COPENHAGEN -- Northern European countries have never been terribly tantalizing destinations for the food-obsessed voyager. When you think of the Continent's gastronomic hotbeds, a list of destinations always crops up, and Copenhagen isn't on it.
Two Danes in Copenhagen, a city much better known for hot dogs and Hans Christian Andersen than top-flight food and drink, are working on the problem. A product-based food movement called New Nordic may be about to pick up the torch from Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of restaurant El Bulli and run in a new direction. Meanwhile, a master brewer has broken away from Carlsberg and is leading a microbrewery revolution.
``Does anyone want some fresh-squeezed birch sap?" chef Rene Redzepi asked his staff as he burst into his restaurant, noma, lugging a 5-gallon jug.
The sap, which tastes a bit like the icy snow found under trees, is served in place of water that night at noma and serves as a good example of how product-centric New Nordic is. ``When we cook a menu, it's for everyone to perfectly understand the seasons, to have this `terroir' [sense of place] on your plate," Redzepi said, ``so that the north really shines."
He loves playing this to the hilt. Along with the birch sap, he's very excited about the restaurant's newest purchase. ``This year, we bought a car to go pickin' herbs," he said, grinning. Three or four times a week, Redzepi and crew drive out of town and get in touch with their products. ``Fifteen minutes out of the city, you have a forest [where they pick their herbs] -- Copenhagen is like a big village."
Plus, Redzepi said he has his staff on the lookout, just in case. ``If they're out with their family and they see a field of wild violets, they stop and pick it."
On this night's seven-course tasting menu he's got a dish called Onions From Laeso in Different Textures that ought to just be called ONIONS, YUM! YUM! There are crisp rings, little rings, a purée, some raw, some roasted, all accented by grassy-green thyme oil and little crisps of dried Jutland sausages .
Later, he serves up a dish of turbot and bread pudding with, among other things, watercress and crispy slices of Jerusalem artichoke, which bring lots of unexpected and earthy textures into a seafood plate.
Though Redzepi's cooking certainly has a touch of dainty froufrou that borrows from French nouvelle cuisine, there's an authenticity at the core of it all and no chance you'll go home hungry.
When you're not dining at noma, Redzepi has a list of favorite spots in town that are as eclectic as his tastes, and they give a good cross section of Copenhagen's food scene.
The first place he mentions is a classic, Toldbod Bodega. With its slightly funky twist on classic Danish atmosphere (the hostess floats around the floor in an outfit seemingly nicked from the Danish version of ``The Love Boat" ), the place seems custom-made for the families and old friends who congregate there.
For more avant-garde cuisine, Redzepi recommends restaurant MR, in the center of town.
``The chef is my best friend," he said. ``We've done everything together."
After working in noma's kitchen for its first three months, Mads Reflund split, opened MR, and has been receiving a great deal of praise ever since. ``It's like El Bulli meets the north," Redzepi said.
Though most visitors won't have much use for a butcher, Redzepi also recommends swinging past his favorite, the century-old Slagteren ved Kultorvet. It's worth stopping by just for a look -- on a recent visit, a set of four butchered pigs wearing the shop's trademark bowler hats were lying in the front window.
On mornings when he's not working, Redzepi likes to chill out with brunch at Café Europa. ``Brunch has been our generation's version of [the traditional] platter," he said. ``Europa is by far the most expensive one in town, but it's the best."
Inside, or out on its sprawling terrace, Europa is one of the most popular places in town to watch the world go by while eating some good grub. Across town, far from noma, is the Norrebro Bryghus, the main starting point for Copenhagen's revitalized beer scene. Ready to make the jump from a big brewery to his own in late 2001, owner and master brewer Anders Kissmeyer was inspired in part by the microbrew revolution in the United States.
Historically, breweries seemed to be on every important corner of Denmark's cities and larger towns; many were attached to nearby eateries by underground pipes that carried the beer. Slowly, however, almost all of them died out, leaving the Danes with two main choices: Carlsberg and Tuborg .
In charge of Carlsberg's international production between 1985 and 2001, Kissmeyer made sure the brand's beer tasted the same all over the world. Running his brewhouse, however, seems to be the job he was made for, and many other brewers are following his example.
``There's an explosion going on with small breweries popping up like mushrooms," Kissmeyer said. ``Five or six years ago, we had one of the fewest breweries per capita, and now it's coming back."
The market was ready for it.
``People tend to favor things that are local and are small," he said. They ``feel more safe when they buy things from a small producer."
With drive and enthusiasm like Kissmeyer's, it's easy to understand why. He works with his chef to prepare food and beer tastings, using both his own brews and those from neighboring Nordic countries. Screwing up his face, he plunges his nose into every glass he drinks to savor the aromas and make sure his beer is as good as he wants it to be.
``We are a beer nation and [drinking beer] is deeply embedded in our culture, more so than with wine and coffee," he said. ``It's like a return to the traditional brewhouse."
For Kissmeyer, it's also more than that. Running the brewery ``is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I gave up a very solid and good career."
Then he grins. ``The jump wasn't that hard."
Joe Ray, a freelance writer living in Europe, can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.