Another one off the ‘World’s Top 50’ list as we spent Bank Holiday weekend sipping coffee by the water in Copenhagen
Chef: Jonathan Tam
World Ranking: 71
Michelin Stars: 1
When we told our friends that our next holiday was to Copenhagen, the first question most people asked us was “are you going to Noma?” and the answer was no. We considered it and would certainly like to try the food of a previous world no.1. but on investigation decided a lunch at Relae where simple food is done well was exactly what we were after. This was to be a no fuss weekend so it was important for our dining options to reflect this. Famous for being Noma alumni it was ranked 39 in 2017 on the ‘Top 50’ list but the most recent issue saw a drop down to 71, it feels like there is a lot of expectation placed up on Relae and no doubt others in the region but it feels like they are carving out a distinct identity rather than dwelling in the shadows of a living legend.
With little planned for the weekend this was to be our culinary highlight, set in a quiet street Relae doesn’t look like a fine dining establishment from the outside, during our visit people often wandered in looking for lunch and looked a little bemused to discover what they had happened upon. Exposed brickwork, greenery and natural wood set the Scandi vibe but the most noticeable thing on arrival is that the kitchen is on full display as you arrive and more importantly, not hidden behind a pane of glass to be gawked at but a part of the restaurant. I couldn’t help but be enamoured by this and it certainly makes for an interesting backdrop to lunch. Eating is a sensory experience anyway so when you throw in the hum of a kitchen and the associated sights and smells it gets quite exciting.
Perched on bar stools in the kitchen area (there is a standard seating area too) we pulled menus out from concealed wooden drawers in the table and read the ‘Manifest’ on the back of them which set the tone for the meal- essentially good food, no fuss.
We began with a sandwich of small, baby gem style lettuce leaves stuffed with chargrilled miniature florets of broccoli with a herby salad cream stuffing. I managed to drip this everywhere which is no real surprise to anyone. This very much set the tone of the rest of the meal without us realising, it was bright, fresh and crisp. I will be honest and say I wasn’t that excited about a bit of lettuce but it works as a palate cleanser whilst the strong punch of herbs gets your brain ticking pretty quickly.
There is a lot to be said for good vegetables and it was at this point, from listening to a chatty server next to us that we started to discover how important the use of produce from the Relae ‘Farm of Ideas’ is to the menu. Basically, if they can’t produce it themselves- you aren’t going to eat it. They have won awards for their sustainability ethos and 90-100% of everything sold is certified organic. This isn’t them being trendy, it’s just what they do and when menus can often be engorged with foreign produce and rarities it’s actually quite pleasing to eat excellent food that is essentially celebrated for what it is not what it is made into.
Bread. Of course there was bread and obviously it was good. We had several top ups of fresh-baked sourdough (they also have a bakery) and were encouraged to eat as we felt comfortable, pouring the Sicilian olive oil into little bowls for dipping or just tearing off chunks of bread to mop up the last scraps of sauces as we went through the meal. nothing makes me sadder than having the bread removed from the table part way through the meal so this approach was certainly pleasing. I heard something recently about Bread being the food of all cultures and it’s stuck with me.
I feel like I’ve spent the summer going on about how much I like tomatoes but I am going to do it again, the next plate arrived with a sharing portion of three tomatoes. I like sharing plates, it takes away so much of the formality that has become entrenched in what is essentially a requirement for survival. Sharing food opens up conversation and lengthens meals, arguably we could have eaten this in dainty bites with a knife and fork but we didn’t, we picked bits up and examined them, savoured the differences in texture and flavour between the varieties and then mopped up the remaining juices with the sourdough. Midway through, in what became a reoccurring theme of ‘dishes arriving when it’s a good time to eat them’ a mysterious bowl of white translucent slivers in a clear broth was placed on the table. My mind immediately jumped to squid but I was ridiculously far off the mark- it was white onion in an onion broth topped with a sprinkling of herbs and petals. If French onion soup is an old yet indulgent winter warmer then this is its lighter, younger, more energetic sibling let loose during the summertime. The onion was tender, having had some of the bite and acidity removed and the broth full of flavour, with a little sweetness and a silky mouthfeel.
Abundant joy followed as familiar colours announced the arrival of more tomatoes. I really do love them and am going to have to start growing them again. A generous portion of grey mullet ceviche, with tomato water and diced red, orange and green flesh. We sat trying to recall if we had eaten grey mullet before (to no conclusion) and the table fell silent as we quickly polished it off.
