Denmark is an incredible nation of less than six million that the United Nations has deemed one of the happiest countries on earth. It is not difficult to see why. It is, after all, where the timeless tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the concept of the modern-day amusement park, and the ageless joy of LEGO originated. And it has some of the most extraordinary restaurants you will find anywhere in the world.
We started our trip in Denmark&rsquos fourth largest city, Aalborg, where Zainab spent a year during her student years. Thus, we had friends and family who represented the city&rsquos best, from a recently knighted scientist, to Aalborg&rsquos seniormost cardiologist, and one of Denmark&rsquos most gifted lawyers who is also a Member of Parliament. They showered us with warmth and hospitality, and fantastic food. Their diverse inputs also helped us plan the rest of our Danish food journey.
Meals at home were heavy on seafood, something that, as Bengalis, we had no complaints about. Those and other meat preparations were typically served with bread, the most common of which was the dense rye bread rugbrød, ubiquitous in Denmark. Open sandwiches called smørrebrød, filled with many varieties of meats and vegetables, are popular in meals, including the traditional celebratory meals we were invited to, where we had to construct our own smørrebrød with a rugbrød base, pickled herring, butter, onions and a Danish mayonnaise called ramoulade. The pickling of the herring over many months ensures that its fine bones are soft enough to be eaten whole. This smørrebrød was paired with schnapps (another Danish favourite), including some home-brewed varieties with interesting flavours such as walnut and pine. Other home-cooked meals included frikadeller gravy (ground pork meatballs) and fiske frikadeller (fishcakes typically made from a white fish such as cod or haddock).
In Aalborg we also visited Fusion, one of the city&rsquos most admired restaurants. It&rsquos the brainchild of a Vietnamese chef living in Denmark. As the name suggests, it is an inspired fusion of East Asian and Danish food. The monk fish cooked with Asian flavours was most memborable, especially at our window table overlooking the fjord.
Next we travelled to scenic Skagen, famous for its association with impressionist art and its natural beauty. We were, however, drawn to its reputation as one of Scandinavia&rsquos best seafood destinations. Once a small fishing village, Skagen today is Denmark&rsquos largest fishing harbour and has the world&rsquos largest fish oil factory. And innumerable seafood restaurants. Locals strongly recommended the Sea Food Auction, but we overslept after a night of revelry at the Midsummer&rsquos Eve bonfire. The celebrations, which attract thousands, ended with Irish coffee with whipped cream and hot chocolate at Brøndums Hotel in Skagen. Dating back to 1874, it was originally a farmhouse, then an iconic guest house frequented by Skagen&rsquos famous painters, like Michael Ancher, P.S. Krøyer, Anna Ancher and Viggo Johansen.
The next day, we headed out to the 60-year-old Skagen Fiske Restaurant, possibly the city&rsquos most famous. Here, Sudip had his first experience of what was to become his favourite Danish dish, stjerneskud. It was love at first sight. Stjerneskud, which translates to &lsquoshooting star&rsquo, is a combination of the best Danish seafood. A form of smørrebrød, it has a fried plaice (sometimes sole), pickled herring, smoked salmon, a bit of lumpfish caviar and lots of fresh hand-shelled shrimp. It looks like a million dollars and tastes even better.
Later that day we left for Denmark&rsquos second largest city Aarhus, driving past quaint coastal towns. We had planned a stopover at Lønstrup to visit the Villa Vest, which is said to serves the best North Jutland cuisine. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed for a private event.
In Aarhus, we started with a visit to the famous Aarhus Street Food, operating in an old car park. This was where we finally had the quintessential pølse, the Danish hot dog. We walked to the pølsevogns (literally &lsquosausage wagons&rsquo), which are almost as common as vada pav stalls in Mumbai, and got incredible pork coupled with amazing homemade ramoulade and fried bacon bits.
Aarhus is slowly but surely emerging out of the shadow of Copenhagen. Named the European Capital of Culture in 2017, the city has a thriving food scene, overflowing with Michelin-starred, Bib Gourmand and Plated restaurants. Some of these, like Restaurant Domestic, Restaurant Grastromé, Restaurant SUBSTANS, Pondus and Restaurant Hærværk, have gained a reputation that extends beyond the city. For a city of a relatively humble population, there are numerous top-rated restaurants, such as Ferdinand, Nordisk Spisehus, Käahler Spisesalon, Møf and Frederiksgade 42.
In fact, we found ourselves walking into random restaurants around town for a quick meal only to discover that in most other places a restaurant of that quality would probably be a destination by itself. Such as Mefisto, a fairly innocuous little seafood place in the charming old Latin quarter, which, we discovered later, was one of the top seafood restaurants, in Denmark.
Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice, we asked the concierge at our hotel for recommendations. The answer came without hesitation, Teater Bodiga, one we had missed in our research. Unassuming from outside, when you enter you are transported back to a time gone by. The manager regaled us with stories of theatregoers, actors, writers and musicians who have been patrons over the generations. The ambience and service were fantastic, and the food did not disappoint either. We had the pickled salmon with mustard dressing, and taking a break from seafood we also got patty shells with chicken in creamed asparagus. We ended with a classic dessert&mdashfresh strawberries, berry sauce and fresh cream.
Our last evening at Aarhus we saved for Restaurant Domestic, recently recognised as the best restaurant in the city. It was our first experience of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Denmark. It reflected the best of fine-dining in the country, with a sophisticated yet informal ambience.
