For some years those in the food community have been talking about the magical cooking at el Bulli in Spain and as a result this restaurant had been called the best restaurant in the world. Maybe yes, maybe no, but this much is clear – it was the hardest reservation to land for sure. Easier to get into Stanford. Well the chef decided that being open 6 months a year was too much so he said, “How about no months open?” Take that! So he took himself off to Harvard to teach and now another restaurant is the hot place – Noma in Copenhagen. Is it the best? Maybe? But right now it is the hot place to go so go we did. Since we went all the way to Denmark we thought we had better try other impossible places to get into. I went with Margaret my wife and as many know her at Buck’s – the substance behind the flash – me being the flash. We went with Peter Friess the recent director of the Tech Museum in San Jose and his airport-museum designer wife Birgit Binner. I was to handle the food arrangements and Birgit would suss out the corners of Scandinavian Design.

A friend in Copenhagen managed to get us into Noma on a Friday night a 7 o’clock. I really hadn’t expected this so it was a terrific surprise. The dining experience at Noma is ridiculous, spectacular, enchanting, overpriced, hilarious and a real deal considering the creativity and time spent making sure you have a night to remember. The web is bristling with opinions on this. I can tell you this. I had 23 courses and the food ran from OK to you’ve got to be kidding? I’m convinced that tasty food isn’t actually part of the dining experience at Noma. It’s true that I haven’t got a palette turned to Nordic on the dial but like any art, Noma gets to be judged by the common man and no one is more common than me. I wanted to love the food on all levels and I give them high marks for invention but a failing grade on flavor. The service was predictably warm and compelling which included a great deal of give and take with the international staff. The starters featured such things as fruit leather wrapped around pork cracklin’ to resemble, well pork cracklin’. There was scallop jerky. A plate of fried moss and a clever mussel or rather a faux mussel with real meat and an edible fake shell. There was a smoked game bird egg in a box of smoldering hay and, a real crowd pleaser, a donut hole with an anchovy stuck through it. It is at this point in the meal that the Russian billionaires generally get up, pitch a pile of cash on the table, and go looking for a steak. I’m not kidding this has happened repeatedly. There is plenty of bread though and great bread and heavily salted butter not the pale white lard-like stuff some trendy places give you in America.

Bone-marrow-candy-web

The entrees were equally obtuse. At one point they brought us each a sizzling cast iron skillet and directed us to each cook a hens egg and give it dollops of roadside weeds. I think this a nod to hobo cooking. I was half expecting to be asked to heat up some beans in a can over a fire made of tire shreds. One of the latest restaurant trends is to take photos of food while dining. Chefs and restaurant owners are divided on this as there can be flashes going off all round but they are cool about it at Noma and owners would be well advised to give in on this trend, as it seems to be here to stay. The dishes marched at us relentlessly until we were ready to surrender but on they came in their multitude. One of the final courses was a dessert specialty of caramel blended with bone marrow in a section of cow bone. I thought they were kidding but no, it was really as promised. Smelled like a slaughterhouse. We were with fun people doing something decidedly odd so a very good time was had. Denmark is very civilized and strictly modern. In fact they invented Danish Modern though that’s from the 50s. Our hotel, the Radisson Blu, was the particular center of the action when we were there. On our arrival we saw a good many cops with guns. I thought I was home or at least in Italy but it was just the arrival of Hu Jintao the president of China who was there to tour the Carlsberg beer plant. They had cleared the top 5 floors and we saw the leader and his pack several times. I thought we hit it off but he never calls, he never writes. We went to the world famous Louisiana Museum on the outskirts of Copenhagen. They just slap themselves silly with the rich irony of naming the place after our state.

They find this wildly funny, I think. They aren’t big on actually laughing. The hit of the show, which you really must see, is 32 big photos of some big fat guy smoking a cigarette. Really, once you get over a dozen it becomes pretty funny but I don’t think it was meant to be funny. I looked long and hard and tried to extract the reason or the meaning. The whole affair seemed meaningless. No doubt there are many who would bring meaning to it and I think that the art and very smoothness of Scandinavia is often a canvas on which to drape your own thoughts. It isn’t as if we don’t do plenty of this in America. In the 60s there was a big movement to display blank canvases. Well they weren’t exactly blank they were painted flat white. They sold for a lot of money. We never figured out what the Danish Kroner exchange rate was but I think that a bill that reads many thousands is not a good sign. And what is with tipping in Scandinavia? It is clearly written on the bill that the tip is included. I finally figured it out. The natives are a bit cagey, as they don’t want to spoil your fun, so the practice seems to be: tip lavishly beyond the amount on the bill if you are an American. If you are local you leave enough to buy half a ride on bus. Then it was off by car across a few hundred miles of Swedish countryside. It quickly dawned us that there is a lot of wood and water in Scandinavia and everything not composed of these two substances is made of rock. Billboards, junkyards, amusement parks and shopping centers don’t fill the landscape like here at home. Stockholm was a revelation. Easily one of the most compelling cities and I’ve been to. It’s a Baroque confection with many buildings dating from when it was a leading power 400 years ago. It never seems to get dark, the weather is perfect, everyone has a job, from the apple cheeked Swedish maid selling strawberries in the farmers markets to the sharply dressed ship stewards on the many watercraft. They really are a beautiful people. Many of the women quite tall and a lot of men are 6’6” and more. They are simply gigantic. And I don’t think they ever die. We met our friends David and Hi-jin who live part time in Half Moon Bay and part time in their penthouse overlooking Stockholm, as Hi-jin is Swedish. They are both artists and have done quite well. Hi-jin cooked one night and we ate as the night tried, without much success, to fall. The next evening we all went to a very elegant restaurant called F12. There the food was elaborate, tiny and inventive. One thing you can say is that the Scandinavians, like the Japanese, eat like one should. Very little red meat, a lot of fish and small portions. People in these countries bike for serious and the bike lanes are sacrosanct. It you are an uneducated tourist you tend to wander into them and the tinkling bill of an approaching bike belies the freight train insistence of these speeding vehicles. And what about the dark Scandinavian soul? I fully expected to witness people sobbing at the meaninglessness of life jumping of bridges in quantity but if there is shadow over them they never showed it to me. Even in the bike lane struggle they warned us with great courtesy. Everyone we met was smiling and of course they all speak English. I’m told the winters are long and bleak but that’s why Walt Disney invented Florida so with prosperity, and they are very prosperous, comes less depression. Peter found us an amazing hotel on a small island that was a renovated military barracks. Long and narrow, eclectic and wonderful. Most of our island was wrapped with the most stunning marina imaginable.