At this point it’s probably worth talking a little more about service, Relae is an open plan kitchen with what seems like shared roles, this means you can watch a dish be plated and then delivered to your table by that same person , although there are other servers who appeared to focus more on front of house and were less involved in the food creation it’s certainly a bit of a mix. There are pro’s and cons to this, I love it when chef’s come to the table to talk about food but the downside is that you may hear a loving tale about a dish presented to a table next to you and then have only a brief explanation when you turn comes around though this might be for some of the servers English isn’t their first language. It’s 100% about who serves you and unfortunately people are the most inconsistent thing in a restaurant so whilst some people heard about the farm, the growing methods and suchlike our conversation was more limited. Maybe we don’t look that interested or approachable, maybe its a language thing, either way it wasn’t the only time during lunch that I was envious of another diner which I will explain later. It also means there is no one person who is ‘looking after’ you so you can order a drink and then be asked by someone else if you would like anything.
We chose not to have the pairing as this is normally too much for us but that meant that we didn’t get to see a menu or really understand what was on offer. We ordered a beer and a tonic water (which had to be swapped as it originally came with gin in it) and then as we went through the meal asked about wine to which we were poured a glass at the table. With one course it was suggested to try a cider- this was great and I like being given a recommendation but we would have happily ordered a bottle of wine that we enjoy and maybe complimented it with other drinks along the way. We always struggle with the volume available with a pairing option so being able to order in line with what we were eating but without having to have a set quantity worked well for us. Jordan was at ease with this way of doing this but I had mixed feelings as I wasn’t sure if we were to ask or wait to be asked (how very British of me)
Each time I write about a tasting menu, I intend not to go into too much detail but then I get part way through, decide I don’t care and just write what I want. In other words, there are quite a few courses to get through so let’s get back to the food.
I had some apprehension when our server announced our next dish was a sweetcorn custard with shrimp and sesame seeds, logically I like all of those flavours but shellfish and custard is new to me, whilst I knew the flavour would be good, it was the texture that perturbed me so I was pleased to discover it was pale and well set and not like the famous yellow Bird’s variety of my hometown! On my list of ‘things I always want to eat’ sweetcorn, sesame and shrimp are always present and this dish carried both flavours well, I still haven’t made up my mind fully but this may be the winning dish for me from this menu.
After leaving behind no trace of the sweet but savoury sweetcorn you can imagine how pleased I was to then get some more seafood! Our next plate was curried crayfish tails and claws, pre-cracked but left in their shells. Harking back to my previous comment this means picking things up with your hands which just feels right in a place like Relae, it also means you get to slurp all of the lightly spiced, herby sauce off before sucking our the meat. I hadn’t expected any flavours of curry at Relae but this was fragrant and fresh so remained in fitting with the rest of the menu- in winter I would love to see this idea expanded out further (I’m from Birmingham so a good curry is always a winner in my book)
Spectacular. That is the only word to adequately describe the (vegetarian) highlight of the menu. We had schnitzel, but with no meat! Made with layers swiss chard and served in a crispy envelope this tasted like the garden but also a little naughty as anything that crisp will always involve something tasty like oil or butter. Atop this little wedge of vibrant green sat tiny pickled elderberries and another herby cream. The berries had an interesting sweet/sour taste to them and immediately made me want to try to make some at home to eat with a wedge of cheddar.
We had been watching the kitchen for some time eyeing up barrels of courgette as they drifted past and had a good view of them being prepared, we weren’t quite sure what they were and courgette is one of those vegetables that can either be great or really dull. We had a nice ‘reveal’ moment peeling back the top slice to discover fresh basil and what turned out to be an incredibly potent mole sauce that was slightly sticky and lent itself well to being spread across the length of the cucumber to ensure maximum coverage and melding of flavours. A light, creamy courgette sauce sat on the side offering a break from the richness of the mole but reinforcing the natural flavours of the courgette at the same time. I really enjoyed watching this dish being made and I do think this really adds to the experience, part way through came a little bowl of dried, fried courgettes that were glazed with tarragon, it had the most unusual texture, in the bowl they looked like little cockles and actually the mouthfeel was quite similar being chewy but not in an unpleasant manner, The tarragon was strong and the glaze a little sticky- of the smaller dishes we tried it was one of my favourites but I think it could be a bit of a marmite moment for some people. I like the method behind the dish and will be having a go at home (I have no doubt that my version will end up nothing like this but I like to try)
Food Envy. It happens to us all and I’m afraid in this instance I did feel a bit put out. On the table next to us sat an American man dining on his own, he ordered the same menu as us and was marginally ahead in terms of courses so that we could see what our next dish would be (I don’t mind this, I like to be excited by food) However, in the kitchen we had heard talk between the chefs of ‘having a beetroot session’ as there were 6 up for order. When we saw the beetroot arrive at the next table we were suitably excited, it looked dark and interesting, as mentioned in previous posts beetroot is a big favourite in our house, we watched the guy next to us eating it with anticipation and listened to his comments afterwards. But there was no beetroot for us, if anything we then had quite a wait before our next dish arrived which was pork. We were both a bit bemused and wondered if something had been missed, we happily ate our pork but as it became apparent that we were moving on through the menu we queried it to be told that it was actually an option on the vegetarian menu that was sometimes added in for other diners but that there was none left. I felt hard done by, it grated on me that we could sit within 10 feet of a table, order exactly the same thing, pay the same money but not get the same menu. In particular, having overheard the discussion about preparing 6 beetroot dishes only to then not get one and have an unusual wait between courses just made me feel as if we had been forgotten. Would I have cared if I hadn’t seen someone next to us get it? Probably not because then I wouldn’t have known but I think that’s what bugged me. It felt like an oversight in terms of service.
