February 11, 2017
I was already 30 minutes late by the time I showed up at the door of Relæ after losing track of time chasing deer in Dyrehaven. Fortunately the reception didn’t mind my tardiness and I was led to a table right in front of the open kitchen near the entrance. There is very little else beyond the essential — white walls with a few paintings, a few wooden tables and a dozen or so chairs, and four counter seats next to the kitchen. The menu and cutlery for each guest are stashed inside drawers in the table; you take out the corresponding knife and fork upon the arrival of each dish. Like the norm established by Noma, chefs bring out their own dishes. The vibe is casual and unpretentious.
Christian Puglisi, raised in Copenhagen and after stints at elBulli and Noma, opened this restaurant with sommelier Kim Rossen seven years ago in what was once the city’s seediest zip code. Back in 2010 Jægersborggade, the street at the heart of crime-ridden Nørrebro, was notorious for being overrun by drug dealers. A cop was shot near the front door a month before the opening of Relæ.
So why did the half-Italian, half-Norwegian chef chose this locale? Shunning to collaborate with investors, he simply didn’t have the cash for elsewhere. Gradually ambitious eateries and boutiques followed. Today the process of gentrification is complete as Jægersborggade is arguably Copenhagen’s trendiest neighbourhood.
Relæ doesn’t need long to pull itself out of Noma’s considerable shadow. Accolades include a Michelin Star and a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. The cooking shares obvious similarities, but the emphasis on simplicity is even stronger here and ingredients aren’t limited to the Nordic region. This is also the only Michelin-starred certified organic restaurant, with more than 90% of its ingredients from suppliers using fully organic production methods and sustainable fishing.
The menu has undergone some changes since Puglisi handed over the kitchen to Jonathan Tam, a Chinese Canadian who has worked at Relæ since the beginning after a two-year stint at Noma. The basic structure is the same — a set meal of dishes of no more than three flavours — but there is more room for improvisation in the form of side dishes.
Ordering was straightforward: either the 4-course or 7-course meals. I chose the former. Wine by the glass was also a binary choice of red or white — the latter turned out to be 2015 Vignammare Barraco, a Sicilian Grillo with strong minerality, low acidity and a slight heaviness that’s often associated with biodynamic wines.
First up was a plate of nibble — Brussels sprout tempura with trout roe sauce. Thin like paper, the leaves quickly dissolved in the mouth, leaving only a trace of Brussels sprout’s distinctive bitterness. The sauce was unnecessary.
Judging from the orange flesh I assumed the appetizer was salmon when it was actually trout from West Jutland. Marinated with butter, salt and lemon juice overnight, the seasoning was adequate without overpowering the fish’s freshness and subtle flavour.
As the chef who briefed me on the Swedish portobello mushroom cheerfully noted, “This is my version of comfort food and I can eat a whole bowl for each meal.” The mushroom was sliced into thin strips resembling linguine, then cooked in a cream sauce with a hearty dose of vinegar and topped with bread crumbs. This crunchier linguine in cream sauce was surprisingly soothing without the burden of eating carbohydrate.
The main course was 12-day dry-aged duck breast. From a farm near Aalborg, the briefly-grilled poultry was served in a clear duck broth with white beetroot. The simply presented dish packed quite a punch. The skin was crispy while the meat extremely tender and flavourful — its gaminess accentuated by the broth.
On the side was a small bowl of duck confit made with meat of wings and legs in addition to chopped liver and heart, then cooked in duck fat with kale and mushroom. The most intense duck confit I have ever had, each bite involved three different textures — the crunchiness of the kale, the creaminess of the organs and the chewiness of the meat.
Before dessert there was a supplementary option of cheese dish — a crepe with homemade Ricotta cheese, orange zest, walnut and herb. The dairy is provided from a self-owned organic farm 45 minutes out of town. A simple presentation which allowed the fresh cheese to shine.
Dessert was the beautifully arranged Frozen yogurt sorbet with lemon curd topped with various citrus pulps. The three layers didn’t match well together. The sorbet was icy and tasteless. Frozen by liquid nitrogen, the fruit provided some much needed sourness and astringency to counter the overly sweet curd.
The bill was 705 DKK (1 USD = 6.95 DKK), including wine, cheese, service and credit card surcharge. A reasonable price for a restaurant of this caliber. The portion size was adequate — I was full even after working up my appetite with a long morning jog. With the exception of dessert I enjoyed every dish. The thoughtful cooking appears simple, but it allows the fresh ingredients to speak for themselves. The crew is enthusiastic about food, from sourcing to growing to transporting to cooking to serving.
Not every restaurant can deliver on its premise. “Cut to the bone.” Relae certainly does just that.
Address: Jægersborggade 41, 2200 Copenhagen, Denmark
Opening hours (Lunch): Friday & Saturday, 12:00 – 15:30
Opening hours (Dinner): Tuesday – Saturday, 17:00 – midnight