I remember a few years back my mother and I celebrated my birthday at a restaurant in New York. Caught up in a moment of reflection, she put down her fork. “Where do you see yourself in a year?,” she asked. Dreams, goals, personal and professional aspirations: this was the time to share them.
I responded with the name of a restaurant.
The name of that restaurant is not important (though if you know me personally, I’m sure you can guess). What is significant is that, a few months later, I enrolled in a graduate school just 90 minutes away from it. Three hundred and sixty five days later, I was there. In other words my answer, naïve or emotionally shallow though it may have been, was sincere.
Food is my guide.
I met my girlfriend at a gelateria. I signed the lease on the apartment she found me only for its proximity to a certain coffee shop. And last week we flew to a city 3,856 miles from where we live because I wanted to eat beets (which she hates).
Actually I wanted to eat at Rene Redzepi’s noma. But before visiting the professor, I chose to visit a couple of his old students. First up was Christian Puglisi at Relæ.
Puglisi wanted us to eat beets. He served them in little roll-ups with a thin layer of apple vinegar gelee and an Icelandic seaweed called söl. They tasted more of the sea than of the earth, tender enough that they’d probably been cooked but firm enough that it couldn’t have been for very long.
Before that we dragged pickled biodynamic carrots through a foamy sauce of mustard and egg yolk, with seaweed salt and bread crumbs providing crunchy punctuation to each bite. Then a tree of cabbage — that is, a thin cross-section of a lightly pickled head — shaded a
Danish oyster with yogurt and horseradish. Awfully large, these oysters. We had several of them on the trip, and each time they were too much to swallow, fork and knife affairs. Luckily we had plenty of those, in a handy little cutlery drawer under either side of the table. Very cool idea.
This felt a lot like a tasting menu, which was odd for a restaurant that by all appearances eschews them. Run by a former sous chef, Relæ is not a baby noma. Nor does it try to be. The goal here is purity and focus on just a few ingredients. The menu offers just two four-course prix fixe options each night, one vegetarian and one not. On this night, Chef Puglisi kindly offered to do both menus for us. We did not say no.
Our first warm dish — unless you count the bread, baked in-house and replenished regularly — was warm barley porridge with cauliflower, smoked almonds and pickled black trumpets. Grain, smoke and vinegar would form the backbone for much of what we ate in Copenhagen, and here the three were balanced with a deft hand. I commended our server for the wine he’d matched with this dish. But he insisted that matching had not been his goal at all; rather, he thought the dish cried out for the acidity, minerality, and oxidation of a funky Jura white. “I just finish off the dish.”
Thusly went the wine pairing. Lesser-known varietals, small producers, and a bunch of biodynamic wines — such a lineup can easily slip into a soporific soliloquy with every glass. This one remained an enjoyable and educational dialogue. Wine service at Relæ, and for that matter service in general, was competent and graceful.
Biodynamic broccoli arrived next, the leaves lightly pickled and the stems cooked (though not much) in butter. Like attacking a pork chop with chopsticks, we felt a bit unequipped to cut through the still very al dente stem. Thin slices of fresh hazelnut and a red currant-and-wine sauce may or may not have made their way onto my shirt as I stubbornly persisted with the cutlery. The overall flavor of the dish was clean and subtle, according to my girlfriend perhaps even too much so.
The same observations cannot be made for the veal heart that arrived soon after. Brined and then slow-poached at 62°C, it was ultra-tender, our forks dissecting it with ease. On the tongue it had a mouth-coating richness like that of bone marrow. Chewy knobs of Jerusalem artichoke and a tingly pepper sauce toned that feeling down slightly, but make no mistake — this was rib-sticking, cold-weather food. For my girlfriend it was also rib-punching food. I probably shouldn’t have laughed at her for having unknowingly eaten heart.
Dessert revisited an approach Puglisi had employed in several dishes — multiple preparations of the same ingredient. Here “apples, apples and fennel” meant crunchy freeze-dried pebbles, airy mousse and vibrant granita, respectively. Oblivious to the punishingly cold climate, Danes apparently can’t get enough granité — we had at least one with literally every single meal. But somehow, I didn’t mind. Its refreshing sweetness and immensely satisfying range of different textures unexpectedly made this one of my favorite dishes of the meal.
And so we finished, our brains still in a very different time zone than our bodies. Our palates, though, were now firmly in Scandinavia. This was our introduction to the flavors of Copenhagen as painted by the brush of Christian Puglisi, a Sicilian boy that flew north to become one of Denmark’s brightest young talents. Relæ has been open a very short time — just three months as of our visit — but I for one am keenly interested to see what it will become. As it stands, Chef Puglisi and his front-of-house staff (I’m talking about you, Kim and Anders!) have already made the restaurant a very worthwhile stop for those who, like ourselves, make the pilgrimage to noma. In time I bet they will attract pilgrims of their own.