Anyway, I touched on the pork but it really was good, rubbed with a sourdough starter and served with an interesting celery/cucumber like vegetable whose name we didn’t capture which added a good contrast in texture. The pork was booming with flavour, a little crispy around the edge with a touch yeasty fermentation from the rub. I am often a bit squeamish about eating fat (the texture is sometimes off-putting) but even I devoured every last bit of this beautifully cooked meat, and yes all that lovely pork rich liquid goes very well with a piece of bread.
Along came a small bowl that made you want to wrap your hands around it and drink from it which held inside ribbons of cucumber fashioned into udon style noodles in a little bath of pork fat sauce that had been slow cooked for 3 days. I can’t say now whether I did end up slurping up that sauce but in my mind when I think of it, that is without a doubt what it makes me want to do. Pork is an incredible meat but somewhat mistreated a lot of the time (Greggs sausage roll anyone?) and I appreciated the work that went into extracting that proper ‘porky’ flavour that is oh so good without it feeling fatty.
Continuing the theme we clocked some bright little parcels hitting the Habachi grill (which smelt amazing) What arrived to our table looked like charred purple samosas but were actually cabbage leaves stuffed with a pork sausage made with coriander seed and crab apple. They held together surprisingly well and again I was happy for a plate of finger food- I can’t quite place why I enjoyed eating that was so much at Relae but it just felt right. The charred tips of cabbage and slight bitterness of apple meant balanced what was quite a big portion of sausage meat which is no easy feat, this is the sort of thing that looks quite simple but I imagine takes a lot of work to balance the flavours and the seasoning just right. I also didn’t know crab apples were edible (I definitely wasn’t allowed to eat them as a child) so the ones growing in our garden have a new appeal to them now.
Having reached the crescendo of the meal the direction changed towards the sweeter, fruitier aspects of the garden. An unusual introduction to this was a Norwegian style puffed potato bread stuffed with an almond ricotta and olive filling. I haven’t been able to find the correct name for this but it was really interesting and served with a vibrant raspberry sauce. That sweet vs savoury mixture is done very well and whilst the ingredients are things I wouldn’t have put together, they definitely work.
An unusual dish followed, served again in a sharing fashion. We were given chilled slices of asian cucumber with mint and squash marinated with lemon verbena. The vegetables were frozen and then returned to slightly below room temperature which essentially gives a similar result as you would get from chilling watermelon. A great idea, good use of ingredients and it worked well as a palate cleanser. I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing you could get away with serving at home but it worked in the setting, as melon is unlikely to grown in Denmark this was a really smart idea.
Completing the meal came two sweet dishes, a beautifully presented fan of Basil and mirabelle plum concealed under milk- I was a bit wary of this but was pleased to discover it didn’t taste of milk but more a creamy set custard. The final course reminded me of a painting, tiny spheres of brightly coloured berries and pops of yellow from a sprinkling of bee pollen. This looked beautiful and the lemon thyme mousse below very satisfying but I found myself waiting for the frozen particles to warm slightly as at a very low temperature it found it harder to pick out their flavour.
So, a fascinating experience and a very tasty lunch. I still would have wanted that beetroot dish and I did get a little confused by the drink options but if anything, now I know what to expect it actually makes me want to go back again. Incidentally, Relae inspired me to try to be more adventurous with my vegetables and encouraged me to pick up the phone and get the process of securing an allotment to grow our own vegetables underway
Jægersborggade 41, 2200 København, Denmark