Denmark, the country that brought us Lego, the Little Mermaid and a whole host of funky, fresh and chic interior design ideas is currently leading the world with its gastronomic innovation. René Redzepi’s two-Michelin starred extravaganza, Noma, has been awarded the ultimate accolade of Best Restaurant in the World for the last three years in a row, stealing the crown from the extended reign of El Bulli long before it closed.
While Noma will soon share its wiles with the best of British when it opens up in Claridge’s during the Olympics (i.e. those who could afford it/ were clever enough to buy a £195/head ticket before they sold out practically as soon as the event was announced), another star of culinary Denmark has drifted over to the British shores and, mercifully for we whose visits to Copenhagen are at best infrequent, is here to stay – I am of course talking about Christoffer Hruskova, whose restaurant, North Road is the bright new star of Smithfield’s market/ St John’s Road and was the location of my dinner on saturday night.
I booked up North Road upon the recommendation of my in-the-know foodie-friend Celia, whose nose for fine-dining is so refined that I would willing follow her blindfolded throughout my life, so long as she gave me plenty of slices of her fantastic Ombre cakes en route. It’s not a cheap option, but as it was the third anniversary of my first date with my partner, we at least had an excuse for a splash. And with the promise of a tree made from candy floss, who on earth could resist?
Just to start…”snacks” of quail eggs, smoking potatoes and pork crackers
Upon entering the restaurant, we were immediately struck by the sophisticated elegance of Denmark which so enthralled me upon visits to the Illum Bolighus department store in Copenhagen. So too were we instantly wooed by the attentive but very friendly welcome of the staff. Soon after being seated, the enticing smell of smoke filled our nostrils as we were treated to some starting snacks – Jersey Royal Potatoes smoked in hay and served with an exquisite mayonnaise, pickled quails’ eggs and pork crackling which was like a giant fluffy prawn cracker. My partner’s eyes met mine across the table and with that knowing look that occurs between couples who have gradually merged in one over the years of their relationship, we knew that this meal was going to be good. Very, very good.
Caramalised butter…to die for
We opted for the 7 course tasting menu – it would be foolish not to, as 7 courses is only £7 more than the 5 course alternative. But before the dishes began rolling out with perfectly timed pauses between each, we were treated to a bag of little bread rolls and – wait for it – caramalised butter and a buttermilk butter. Oh dear god, let me tell you, that caramel butter was so exquisite in my mouth I almost ate the whole ball. It was crystallised and punctuated with occasional shards of salt – a rich sugary caramel which melted upon the palate before suddenly releasing a smooth butteriness. All I can say is that having enthused so fervently about this to the waiter, he told me how to make it, so future guests at my dinner parties – prepare to be wowed.
Razor claims – a masterpiece on a plate
Onto the food. First up was scottish razor clams with coastal herbs, organic cream and parsley. This was art on a plate. The exquisite marbling of the cream and the green parsley reduction was so beautiful, that even when lifted up on a spoon it made multi-marbled pictures worthy of a Turner prize. The clams were incredibly sweet and delicate – flavours of rose petals, the sea, and generalised freshness came flowing into my mouth in a way that shop-bought clams would never provide. And the flavour was perfectly matched by some wonderfully unusual coastal herbs which felt like my mouth was going off on a little adventure to some far off wind-swept seaside.
The lobster symphony
Upon that seaside I found myself engorging upon the next dish – an incredible lobster and buttermilk creation with baby cucumbers and nasturtium leaves. As its forbearers had been, so too was this dish delicious to every degree. The nasturtium leaves were peppery, and the mini cucumbers refreshing and texturally distinctive from the succulent sweet lobster. Oh how my grandfather would have loved this dish! Once again the visual treat was tantalising, as pink undulations of soft-shelled lobster were punctuated with the star-burst leaves of the nasturtium, the hapless scatter of some sandy deliciousness, the drizzle of oil and the contrast of straight little cucumbers. Goodness, I sound like a Masterchef judge.