Our meal started with &lsquosnacks&rsquo&mdashsmall, delicious finger foods, with flavours and textures hitherto alien to us, such as, traditional smoked Danish cream cheese, North Jutland mussels, smoked fish, raw pine cones and an unforgettable combination of rhubarb and whey. The &lsquosnacks&rsquo, said the head chef and owner, Morten Rasted, take away the traditional fine-dining atmosphere.
Morten&rsquos genius lies in his ability to offer intelligently and carefully crafted dishes. The food was complex in flavours, yet simple and elegant in form. Using probably the best produce available anywhere in and around Central and North Jutland, the flavours stayed with us for days. Of the many delicious offerings was the asparagus with raw pine cones. Domestic opened our eyes to what the finest Danish haute cuisine is all about&mdashtechnique, creativity and a focus on local and seasonal produce.
Our next stop Copenhagen, whose contribution to world cuisine is well known. There are about 15 Michelin-starred restaurants in this city of less than a million. What truly makes Copenhagen stand out as a destination for food lovers over a city like, say, London, with over 70 Michelin-starred restaurants, is that these labels cease to matter. Wherever you go, be it the local pølsevogn, a doner kebab joint, a pub or a speciality restaurant, you will almost always be met with excellence.
We were so impressed by some of our local finds that we put aside our pre-trip research and made a new list of must-visit restaurants through our conversations with locals, chefs and restaurateurs. There were over 40 across categories&mdashtoo many for us to manage to visit.
We decided to try the most iconic restaurants and bakeries in Copenhagen, most of these in existence for centuries. For example, the very traditional Slotskælderen hos Gitte Kik, which dates back to 1797, and specialises in the classic smørrebrød, with herring delicacies, raw beef, eel and egg sandwiches. Other iconic restaurants include Schønnemann, known for its mature sild (a Danish specialty made from pickled herring) and Sankt Annæ located in the heart of the Copenhagen, both from the 1800s.
Another icon of Copenhagen dining, the legendary Søllerød Kro, located in the northern suburbs, is relatively younger (still a good few decades old) and operates from an inn that opened its doors 341 years ago. It has been home to some of Denmark&rsquos most celebrated chefs for decades and received its first Michelin star in 1987. Our meal here was perfect, from the &lsquosnacks&rsquo to the dessert finale. Søllerød Kro offers classic French cuisine with a visible influence of Denmark. The service and presentation are fantastic, the atmosphere casual and leisurely. Chef and manager, Jan Restroff, and his team, along with head chef Brian Mark Hansen (one of Denmark&rsquos most prominent culinary artists) have ensured that the restaurant lives on as a pre-eminent citadel of Danish fine-dining lives on.
Amongst some of the bakeries we visited was Sankt Peders Bageri, Copenhagen&rsquos oldest, established in 1652. Reasonably priced, it is famous for its onsdagssnegle (&lsquoWednesday snail&rsquo), a cinnamon roll sold only on Wednesdays, but in hundreds.
Our favourite dessert shop was Conditori La Glace in Old Copenhagen. Founded comparatively recently, in October 1877, it exudes old-world charm. Every window and corner was filled with pretty tiered cakes, pastries, macaroons, cookies and biscuits. Among the many items we tried there, we were probably most impressed by their signature cake, the sportskage (&lsquosports cake&rsquo) named after a show called Sports Man, the cake having first been created for its crew in 1891.
Our favourite Danish confection, was the flødeboller, which poorly translates to &lsquocream balls&rsquo, a wafer or marzipan base with marshmallow cream covered with chocolate. They&rsquore a traditional treat enjoyed by all. There are specialised brands that make gourmet flødeboller with different flavours of mashmallow cream, while others make small, light and simple ones. We kept trying it wherever and whenever we could (in the name of research, of course) and recommend Summerbird and Lagkagehuset (&lsquolayer cake house&rsquo) for their big, dense and indulgent flødebolle, and Irma and Frederiksberg Chokolade for value-for-money yet delicious options.
In Copenhagen, we had saved the best for last, that is, best in the world. Noma, or more correctly Noma 2.0, as its current avatar is called, is the stuff of legends. (Read It&rsquos Vegetarian Season at Noma 2.0 on outlooktraveller.com). Our experience really began four months ago late one night when we, along with hundreds of others, logged onto their website waiting for the summer bookings to open. The last time reservations opened, they were sold out within minutes, but armed with two laptops and multiple wi-fi back-ups, we managed to reserve a table.
When we got there, we were greeted at the entrance by the staff. Our food was prepared in the massive open kitchen adjoining the seating area. We were served Noma 2.0&rsquos vegetarian menu. This three-hour meal comprised the most ingenious vegetarian dishes ever created&mdashtextures, flavours and ingredients mostly new to us. The marigold flowers with whisky eggnog, wax broth with pollen, barbequed onion, shawarma of celeriac and truffle, and the mould pancake, one of the desserts, were some that exhilarated us.
Chefs, servers and interns worked with military precision but with the grace of a well-choreographed ballet, under the supervision of the legendary Rene Redzepi. Later, we got a tour of the back end&mdashroom after room of kitchens, development areas, storage spaces, housing and sections dedicated to specialisations kitted out with state-of-the-art gadgets. It left us with great admiration for what it takes to build and run one the best restaurants of all time.
Our culinary pilgrimage helped us undertand first hand how Nordic cuisine has attained its status as one of the most admired in the world. Taste, aroma and presentation come together in a sensual experience. Denmark&rsquos attitude towards food is uncompromised, represented in every aspect its food culture. We returned home with great memories and a few extra pounds around the waist.