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food | travel

An empire expands far from Copenhagen

Celebrity chef opens restaurant in a little town near . . . nowhere

A roulade of local whitefish at Hotel Saxkjobing. A roulade of local whitefish at Hotel Saxkjobing. (Luke Pyenson for The Boston Globe)
By Luke Pyenson
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2011

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SAKSKOBING, Denmark - More and more travelers are lured to Denmark today - where the streets are said to be paved with sea buckthorn, lumpfish roe, and ramson leaves - by the promise of new Nordic cuisine. Getting a reservation at any of the hottest new Copenhagen restaurants is about as easy as pronouncing the Danish vowels in their names. For those willing to go off the beaten path, there’s a delicious reward.

In the quaint, middle-of-absolutely-nowhere town called Sakskobing, a two-hour train ride (with one connection) from the capital, Danish celebrity chef Claus Meyer has undertaken an ambitious project: transforming the thrice-or-more-bankrupt Hotel Saxkjobing into a stylish rural retreat with locally sourced, seasonal, creative food. Reopened five years ago with the help of collaborators Erwin Lauterbach and Carl Jones, the restaurant is a gem in the crown of Meyer’s culinary empire. This includes a bakery, an enormous catering operation for businesses in Copenhagen, two delis, an educational kitchen, a fruit plantation, a vinegar microbrewery, and television shows. And one more thing: Meyer is a founder, along with René Redzepi, of the celebrated Noma, which some magazines have called the best restaurant in the world.

So with all his success in Copenhagen, it might seem unusual for an acclaimed restaurateur to open on the provincial southern island of Lolland, the Danish equivalent of, say, Kansas. But Meyer grew up in Nykobing-Falster (where you make your connection if you come from Copenhagen), on a neighboring island a 15-minute train ride away. “The food of that region is normally without any sense of quality whatsoever,’’ says Meyer. “I had a very lousy upbringing in a culinary sense.’’

You wouldn’t know it from a meal at the hotel. Entering the dining room, on the first floor of the original 1820 building, is entering a time warp, which Meyer likens to “a secret cave where you forget about today and tomorrow . . . [you feel] very present.’’ The modern touches, in true Danish fashion, are so tasteful one hardly notices. The best way to experience the food is through the reasonably priced tasting menu (about $80 for five courses) called “Smag Lolland’’ or “Taste Lolland,’’ which offers the best of the local products at that moment.

On this day, the menu begins with a brilliant roulade of a salt-baked local whitefish called skrubbe, encircled by the sweetest little crayfish from the nearby island of Lilleo (where Meyer has his fruit plantation), chervil mayonnaise, chervil leaves, and near-translucent slices of green strawberry, which provide that same sort of twang that a green tomato or Granny Smith apple does.

Next is local shore crab bisque, garnished with crabmeat, dill, and little deep green dots of ramson oil (ramson is the European cousin of ramps). A main course of pork - chop and belly - comes with a quenelle of smoked, smashed new potatoes and two honey-glazed baby turnips, lots of flavor packed into a sleek, Nordic presentation.

Just when things can’t get sleeker, the cheese course arrives on a slate. Three cheeses (from Lolland and nearby Jutland) represent everything from ultra-stinky and hard to a delicate sheep’s milk brie. They are accompanied by homemade knaekbrod (crispbread, like a rustic cracker) and a lively, cool pear and rosemary compote. Dessert is “rhubarb in textures,’’ with semifreddo made from local beer and the lemony wild herb, woodruff, a dense little rhubarb cake, and liberal amounts of light pink rhubarb foam.

Danes have started to catch on to what is happening here. Meyer says the restaurant is booked almost every weekend, and there are extra incentives like interactive guest chef dinners and performances. Who wouldn’t want to visit for a weekend?

“The idea of doing this at a micro-geographical level . . . is unprecedented [in Lolland.] We’re really starting from zero, but of course there’s not much competition down there, so I can live with not being [at the same level] as Noma,’’ says the chef.

Those looking for new Nordic cuisine within reach of Copenhagen shouldn’t wait to get aboard for Lolland.

Hotel Saxkjobing, Torvet 9, 4990 Sakskobing, Denmark. 011-45-54-70-40-39

Luke Pyenson can be reached at luke.pyenson@tufts.edu.

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