Copenhagen Travels: New Nordic Cuisine at Relæ

My meal at Relæ, a restaurant in Copenhagen run by two former Noma alums, Christian Puglisi and Kim Rossen, was very challenging. It was one of those meals where everything tasted unfamiliar and had no frame of reference to any sort of food I’ve had in the past. It’s very similar to the experience of watching a very strange art house film, and at the end of the movie you’re wondering what on earth that was all about (did anyone feel this way about Melancholia or that Macbeth movie from the 1970s?).

There was no easing into the strangeness. A small plate of what looked like a bright green tongue covered in a strip of raw cucumber arrived. This strange morsel was actually “hip rose,” or the fruit of a rose plant, which apparently is edible. It was an extremely fleshy fruit with a squelchy sensation when you bit into it, like a very fat and large lychee without any of the sweetness. It was tangy and refreshing in the way that pickles are in the summer. The novelty of ingredients and sensations that was revealed in this amuse-bouche was a telling harbinger of what was to come.

pickled hip rose and raw cucumber
pickled hip rose and raw cucumber

Even the bread was a little different. Two slices of sourdough bread arrived alongside our sparkling wine aperitifs. There was a nice rustic crunch to the crust, while the inner bread was especially glutinous and almost sticky in nature, similar to the consistency of Korean dduk rice cakes. The whole time I kept thinking perhaps they mixed rice flour in there? It tasted great, especially with the excellent olive oil.

sourdough bread and sicilian olive oil
sourdough bread and sicilian olive oil

There are two 4-course tasting options–the omnivore and the herbivore. It’s pretty obvious that one includes meat and the other doesn’t. I felt like the herbivore option would be a better representation of New Nordic foraging cuisine, so I went with it, even though some of the dishes seemed a little out there…

…like this first one. Unripe strawberries covered in a thick green nasturtium sauce. This dish definitely raises a lot of questions. The first one might be, what do unripe strawberries taste like? Imagine wringing out all of the sweetness of the berry so that you are left with only a tart and blanched out fruit. It is a very strange sensation biting into a strawberry that isn’t juicy or sweet at all. And what on earth is nasturtium? It is a regional flower, which grows right across the street from the restaurant, if I wanted to check it out, and its flavor reminded me very strongly of dirt. I felt like I was digging up young, unripe strawberries from the soil. Needless to say, this course was a very difficult one to finish.

unripe strawberries and nasturtium
unripe strawberries and nasturtium

The first course in the omnivore option was a venison tartare with peas and mint. This was a much more palatable dish. Venison can be a very gamey meat, but it had a very mild flavor here, and it was impressively flavorful with just a few touches of salt and oil. The peas almost seemed like they had just been picked from the pod, and hence their texture was extra crunchy and the taste a little bitter. It was a nice contrast in savory flavors and different textures.

The second course, which was the same for both the herbivore and omnivore option, was a plate of sunflower seeds served in melted kornly, a smooth goat cheese made in Denmark, and lightly seasoned with some pine needles. The seeds had been pressure cooked, which rendered them soft while allowing them to swell up from absorbing the surrounding moisture. I felt like I was eating sunflower grits or sunflower mac and cheese. The kornly itself tasted like a sharp cheddar, similar to the cheese they use on Cheez-It crackers, which is a strange comparison, but it’s the most illustrative one I can come up with. It was definitely a lot more accessible than the unripe strawberries, that’s for sure, extremely comforting and filing, but very rich.

Relae - sunflower seeds and kornly
sunflower seeds, kornly and pine

The third herbivore dish arrived, a literal bouquet of green leafy vegetables dressed in a grilled goatcream. Grilling cream is definitely a cooking technique I’ve never come across in any restaurant in the States. As a result, the dressing assumes a lot of smoked flavors, making it appear as if the vegetables had been grilled, yet they clearly hadn’t. I felt like I was eating a really fresh and delicious Caesar salad right off the grill. And it really is meant to be eaten as a bouquet, because so much more flavor is extracted when eating the vegetables together rather than in separate parts. Otherwise you will miss sharp floral notes or a piquant pine needle.

vegetable bouquet and grilled goatcream
vegetable bouquet and grilled goatcream

On the omnivore side, the third course was a pork served with pickled rhubarb. The pork meat was especially marbled and full of tendons. It was prepared well, and again it only needed minimal seasoning since the meat itself was flavorful on its own. Rhubarb usually has a mild flavor, so it was interesting that it assumed the sharp flavors and textures of a cooked, caramelized onion in this dish. The components were placed on top of a dark, au jus like sauce, which I think may have been pig’s blood, but it didn’t have that off putting, iron-y characteristic at all.

pork from hindsholm, pickled rhubarb
pork from hindsholm, pickled rhubarb

The final course was dessert, a vanilla ice cream with dried raspberry and caramelized mustard. This being Relæ, you knew that this wouldn’t be such a simple and straightforward dessert. The ice cream itself was nice and creamy, but the dried raspberries were again devoid of any sweetness and were instead very bitter. I supposed the staff did not want us to leave things on a sweet note, the aim is to challenge and befuddle, and I certainly was very puzzled by how this ice cream wasn’t sweet.

vanilla ice, dried raspberry and caramelized mustard
vanilla ice, dried raspberry and caramelized mustard

My first foray into New Nordic cuisine was an eye opening one. I’ve never consumed so many flowers and wild herbs in one sitting, many of which I had to look up on Google to find out what they were. I can’t say that I loved the flavors of each course at Relæ, because several of them were very challenging, but I do remember each one distinctly. Food that is mediocre or safe recedes in the background, but Relæ’s definitely makes you take notice, forcing you to consider ingredients as edible that you typically wouldn’t, and there’s great value in that.


Relæ
Jægersborggade 41
2200 København N
(+45) 3696 6609

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