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Eating your way through Copenhagen’s red hot culinary scene

Glazed beets and apples at Noma, ranked among the world’s finest restaurants.
Glazed beets and apples at Noma, ranked among the world’s finest restaurants.Handout/Wonderful Copenhagen

"We're waiting for a late passenger, and then we'll begin our flight to Copenhagen," the pilot said in an unnervingly smooth voice. My eyes darted to my watch, my blood pressure jumped.

I had no time for dawdling passengers. I choreographed this day tighter than a Bob Fosse hip thrust from "Sweet Charity." My flight was scheduled to arrive in Copenhagen at 12:15 p.m., leaving just enough time to settle in and get to a 1:30 lunch reservation at the Michelin-starred restaurant Studio. It was to be the start of a gluttonous holiday weekend sampling cuisine in Europe's gastro-capital. This year, a total of 18 Michelin stars were awarded to 15 restaurants in Copenhagen.

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It's a scene that took off a decade ago when Danish chefs began embracing local ingredients. The foodie frenzy shows no sign of abating.

Half an hour after the pilot's announcement, the tardy passenger slunk on to the plane. Still, I was undeterred by my late flight. I ran to baggage claim as soon as I could. My luggage took an infuriating half-hour to show on the conveyor. I grabbed my bag, hopped the train for the city center, and then sprinted for the restaurant, luggage wheels clattering loudly against cobblestones. Wheezing and sweaty, I got to Studio at 2 p.m.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Muther," the hostess said kindly. "We stop lunch service at 2."

I did my best to keep my bottom lip from quivering visibly. She was able to seat me at Studio's sister restaurant, a progressive sandwich boite called Alamanak. It wasn't all bad as I absorbed the sun alongside sparkling Nyhavn Harbor and ate lamb tartare with pickled onions, mustard seeds, and ramson mayonnaise.

If this all sounds a bit dramatic, it is. Copenhagen is not a city where you casually miss a reservation and then stroll to another restaurant and expect to get served. If you aspire to sample the works of art served here, you plan. You plan early and often.

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Foodies start making reservations weeks, sometimes months, in advance to eat at the top restaurants here. I didn't quite grasp the extent of this until I casually mentioned to friends that I was going to Copenhagen. The response was always, "Are you going to Noma?" I naively thought Noma was a design museum or perhaps a neighborhood north of somewhere. Doesn't every new neighborhood start with a "so" or a "no" these days?

Noma is neither. It is considered one of the best, if not the best, restaurant in the world. It is now accepting reservations for September.

Noma.
Noma.Handout/Wonderful Copenhagen

Since opening 12 years ago, Noma's introduction of new Nordic cuisine (a term that has since become dated and spoken in moderation, so please, only use it in the privacy of your hotel room) has not only created a scene in Denmark's capital, but also influenced restaurants around the world.

"There's people who don't want to admit it, but if Noma had never been created, I think the city would be a lot further behind than it is now," said Matt Orlando, a former chef at Noma who has since opened his own restaurant, Amass, in an old shipyard warehouse space. "We call it 'Noma-nomics,' because it really does affect us all."

Noma's siblings and proteges are just as ambitious and groundbreaking. Many of them are housed in stunningly designed spaces and helmed by chefs who use local ingredients in radical ways, good reasons tourists come to eat their way through Copenhagen.

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Amass is equal parts concrete, glamour, and graffiti. Local ingredients that might appear inedible (hello, unripened plums) are arranged as skillfully as lines in a fine painting. You don't realize that the soft-shell clams, salted swiss chard stems, crispy beef fat, and spicy cress flowers are cunningly stacked until individual flavors snap at your tongue in perfect progression.

My plan for the first evening was to eat an early dinner at Amass, and then a late dinner at the recently opened Restaurant Kul. But I quickly learned that there would be no multiple meals for me. Dinners in Copenhagen are experiences. I sat for hours as tall, winsome waiters and waitresses deposited plate after small plate at my table. Most restaurants offer tasting menus, not a la carte dishes. Plan accordingly, or at least bring a pair of slacks with a lot of give.

