March 23, 2011

Copenhagen Restaurant Review: Relae

After resting all afternoon, I was ready and eager to get going on Saturday night! A few weeks ago, when I first booked my trip to Copenhagen, I started pulling out all the stops to try to eat at Noma, recently taking the title from El Bulli as the best restaurant in the world. However, reservations there are taken 6 months in advance, and it’s next to impossible to get one inside that window. On the bike tour, we rode by and stopped to look at the harbor from right in front of it, and I couldn’t resist going in to see if by chance they might have any cancellations! Our tour guide, Mike, says many people have done that on his tours, and every 6 months or so, someone gets very lucky, but alas, it was not to be for me.

However, I had managed to get a cancellation at another fantastic restaurant in Copenhagen – Relae. Owned by some former sous chefs at Noma and El Bulli, it also proved to be relatively affordable as far as high end dining goes – only about $65 a person for the basic prix fixe, which is quite a bargain when you consider I dropped $50 on a simple dinner the night before, since prices in Copehagen are notoriously high and the exchange rate from USD to DKK is so poor. Despite having only opened about 6 months earlier, Relae has already received the Bib Gourmande award, and the buzz was that it’as already in contention for a Michelin star too! Wow.

While I had been lucky to get in, I had been a bit unlucky with our reservation time – our slot was at 9:30pm. Originally, I had booked it for three (me, my coworker, and her friend), but they decided to skip it, so I instead offered one of the extra spots to my new friend Josh, who had been as eager to eat at Noma as I was and quite a foodie. I was glad he accepted – going to fancy restaurants alone is just not as fun, in my opinion.

Having learned that Relae was casual, we dressed down a bit in jeans and nice tops. We had also heard that the chefs had decided to put the restaurant in an up-and-coming neighborhood, so at the advice of our concierge, we took a cab over. Though we arrived a bit early, they were quick to welcome and seat us.

The restaurant was cozy – very typically Danish, with its simplistic design of pine floors and tables. Meanwhile, there was a giant open kitchen right in my line of sight – not quite close enough for me to see everything being prepared, but where I could enjoy seeing the chefs running around to perfect the dishes. While the tables and seating seemed simplistic, there was one ultramodern feature that I thought was neat: instead of any cutlery or napkins being on the table, they were in a drawer on the right side of each diner’s seat at the table, so you could get fresh silverware any time you wanted instead of having to sit there in an entitled way while the servers brought out a new set for each course. I loved how unpretentious it was – almost like you were eating at the chef’s home instead of in his restaurant.

The menu was fairly simple, but still allowed for a little choice: either you got the vegetarian prix fixe or the regular (4 courses each), and you could also add an extra appetizer, dessert, and wine pairings with the regular prix fixe. Josh opted for the wine pairings, but I didn’t want to risk getting tipsy and missing out on some of the experience, so I chose just one glass of white wine (Les Jongleurs by Toby Bainbridge) that I sipped throughout the meal.

We were first brought a gorgeously crusty brown loaf of fresh baked bread, still hot from the oven, that we devoured. We were given a small dish and mini teapot of olive oil (similar to the way some sushi restaurants handle soy sauce), and one of my only complaints about the meal was that the olive oil pot was too small and was never refilled. Or maybe we were just being piggy Americans by using it all up šŸ™‚

Josh and I had both opted for the regular menu (as opposed to the vegetarian), and it became clear that meat was on the agenda when we got our first dish: beef tartare with bergamot and a few mussels mixed in. The dish was salted perfectly, bringing out the flavors of the meat, fish, and bergamot, and it got the meal off to an intriguing start. Tartare is not something I would normally order in a restaurant, but I quite enjoyed the dish. Aesthetically, I loved the beautiful red color of the meat and the way I could see the crystals of salt clinging to it – I wish now that I had gotten pictures of each dish.

For our next course, we had peeked at the menu to see that it was “baked bintje, olives, and buttermilk.” Neither of us had any idea what “bintje” was, but the rest of the menu was pretty well translated (unlike many restaurants in Copenhagen, where the English versions of the menus have a few Danish words thrown in that they just don’t bother to translate). Turns out that it’s some form of whipped potatoes – the dish came out with a smear of potatoes in the middle, and then a tangy and delicious buttermilk sauce around the outside. Perfect for dipping more of that delicious crusty bread into, which they kept bringing more of every time we finished the previous loaf šŸ™‚

After those two appetizers, it was onto the true main course: a pork chop with leeks, cod roe, and a delicious buttery sauce. This was INCREDIBLE! The pork chop was probably the best I’ve ever eaten – it was smoked, and tasted like eating a big slab of juicy bacon. Probably not the healthiest, especially with all the butter, but boy, was it good. This alone made whole experience worth it.

Finally, dessert. What was described as “sunchokes, coffee, and passion,” turned out to be a creamy ricotta-based ice cream that seemed to have been created with liquid nitrogen, as it had a somewhat brittle texture that was really neat. The ice cream was sprinkled with coffee and grated sunchoke, and then there were some pistachios (I think?) sprinkled in as well for crunch. This was incredible! The portion was incredibly generous, and I loved savoring this spoonful by spoonful. And, as a bonus, I actually (kind of) got a picture of this – though you’ll have to deal with my totally inappropriately low cut shirt to see it. Apologies!

Overall, a totally amazing time. Probably not one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, and in fact, not even in the top 10, but still totally unique – and not too pricey either. After getting home and checking out my AmEx, I found it only came to about $80 – not bad for that caliber of a meal, and especially not bad when you consider that the night before, my meal came to $50. That’s just the standard in spendy Copenhagen!

To round out the night, Josh and I headed back over to Mikkeller (he hadn’t been there the night before, and I found out he was a huge beer snob as well so I knew he’d love it). Tonight’s beers of choice were the Stillwater Existent (basic saison; pretty decent) and the Moonlight Two Weeks Notice. The Two Weeks Notice was extremely interesting. It’s a spring beer that’s brewed without any hops, and it’s classified as an ancient herbed ale. The herbs were so strong in it – I have never tasted a beer this herbaceous before. Sort of a cross between rosemary and thyme? Extremely flavorful for such a light colored beer. I later looked it up on Beer Advocate, and completely agree with the reviewers there that it would be a perfect “sandwich beer.”

However, no need for drunken sandwiches – I was already quite sated after the night of fabulous dining! We headed back to the hotel to sip a bit of wine and watch some college basketball (the crazy Pittsburgh/Butler game). It was 3am, but I was flying out the next afternoon and would soon have to adjust back to Eastern time, so I was happy to stay up late. A great weekend trip to Copenhagen!

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