København field notes

Friday, November 13, 2015

Following two recent visits to Copenhagen, I am tempted to conclude that it is my favorite of the Scandinavian cities. It just does everything right. In its own way, with its Acne scarf-wearing babes on bikes, number of dark TV productions, and white hot dining scene, it has become a modern icon. At the risk of irking Oslo and Stockholm, the current Scandinavia trend sweeping across the US and Europe owes alot to Copenhagen. With a strong, playful zest for life anchored by an always present Nordic functionality and sensibility (and a generous, accommodating welfare state), life in Denmark is pretty good.

As far the Scandinavians go, Danes closer resemble Continental Europeans in that they smoke and drink more. This is part of a generally larger premium on social and quality of life activities. They are a fun bunch, and it is to no surprise Danes are thought of as the “Italians of Scandinavia”. Norwegians enjoy the good life, too - but are generally more reserved and outdoorsy. Expression is muted the further north you go here. That said, however, the relative coldness of Scandinavia is still there. It is no Nicaragua or Uganda - economically impoverished places whose locals have hearts of gold.

It is just things are more blunt, forward, and matter-of-fact. Like in Norway, “beating around the bush” isn’t much of a thing. People are straightforward, to-the-point, and relatively lacking in emotional expressiveness. I will likely catch some flack for writing this, but these are traits worsened - or at least made less desirable - by the sheer ugliness of the Danish language. An extraordinarily difficult language to learn (as well as among one in which native speakers take the longest to learn), it is an exceedingly rough and convoluted, throaty tongue. Norwegians and Swedes joke about Danes sounding as if they speak with “potatoes in their throat”. All love from my end, though.

And their bikes. Bikes are everywhere in the dense, largely flat Danish capital. From bicycle highways and overpasses to the familiar scenes of building façades and courtyards packed with them, it would be an understatement to say bicycles are anything but extremely popular. Crossing a street without looking, you are more liable to be hit by bicycle than automobile. Bicycles are very much a fundamental part of the Copenhagen, and indeed Danish, psyche. Indeed, many distances in the Danish capital are measured by bicycle traveling time, and not that of mass transit, much less that of the automobile. A 30-minute walk can turn into a 10-minute bike ride quite easily.

As always, the food scene is one worth mentioning. From almost better-than-in-Italy pizza at Bæst (my pizza had asparagus, house-made mozzarella, and pork cheek salami) to late-night delivery fried chicken (halal, of course, as is par course for chicken/pizza/kebab take-out in Europe), Copenhagen has a dining scene most cities can only dream of. And while I don’t dwell much on the Michelin Star-studded scene for which the city is best known, I nevertheless manage to eat quite well, focusing on the city’s many, tasty street and mid-level options.

One noticeable trend has been the proliferation of Michelin-starred chefs leaving the white table cloth and molecular world for simpler and more casual pursuits, going on to open hot dog, sandwich, and even taco operations. Hija de Sánchez, a market stand opened by the pastry chef of Noma, is my favorite such example. The tacos with chicken mole and sube, quesadillas and pasadilla sauce, along with pickled jalepeño and carrot salsa, amount to what is by far the best Mexican food I have come across in Europe. And that market hall - Torvehallerne - with its organic produce vendors, curated tapas and natural wine bars, Coffee Collective outpost, and Vietnamese banh-mi takeaways, is one of the better upscale food halls in Europe.

For a café concept, Lillebrør, the informal daytime operation of critically-acclaimed restaurant Brør. I have not come across a more tidy and well-run cafe in quite some time. District Tonkin, a cute banh-mi focused operation in the city’s posh Fredriksberg district, consistently puts out what is some of the best Vietnamese food in Europe, a food often difficult to get right in Northern Europe. Fafa’s, a Finnish (!) falafel import on Store Kongensgade, has falafel that easily puts to shame that of the innumerable Middle Eastern carryout kitchens in Scandinavia. Its goes on, and it goes on.

Finally, the beer scene, which deserves its own merits and appreciation, is a dream. Amid the countless weak, mass market, "traditional" lagers, ales, and pilsners that hold sway across the continent, Denmark's beer scene is among the best and most experimental in Europe. Mikkeller is a godsend. They are quite literally putting out some of the most innovating and game-changing beers around. I visited all three of their Copenhagen-area operations: Mikkeller Vesterbro, Mikkeller and Friends in Nørrebro, and Warpigs, the American BBQ-themed collaboration with Indiana brewery Three Floyds. Lidkoeb, with its slick mid-century inspired theme and smart Scandinavian modern furniture, is another gem of a bar, and offers killer cocktails and a exclusively house IPA brewed by Evil Twin Brewing (see NYT article on love and hate - but mostly hate - relationship between the Mikkeller twins).

Mikropolis, a cute bar decked out in warm mood lighting and oak furnishing, is the last place I will mention in this post. Mikkeller's own website describes it as: "a small cozy cocktail bar with 10 beer taps and a bold bottle list. Or maybe it’s a beer bar with great cocktails and a huge spirit selection." and "Stearing [sic] clear of sponsorships and deals with satan & the big four spirit companies, Mikropolis’ back bar offers a wide variety of micro distilled products from all over the world, hand picked by mr. Nando." Either way, it is well worth a visit for the budding craft beer enthusiast tired of the lame, unsatisfying, mass market beers ever-so prevalent these days.

Interior at Han Kjøbenhavn.
Falafel platter at Fafa's.
Michael, Café lillebror.P1480619
Early dinner crowd at Bæst.
The Royal Library ("Det Kongelig Bibliotek"). schmidt hammer lassen, 1999.
Street scene on Nørrebrogade.
Saab stories. Hellerup.
Courtyard vibes in Østerbro.P1480721
The smartly-renovated Israel plads, directly opposite Torvellerne.
Danes enjoying a beer on the waterfront.  P1480790
Copenhagen Opera House. Henning Larsen, 2001.P1490390
At Lidkoeb.

Notes of Summer, Pt. III: Croatia

Saturday, November 7, 2015