White asparagus with that perfect egg yolk pre explosion
Onwards on our trajectory towards gastronomic perfection, and up next was white kent asparagus with some revolutionary method of importing the taste of pine needles without having said needles needlessly slashing ones throat. Oh and spinach too. My goodness this was the dish of summer – a burst of summer garden freshness in every mouthful, and with a whole and masterfully served single egg-yolk at the centre, which looked so solid and yet, upon impact with the knife, burst into a flurry of sunshine yellow sweetness providing a syrupy soup in which the asparaguses floated like pale beautifies taking their first fill of sunshine.
A garden delight
Talking of summer freshness, the next course was the summer garden, placed on a plate in almost literal form. Jersey Royal potatoes, lovage and radishes were “planted” in amongst soil made from burnt butter in some brilliantly molecularly innovated form, while at the base of the dish, a creamy butter foam gave moisture and exquisite salty/creamy balance to the whole dish. The radishes provided a fresh crunch, and one potato was coated in hay ash to brilliant flavour-effect, like a barbecue and a summer potato salad all rolled into one (I note that the chef, Christoffer Hruskova, is quite keen on importing the flavour and smoke from burnt hay into his dishes which gives an incredible depth of flavour and scandinavian savour to the food).
The interior (photo: Sarah Lee)
Next up was the main course which, owing to my gradual state of inebriation by this stage I neglected to photograph. It was no less superb however – a selection of exquisitely tender Herdwick lamb cuts and little sweetbreads which were a revelation. When you think about the little lamb cheeks, tenderised by the sweet suckling of its mother’s milk, it’s a rather off-putting image, until you eat them that is, and the soft creamyness of that milk is reflected in this very soft, very rich little nugget. The dish was served with more seasonal summeryness – sea lettuce, sea blite and more coastal herbs, giving us all hope that despite a decided lack of sun outside, we may at least sample the summer through this bombardment of taste sensation in our mouthes, as well as discover the delicious, albeit slightly surreal symphony of a lamb lost somewhere on an ocean’s edge. Reminds me of that terrible movie scene when a load of lambs fell of a cliff edge – what film was that? Silence of the lambs or something?
Stone and Hay
Who knows, for up next was a plate of delicious vintage cheeses, again, neglectfully unphotographed, followed by the pure theatre of the evening. First “stone and hay” – basically a frozen stone, not to be eaten I might add, and another realistically executed stone resting on top, except this one was edible, flavoured delicately and covered convincingly with that favourite of the chef – hay soot. It wasn’t the most delicious dish of the evening, but made for a welcome palate cleanser and clever piece of gastronomic amusement.
Slightly full up by this point, we almost feared the onset of the dessert in case our dwindling appetite would not do this incredible food justice. But we oughtn’t have worried, as the dessert of english gooseberries with douglas fir and wood sorrel was fresh, bucolic and perfectly balanced between sharp and sweet with a wonderful variety of textures and again a very scandinavian, effortlessly green and glorious look.
The candyfloss tree!!
But finally, what we had all been waiting for. Emerging from the kitchen, in its unmistakable terracotta pot, the branches of a fine, blossomed candyfloss tree headed our way, complete with edible soil (made again from burnt butter which to my mind tasted of cocoa) and little petit fours of strawberry jam shortcake and fudge. Need I say more? My evening was complete. This meal was a twisting triumph with elegance, flavour exuberance and pure gastronomic sophistication throughout. Michelin star? This place deserves a galaxy!
So why is Danish gastronomy on such a high? In my opinion, its because Denmark offers us superb creative innovation without the stuffy anachronistic rulebook of the grand European tradition. It’s cuisine for a modern age – clean, unpretentious but effortlessly chic and fantastically clever. With the overflowing charm of the Scandinavians, you are made to feel welcome, looked after and indulged, rather than made to feel edgy and uncomfortable as is so often the atmosphere given off by the penguin waiters of the old-school. All the while, Danish food is injected with the same vitality and fun in its exploration of molecular gastronomy and thematic presentation that made the equally successful Heston Blumenthal such a star of the culinary world. In this way, Denmark is one step ahead of the rest of the world, soaring into its ascendancy where others must now follow. If they can ever catch up.