump straight to his YouTube Channel.

You can also see Mark and Andrew Zimmern take on Bangkok’s food scene here in his video here.

Nordic Eats – Digesting Uformel, BROR, Marv and Ben

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.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

It’s delicious, it’s distinctly Nordic, it’s relatively healthy, and it’s surprisingly more complicated than one would think.  What is it?  It’s Danish Smørrebrød or “Smorrebrod”.  In the past I’ve written about local Danish cuisine and more specifically the every-day variety of Danish smørrebrød while suggesting several local hole-in-the-wall venues around Copenhagen where cheap and delicious smørrebrød could be found. Today I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum – fancy Danish Smørrebrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

In recent years Nordic cuisine has exploded onto the international stage led by restaurants such as Copenhagen’s world famous Noma restaurant.  These foods are known for using fresh, local ingredients in innovative ways to create flavorful plates that are both a delight to taste and a feast for the eyes.  One incarnation of this push towards fancy Nordic food has been a re-visit of one of the staples of the Danish diet.  In so doing, modern high end restaurants have re-worked smørrebrød while capitalizing on the food’s inherent inclination towards color, attractive appearance, and diverse use of ingredients.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

I recently had the opportunity while in Aalborg to sample a mixture of re-imagined modern smørrebrød at Utzon Restauraunt.  The venue is situated in a gorgeous center that overlooks the city’s fjord while providing a great modern-Danish backdrop.  The food served consisted of beautifully colored and portioned pieces of smørrebrød which used ingredients such as steak tartare, herring, various fish fillets, giant capers, beats, giant asparagus, shrimp, fish eggs, pickles, dill, fresh onions, Danish remoulade, and of course the cornerstone of it all – Danish rugbrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

While all of the smørrebrød we sampled was fantastic, I think the most unusual was the steak tartare which had raw ground beef and used fluffy white bread in place of the traditional dark rugbrød. Accompanied by sauce, onions, pickles, giant capers, potato chips and greens it had a light, fresh, flavor which nicely accompanied the meat without being overpowering.  During previous meals I had encountered more basic versions of the other variations of smørrebrød we tried, but in the case of the steak tartare it was the first time I’ve seen raw meat used. While not for the feint of heart, I can say I eagerly await my next opportunity to dive into a similar variation on traditional smørrebrød.

You can find my previous post on budget smørrebrød in Copenhagen here.  Have you had any experiences with smørrebrød?  I’d love to hear what you thought of it!

Sevilla – Part II

The following day I was up and ready to explore by noon.  After a quick errand on the computer I connected with a buddy I’d met in Madrid and ran into in Sevilla. We elected to set off together and explore the city. With no particular plan in mind we began our trip by heading south toward the river. I’d been told the previous day that there was some spectacular graffiti down along the river. As we made our way in that general direction we snagged a quick snack and coffee before meandering our way through the warren of bustling cobblestone streets.

Along the riverfront and the sides of one of the large bridges across the river that flows through town, I was delighted to find a wide assortment of well done, vibrant graffiti art. One depicted an old car and a giant shot of the Godfather, another an anti-war and pro-peace shot of ghostly figures walking, another was of a strange alien figure. All told there were easily 20-30 excellent pieces all done in vibrant colors in the small area I explored. The area they were in was industrial and heavily abused. The large square with a skate park next to it was littered dog feces, trash, empty beer bottles and even the remains of a small bonfire. On one side it had the river as a beautiful backdrop, on the other an old heavily damaged warehouse. It was the perfect spot for the graffiti making its contrast all that much more extreme, but, fitting.

As we continued down along the river, we gradually neared more modern and touristy areas. The parks were better kept, the trash less common. The graffiti bled away and was replaced by vibrant trees, people lazily relaxing along the riverfront parks and fisherman with their long river-fishing poles. The poles, unlike conventional American fishing rods, don´t have reels.  Instead, they are long collapsible things not unlike old branch/bamboo rods. The line is tied to the end and is usually only as long as the pole itself. Though not regularly used for mid to large-sized fish, they do catch the occasional one on them. We paused, feet dangling over the sides of the ancient stone walls lining the river and watched the fisherman fish for about 20 minutes, enjoying the warmth of a bright, sunny winter day.

After a rest, and feeling thoroughly recharged, we continued along the river until we reached an old Muslim tower. The tower, with old canons resting in front, was beautifully framed by palm trees, the river, and the bridge it overlooked. The building itself was made of large blocks of stone with middle-eastern and European influences visible – particularly in and around the windows and doorways.