There were over a hundred houseboats all along the stone quay with signs illustrating to their histories. There were tugs, barges, military recon vessels, light ships and fishing boats. Many were in the 100-foot range and several were from the 19th century. All immaculate. This is the most aquatic of cities and there are thousands of inhabited islands so ferries and freighters abound. And get this, they are connected to the sea but the Baltic is so far away that the salt content is less then 1% and there is no tide. This is great for preserving ships. This was certainly the case with the Vasa the most visited site in Scandinavia. The Vasa is the 226-foot flagship of the Swedish navy that was launched in front of an admiring throng in 1628. It must have looked magnificent for the few minutes it floated but it proved to be a bit top heavy (must have been that last piece of bone marrow candy) and it fell over and sank in the harbor.

Top heavy? Since when are 700 sculptures of the royal court, medieval kings, roman emperors, Egyptian deities and fanciful animals spreading from water line to poop deck top heavy? Warships of today generally deemphasize art in favor of better ballast. An inquest resulted in finger pointing in a circle until it landed on the ship’s designer where it belonged. He had conveniently died and there it ended until the 1960s when the ship was lifted and went through a decades long preservation process. Today the wood is slowly disintegrating due to it’s high sulfur content and is expected to dissolve in the next 100 years so you should go soon. David and Hi-jin were making a movie called Unspoken when we showed up one night and we became part of it. Each of us in turn stared silently at the camera for a few seconds. No special effects, no orphans or Penguins, very Scandinavian in its simplicity. I expect the fat guy smoking a cigarette will be in it. See the progress at davidandhijin.com. We moved on to Helsinki and were there for the best possible day of the year – exactly midsummer when the city empties out. We emptied with them to an island to celebrate the longest day. There were bonfires (20-foot piles of green sticks), dancing and the singing of the traditional songs. The kids struggle on stilts and they sell small things made of wood and twigs. The Finns are a smart and tidy people who have made it big in the tech world of late and incomes have been high. Some Finns are worried that the dream is dimming because Nokia, the one time cell phone leader, is nearly exhausted and other reversals threaten there financial future. I get the feeling that they will be fine though. They have a very make-do philosophy and their spareness is reflected in the house and design studio of their greatest architect, Alvar Aalto. The house was like the people, modest, and completely unembellished. Aalto never worked in Beverley Hills. The main attraction in Helsinki for us was the 20-seat restaurant Chef and Sommelier. Sasu Laukkonen makes the food in a tiny kitchen and sits with you gazing into your eyes while describing each dish. Yes, we were hypnotized. My friend Henri Alen set us up there on the last day before the remaining 10% of people leave town. I had met Henri at Buck’s when he filmed a Finnish cooking show at Buck’s recently. Henri is very big in Finland and of course he was at his lake house with most everyone else. Sasu spends his day gathering weeds and bits of turf from the roadside and mushrooms from the forest, then in combination with local fish invents compelling dishes. Dining with Sasu was almost a distillation of all the New Nordic cooking as each glass, sliver of bread, and pinch of salt has a story. Susu is a man on fire and when he hears that his place, in my opinion, is better than Noma I know he will agree because this is man on a mission to make his place the best restaurant in the world. We sampled a lot of New Nordic cooking and I can say it will never take hold here. Many of us have been to fancy restaurants in San Francisco and New York where the food seems to be mainly about design but has familiar tastes. Americans just require more stuff on the plate and less raw mackerel. At one point we were eating fir needles and pickled pinecones. Not as good as it sounds. They also lo-o-ve rye crisp which is pretty much everywhere. Even the houses are made of it. In Finland the people have to take a good deal of ribbing because the country is quite small and the people are demure and a great deal more civilized than nearly everyone else. But they like to kick it when they can so one way they cut loose is to bring the household carpets to the shore and launder them on piers specially constructed for that purpose. This is popular summer pastime and we saw a good many installations with washing tables and large wringers. OK, I know it’s not a monster truck rally and you think I’m kidding but it gives you something to do every year, by the water and turns work into play.
Washing-carpets

We had one more day so we hopped a ferry for the hour and a half ride to Estonia. It rained all day and we saw the country from a dripping tour bus. They are trying mighty hard there and even with the lowest population density in Europe have built a couple skyscrapers in their compact city demonstrating their arrival in the 21st century. Margaret and I hopped back to Denmark for a final night and we opted to stay by the airport in the town of Dragør dating to the 12th century. We dipped into the only place open for dinner and didn’t expect much as we were almost the only ones there. What came were clever salads with local greens and perfectly seared scallops, magnificent battered and fried place, a local fish, and a perfectly done roast pork with gravy. Maybe the Strandshotel dining room is the best restaurant in the world.