Danish Dreamland

Don't go to Copenhagen unless you have very high self-esteem: the people are beautiful and the food is world-beating

Lisa Hilton

The builders of London have stopped whistling, and the silence left behind roars like the absence of birdsong. I used to like getting whistled at, that moment of walking past the scaffolding and hearing “Hello, darlin’”. It didn’t make me feel oppressed or intimidated, it put a spring in my step and a wiggle in my behind, a cheering little hiatus of flirtation between the business of getting and spending, but now the builders cast down their eyes and move respectfully aside, lest the foreman give them a lecture on slut shaming.

I don’t like the fact that someone has decided that being whistled at ought to make me upset, not least because as well as the implied infantilisation — are women really too delicate to walk past a building site? — it seems to be bound up with class. Builders can’t look at Page Three on their teabreaks any more, because Chanelle from Croydon’s tits are debasing porn, but having a perv at Lena Dunham’s increasingly-psychotic self-exposure on Instagram would presumably be fine, since that’s feminism. Registering attractiveness, noticing and being noticed, are among the adult pleasures of adulthood, and London is the poorer for their absence. Not so Denmark, Europe’s happiest nation, where the girls on their bicycles make every traffic light an erotic adventure and the men just look like, well, heaven.     

Don’t visit Copenhagen in summer unless your self-esteem is feeling robust. This flat, compact city might have been designed to make Anglo-Saxons feel like poor relations — which, of course, as craven payers of the Danegeld, we once were. Paris may flaunt its ineffable chic and New York its impeccable cool, but Copenhagen quietly and oh-so-unassumingly throws a great flob of superior DNA in your face. The people are so beautiful, the interiors so inviting, the architecture so understatedly ingenious that it takes considerable confidence not to cross the city without feeling like a badly-dressed, insufficiently blonde troll. 
And then there’s the food. Copenhagen is home to René Redzepi’s Noma, the world-beating flagship of New Nordic cuisine. Good luck with that reservation, but it’s possible to experience the influence of the Scandinavian revival without selling your organs. One of the finest dinners I tried was at Kødbyens Fiskebar, in the former meatpacking district on the water. The location is fairly unprepossessing — access is through a car park — but once indoors, firebowl, fish tanks and low wood tables deliver just the right amount of hip. We began with simple Marennes oysters, in a dilled variation of shallot vinegar, accompanied by Scottish razor clams with fennel, hazelnut and tarragon, exquisite in speckled pastry shells. Then Norwegian langoustine, crisp with cucumber and creamy centred with cured egg yolk, and pike perch poached to an intense, smoky, caramelized spiciness with golden beets and anchovy.

My heart sank a little at the next course, Danish squid in a foam of black garlic and wild blueberries, but even with the super-erogatory foam, the dish would have been outstanding, had everything else not been so excellent. North Atlantic scallops seared with sweetbreads, smoked onion and celeriac were dreamy, an explosion of textures and clear, refined flavours that achieved both robustness and elegance. Hake fried in seaweed butter was a simple and refreshing contrast, and we managed to squeeze in a baked almond rice with pine essence that didn’t quite feel like pudding but was delicious nonetheless, before waddling round the corner to Lidkoeb, a 19th-century chemist’s shop reached through a half-timbered barn. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the “ruined pubs” of Budapest, an arty, improvised dive, but with sparkling fairylights and without the hideous stag parties.

One of the nicest places to eat breakfast in the world has to be Granola, a gorgeous retro café, with soothing turquoise walls and 1960s coffee machines, which serves everything from buttermilk pancakes to a Danish take on coq au vin. I defy anyone not to be delighted with a pistachio milkshake, complete with glacé cherry, taken on one of the outside benches, where wholesome mothers park their babies’ prams in the sharp sea air. Copenhagen has an unhurried feel, a sense that haste is unnecessary, which is perhaps why the city’s attention to detail is so immaculate. Even in the daytime, candles burn in café windows, which makes stopping for coffee every 20 minutes seem like a reasonable proposition. (At least that was my excuse; I think my boyfriend just wanted to ogle the girls.) This sense of active enjoyment of urban space is encapsulated by Olafur Eliasson’s recent Circle Bridge, which spans the Christianshavn Canal, a series of five interconnected platforms connected by a wire structure reminiscent of ships’ rigging and inspired by fishing boats. The zigzag design deliberately slows pedestrians down, turning a walk into a meander, imposing contemplation of the views across the city.    

Near the Circle Bridge is Kadeau, which the newspaper Politiken named as 2015’s restaurant of the year. Kadeau started life on Bornholm island, 100 miles out to sea, and at least half of the daily ingredients still come from this bleak Baltic outpost. The menu is a little demanding, with combinations of four- to ten-course tasters, but the staff’s impeccable English helped us to make a moderate selection after the Fiskebar extravaganza. First, we were presented with a beautiful bundle of twigs, a Ruskin still life in a bowl. Some were edible, trompe l’oeil confections of sourdough dusted with herb “lichen”. Some, to my embarrassment, weren’t. This is a signature offering; the menu changes so often that there seems little point in reviewing specific dishes, except to say that the combinations — root vegetables with flowers, oysters with mustard, are innovative without being absurd, and the cooking so accomplished that humble ingredients such as duck hearts are revolutionised.

To try to encapsulate how I felt about Kadeau, I find myself falling back on tired words like “experience” and “adventure”; “art” comes close but feels pretentious and prissy. Maybe dinner there feels like a happening, an immersive sensory experience which is the modern equivalent of the hallucinogenic stunts hosted in the Sixties in the Copenhagen hippy enclave of Christiania. It is, quite simply, dizzyingly good. A note on the wine list observes that the restaurant prefers to select bottles with “energy and elegance over power and muscle”. Energy and elegance sums up dining in Copenhagen pretty well. At Kadeau, the shimmering  supermodel Helena Christensen was dining at the next table, wearing Birkenstocks. Copenhagen is that kind of place.

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