At the tower we elected to begin cutting in to try and track down some grub. The city streets were overflowing with people, some tourists, mostly locals off work for Christmas or enjoying reduced hours. Before long we found our way through the busy streets dodging carriages, cars, mopeds and trams alike. With a quick turn down a side street we found ourselves dumped into the large area immediately surrounding Sevilla´s main cathedral. Beautifully lit by the golden rays of a 3:00 sun, the courtyard around the cathedral was decorated with 10 foot tall freestanding flower holders  covered in bright red Christmas flowers. Combined with the heavily-laden orange trees, tourist carriages and cobblestone streets, the sight was elegant, beautiful and the epitome of how the holiday season should be. After taking in the building´s exterior, I paid the 2 Euro to explore  inside. In classic form, the interior was massive. With spectacular stone arches gracefully stretching across to form the roof stories above our heads and the rainbow-hued light bouncing through the stained glass windows reflecting off the stone, gold and wood that decorated the Cathedral´s interior. The view was fantastic. After pausing to take in the stunning wooden and metal organ which stretched far above my head I found the ramp up the old Moor prayer tower, turned Christian bell tower, attached to the side of the cathedral. The tower was square, with each side having a sloping ramp. To reach the top you had to traverse some 30 plus levels and a small flight of stairs. Though a hearty hike to the top, the view was spectacular. Looking out from the tower the city stretched away in every direction, while beautiful old bells sat as silent guardians above our heads. From the top, I was able to look down into the interior courtyard in the cathedral – a large space with cobblestone and flagstone floors broken only by a small grove of orange trees. As I looked up and out, I could see over the entirety of the cathedral and down into the sprawling ramparts and minarets that decorated the building.

After making my voyage back down and out through the courtyard, I met up with Rick again and we continued our hunt for food. The venue we eventually found was a small tapas bar that had 3 different areas, each at a different level. Though all open to the others, two were half floors one above the entrance level where the main bar was located and the other below it. The place was a great dark drive and had delicious food. After scarfing down a plate of calamari, fried fish, and a delicious seafood salad, we set off back towards the hostel.

Once back at the hostel, and after a quick nap, we settled in and began the evening ritual … starting at the hostel bar, making new friends, exchanging new stories as well as the same old ones I tell to every new group I meet. Eventually 3 o’clock rolled around and we migrated out to the local park. There we spent another 2 hours relaxing, bullshitting, exchanging entertaining travel stories and generally enjoying the city, evening, and experience.

The following day I was dedicated to wandering at random and rounding out the rest of my brief, if spectacular exploration of Sevilla. With no specific direction in mind I set out eager to explore new streets, alleyways and tapas bars. Eventually I stumbled upon a small grungy dive. The place was small, smoky, dirty and had a good mix of old local men sitting around drinking beer. Ready for lunch I sat down and took in my surroundings.

The place was small. A room off of the bar was the kitchen, the area on and behind the bar itself was heavily laden with bottles of alcohol, breads, legs of ham and decorations. The chairs were all painted with small motifs  depicting the ocean, Spain, or other similar images. Due to the size and layout of the place, all of the plates and silverware were set up on a folding table in one corner. With another table supporting a cooler full of deserts. By the entrance there was a sign with the day’s specialties  and a large display cooler which had several large bowls of some sort of local food. Near the bar there were two large casks upended, one of which was set up as a table with a round glass top. The other had the glass removed and a large saucepan full of a steaming rice concoction resting on a bed of newspaper. The guys working the place would wander by periodically stirring the steaming plate and keeping the rice from burning.

The guy took my order, made a few strong recommendations and before long, grabbed a plate off the back wall, headed over to the steaming bowl and filled the plate with the rice, vegetables and large chunks of pork and ham. In retrospect, I think there was really only one option for that course of the meal, as everyone who came in seemed to end up with it. The bowl was excellent, though much to my chagrin, I found an eyelash about halfway through my plateful of goods. It´s my hope that it was mine! Eventually I finished off the plate -sans eyelash- and the second part of the meal arrived …  a large plate of fresh french fries with 4 little spicy sausage links. The fries were great, the sausage a bit too spicy-sour and pungent for my taste, though it was still tasty.

Times up, time to get back to exploring. I´ll pick up where I left off next time with the rest of my last day and evening in Sevilla and a taste of Cadiz soon!