I scaled back my plans so I could enjoy rather than rush meals. My waistline and wallet thanked me in advance. Like any good gastro-tourist, I made reservations at some of Copenhagen's finest restaurants before my arrival. But the one I couldn't score was Noma. Still, I never gave up hope. I have highfalutin friends who refer to themselves as movers and shakers. (Feel free to roll your eyes at them; I often do.) They told me they knew people who knew people who could get me a seat at Noma.

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But I began to think that my last name meant "male enhancement pills" in Danish, because I was told by those friends that my e-mails went to their spam folders. There was to be no Noma for me.

This left me more time to explore this flat, sprawling city of 1.2 million located in what is frequently cited as one of the happiest countries on the planet. There is some disagreement on this accolade , but a recent report by the Happiness Research Institute insisted it was true and I'm certain that findings from an organization called the Happiness Research Institute must be scientifically accurate.

Nyhavn, a 17th-century canal district now popular for entertainment and dining.
Nyhavn, a 17th-century canal district now popular for entertainment and dining.Handout

The most striking thing about Copenhagen was the bicycles. The city even has a bicycle superhighway in addition to hundreds of miles of dedicated bike lanes and bike traffic signals. I wanted in on the action, and so I rented a Bycykel. This is a pay-as-you-go bike share program, only the bikes are equipped with a battery, an electric motor, and a tablet with GPS. This sounded swell, but the bike is so heavy I nearly dislocated a shoulder hoisting it on and off the curb. My advice is to rent a regular bike.

I also recommend walking by the incredibly charming canals and to neighborhoods such as Frederiksberg (historic), Vesterbro (trendy), and Indre By (indie/luxury). You can hop a boat and take a canal tour. It's as touristy as it sounds, but it's an efficient way to cover a lot of ground and see points of interest, such as the Copenhagen Opera House and the Little Mermaid statue. While you play tourist, it's important to enjoy the kitsch of Tivoli Gardens . The amusement park is a charming throwback.

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Aside from food, the purpose of my trip was to ogle over design. The Normann Copenhagen flagship storecq is a bit like a design department store filled with accessories, home decor, and clothes from Danish and international designers. The top floor sells the kind of furniture that belongs in my fictitious Swedish country house. Go ahead and laugh, but I adored the dollar store-meets-Scandinavian design of Tiger, a chain that sells sleek bric-a-brac.

I needed to restrict my purchases because most of my budget was going toward meals. The most opulent stop on my trip was Geranium. The restaurant is on the eighth floor of the country's national soccer stadium with views of the Common Gardens. I watched chef Rasmus Kofoed fuss with plates in the kitchen and as my jaw dropped at the presentation. I ate all four courses and the countless snacks, right down to the green egg with pine.

Crispy grains from Komly served at Geranium.
Crispy grains from Komly served at Geranium.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Copenhagen's culinary boom shows no signs of dwindling. Claus Meyer, who co-founded Noma and is a celebrity author and TV chef in his homeland, told me that Denmark's movement to embrace local can be seen as far away as Peru, and as close as Portland, Maine.

"I feel like we created a road map," he said.

The scene is not all squid spaghetti, cloudberries, and burned Jerusalem artichoke. At Torvehallerne, there were 60 stalls selling pizza, chocolate, produce, fish, pastries, and spices. I walked around Torvehallerne on a Sunday morning, munching on the reasonably priced offerings. If I were a foot taller and blond, I would have fit right in with the locals. Instead, I was the short slob who gorged on desserts, and then grunted in a none-too-flattering manner as I attempted to hoist my heavy electric bike off the sidewalk, hoping no one was watching.

Samuel Nutter plated beet rib at BROR.
Samuel Nutter plated beet rib at BROR.Handout/Wonderful Copenhagen

My final Copenhagen meal was prepared by two former Noma sous chefs who now own Restaurant BROR. I don't want to tell you how comfortable and delicious this experience was because I don't want BROR to lose its casual charms by becoming an over-exposed hot spot. The plates were mismatched, the chicken heart butter lettuce salad was the perfect accompaniment to the chilly night, and I adored how conversational the interactions were with the staff.

Before the carrot cake with sour-milk ice cream arrived, our waitress asked if we needed anything else. After four days of nonstop eating, I could think of only two things: a pair of loose-fitting sweat pants and a series of one-on-one sessions with a Jenny Craig counselor.


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_
Muther.