Before the continent's largest food festival begins, we try the menu at Noma, the "world's best restaurant", and tour the cycle-friendly Danish capital.
Taste your way across Europe during Copenhagen's food festival
"For your first course, we have deep-fried reindeer moss. Please enjoy." My partner and I looked at what had been presented to us and started laughing. A round terracotta tray of green moss topped with what looked like a light-coloured piece of seaweed - and a twig - sat on the table like some kind of spoof. Alas, there was no reindeer in sight. The moss merely resembled reindeer horns and had indeed been deep-fried. The result? Crunchy. Greasy. And mossy.
Hoping to experience the best in modern Nordic cuisine - that is, the sort of food that takes Scandinavian cooking beyond the realms of open sandwiches - we'd booked our table for lunch at Noma, named the "world's best restaurant" for three years in a row by Restaurant magazine, more than two months in advance. With a four-hour eating slot and a €200, 20-course set menu ahead of us, we were in for the long haul.
Yet the purity of the ingredients seemed to be tarnished by over-involved cooking processes and presentation. The first 10 courses were more molecular gastronomy than actual food, and each dish - imitation mussels, deep-fried potato, fried chicken skin, smoked quail's egg and dehydrated scallops in squid ink with watercress purée, among others - was presented in utmost earnestness by a rotating cast of dozens of staff. Perhaps the most surprising moment came when we were served a plant pot full of baby root vegetables in "edible soil".
"El Bulli and even Ferran Adria's tapas bar was better than this," said my perhaps-biased Spanish companion. "These guys don't know what they're doing. It's too ... earthy."
"How did you like the scallops?" one waiter asked. I confessed that I thought the thin slices tasted bitter and burnt.
Yet a meal at Noma is clearly more about the theatrical experience than the food. "You haven't had your branch," another staff member urged, staring pointedly at a vase of flowers on the table. In among the greenery was a twig-like piece of bread which then - after we failed to eat it in time - disappeared. A French couple on the table next to us smiled knowingly; a Chinese tourist dining alone digested each course with admirable composure.
The food improved in the second half, though apart from the beef tartare sprinkled with sorrell, an egg that we cracked ourselves onto a hotplate with a sprinkling of herbs, and braised beef cheeks, there was little to really get our teeth into, and a disappointingly tiny amount of fresh fish. I did enjoy the braised onion and thyme with green strawberry juice, and, since I didn't like the scallops, an extra course of celeriac was proffered, but I found most of the dishes either too oily or too bitter. "I don't feel good after eating this," said my partner, and we agreed somewhat disappointingly that we preferred Asian food.
Still, for all the effort involved, the price seemed reasonable, and I was impressed that the kitchen could, with advance warning, tailor its menu to cater for Muslim diners or others with special requirements. Its staff were also, contrary to reputation, friendly and unstuffy. The restaurant itself, situated on the ground floor of a former salt and whale blubber warehouse on an attractive quayside, is lovely and uncrowded, with a relaxed atmosphere and no real dress code. Some 75 per cent of the clientele are tourists. "People book the restaurant first and their flight and accommodation later," said Sune Ostergaard, the assistant manager. With a three-month waiting list for a table as standard, that's no surprise.
We emerge blinking into the sunlight, heavier in body but lighter in wallet, ready to see the city and work off all those calories with a guided bicycle tour of this famously cycle-friendly capital. While you can rent your own bike for just 20 Danish kroner (Dh12) through the city's public bike scheme, the low price means that few are available so it's easier to rent one from your hotel. In Radhuspladsen, or town hall square, we meet Bo Lubke, an eccentric-looking but authoritative Danish tour guide. I ask him how cyclists can get away with roaming freely along pedestrianised areas and squares such as this one. "Well, they're not supposed to but people here are quite anarchic when they cycle," he says. "Drivers, particularly those in Porsches and Ferraris, can get quite frustrated. But we will stick to the rules by stopping at traffic lights and showing our intentions while on the road."
And with that our group of 10 heads from the edge of the new city into the old city, which was founded some 850 years ago in 1167. Fires and Second World War bombing ravaged it, so only a few buildings of the medieval city remain. Apart from giving a useful general historical background, a guided tour immediately brings to our attention things we would had missed simply wandering around, such as grand old telephone booths and statues. We pass the beautiful old Stock Exchange building, which was in use until 1974, and cross the river ("so clean you can swim in it," Lubke says, though we're not tempted), to the lovely Christianshavn, an area developed in the 17th century by King Christian IV after a visit to Amsterdam.
Five minutes down the road to the east and we arrive at the notorious hippie commune of Christiania, which I somehow expected to be edgier and further away. "This is Copenhagen's third most-visited tourist attraction," says Lubke, so it's well past being cool. "It was an army barracks until 1964, when they abandoned it. In 1971 hippies moved in and occupied it." Now the hippies have bought the 34-acre site from the government and residents pay rent and tax like good little capitalists, though Lubke says the place, especially Pusher Street, is "run by gangs" who display the not-so-welcoming signs saying "No Photos". Some 900 people now live in Christiania, some in lovely self-built houses idyllically situated on an Arcadian waterside landscape covered in greenery. "It has its own kindergarten, riding school and waste disposal system," Lubke says, "and a form of consensus democracy. There are some very long discussions and decision making processes. Meetings can take days."
Leaving Christiania via a small factory that makes bikes with trailers attached, we return to our hotel via the Black Diamond, a modern extension to the Royal Library (a sizeable Arabic collection is available to view on appointment). In the old town near the handsome 15th-century university, the First Hotel Skt Petri is a converted department store with a bistro and cafe at ground floor level and a first floor reception boasting a slick brasserie. Designer road bikes are on display, and our room, on the fourth floor, looks out over the rooftops of the medieval centre, its narrow streets dotted with cafes and boutiques.
After an hour's rest we head out to Ruby's bar on Nybrogade with Daniel, a Spanish friend working for the shipping company Maersk. There's a queue outside the 18th-century town house, but it's worth a short wait. There are two slightly decadent floors hinting at the opulence of Copenhagen at its peak, filled with a wide spectrum of lounging Copenhagen residents and visitors. There's a more grungy crowd at Kodbyen, the Meatpacking District south-west of the city centre, but there's an industrial elegance to the place that makes you want to linger. Art galleries, bars and restaurants sit alongside fish and meat processing factories, and we spend a few hours there before cycling home - that is, to our hotel, which, along with the city, after three days I don't really want to leave.
The Copenhagen Food Festival (www.copenhagencooking.dk) takes place from August 24 to September 2.
If You Go
The flight Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Copenhagen from Dh3,700 return, including taxes, in six hours
The hotel Double rooms at the First Hotel Skt Petri (www.firsthotels.com; 00 45 33 45 91 00) cost from 876 Danish kroner (Dh532) per night, including taxes
The restaurant A 20-course lunch or dinner menu at Noma (www.noma.dk) costs 1,500 Danish kroner (Dh912) per person, excluding drinks
The tour A three-hour bike tour comes with bike rental from selected hotels; otherwise 180 Danish kroner (Dh110) per person, including bike hire at www.copenhagentours.dk