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Can you say "Smushi"? Copenhagen's fun food
Stereotypes of Scandinavian food aside (and the Visa commercial with a platter of dead fish in Ibsen's favorite restaurant notwithstanding) I was pleasantly surprised and surprisingly impressed by the innovative and delightful dishes that appeared with pleasing regularity.
On the flight to Copenhagen, SAS surprised me with a tangy chicken entrée. First I have to confess that I never complain about airline food. I often like it. SAS makes it a little easier with a pre-dinner aperitif and wine with a meal, but the worst part about eating on a plane is feeling as if I am straitjacketed. As SAS had booked us in Economy Plus, elbow room was considerably more abundant.
I knew two things about Scandinavia: Smorgasbord and lutefisk. Like so many things I know, they were wrong, or at least not quite right. A smorgasbord is a large buffet, The bread is usually thinly-sliced dark rye, spread with butter, the foundation for a lively and varied range of eye-pleasing palate-teasers, layered on top. Breakfast in Copenhagen was an introduction to smorgasbord.
In all three capitals, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm, we stayed at Radisson SAS hotels, each of which reflected the flavor of its city. Each also offered a breakfast that-for a breakfast junkie-is exciting. With minor differences, each of the three provided similar offerings: a wide variety of breads and rolls, herring, pickled, boiled or marinated, an impressive array of cold cuts and cheeses, and traditional breakfast foods such as scramblies, bacon and sausage.
At my first breakfast in Copenhagen, the spicy pickled herring caught my attention. As a big believer of "When in Rome," I speared a few pieces to go with my scramblies and the most extraordinarily flavorful bleu cheese I have ever experienced.
I am glad the bleu cheese was good, but it was the herring that made repeated visits all morning. I gave it up for Lent.
But smørrebrød repeatedly showed up on menus. The brød is bread, usually dark rye, and the smørre is butter smeared on it. Smørrebrød is the foundation of many a hearty meal, probably a tradition that stared with farmers piling whatever they had on a slice of buttered rye. Over time it became more elaborate with layers of textures and flavors.
Lutefisk is a different story, Garrison Keillor notwithstanding. Keillor's allusions to lutefisk had created a link in my mind that Scandinavians we met laughed at.
Lutefisk is fish soaked water for several days, then turned to jelly in a lye water mixture. If it is left in lye too long, the fish turns to soap. How could a fella say no?
Because the lye makes it so acidic it must be soaked in fresh water for four days before it is eaten. The good news is that you don't have to cook it, just gag it down as it is.
While some old timers haul it out for holidays and festive occasions, it seems mostly out of a sense of tradition, although no one seems to hunger to slurp it down.
Surprisingly, food became a real focus of this visit to Scandinavia, with particularly memorable meals in Copenhagen and Oslo.
The Royal Café
But smørrebrød abounds as open-face sandwiches with tasty toppings. And now comes sushi-sized smørrebrød called smushi, an instant sensation made famous at the Royal Café.
Our guide, Ida Saval, and the indomitable Henrich Thierlien from Wonderful Copenhagen, took us to the fashionable Royal Copenhagen complex and the five-block long Stroget pedestrian shopping mall, lined with upscale shops and restaurants.
Between the stylish Georg Jensen and Royal Copenhagen Porcelain, we experienced smushi at the Royal Café, in a building that dates from 1616. Like the Royal Café's décor, smushi is an eclectic treat, combining the heartiness of smørrebrød with the artiness of sushi for bite-sized treats delivered on tiny squares of buttered rye. Although purists insist that herring must always be served on white bread, sometimes you just have to live a little on the wild side of the brød.
Sometimes they cheated and the bread came on the side with a herring parfait (in mustard sauce and topped with a half-quail egg) or other treats served in a liquor glass. I especially enjoyed the triangle of fried fish fillet with melted brie and a shrimp on top. But the fried camembert topped with caviar and parsley was pretty tasty...to a guy who is not especially fond of caviar. I did not try the brownie on rye. The menu is online at the café's Web site: http://www.theroyalcafe.dk/.
The Royal Café is a visual delight. Denmark's top design houses produced special fixtures for the Royal Café. In keeping with the playfulness of the food, walls are pink and the huge paintings of Danish royalty have intentional anachronisms painted in. One of the servers wore a kimono while others were dressed more traditionally-for Denmark.
The coffee was exceptional, dark, rich and full-flavored, and the barista created designs that delighted even our jaded group of travel writers. This kind of style doesn't come cheap, but it is an experience that you are not likely to forget.