Who was it that made foraging popular? Probably the poor: those who, without kitchen cupboards or a pot to piss in (or cook with), source alternatives in obtaining food. From backend restaurant bin foraging, it grew into local forestry and woodland, where nettles, buttercups, dandelions and chestnuts are all free. Then the common supermarket customer decided he wanted some of this eco-freebie, healthy green, in-season goodies, and passed off his tightness for care of heritage and support for localism.
And now we’re all at it, thanks in part to Scandinavia and their find-it, pick-it, eat-it approach. They were doing it long before supplying us with furniture, LEGO and crime-dramas. Copenhagen responded with René Redzepi and a nation’s restaurant revival. Redzepi showed the world how to boil seaweed and what a lingonberry is. Today, more chefs – and we too – look towards nature for not just what is edible, but what’s free.
The Nordic Food Revolution popularised simple, ingredient-led pairings and, in doing so, trained a batch of new chefs who now, finished under the guide ship of Redzepi and Noma, are going it alone. It’s something we’ve seen before from the likes of Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal – godly kitchen masters passing on skill and craftsmanship to the chefs of the future.
These talented trainees have dotted themselves in kitchens across the globe, but one of the most talented decided to stay in Copenhagen. Having worked at both elBulli and Noma, Christian Puglisi now combines Danish heritage with his Italian roots at Relæ, located on Jægersborggade in the north of the city. The restaurant’s name is derived from “relæ elektronik” – devices used to create energy. As Puglisi explains, the phrase resonates with the way the restaurant’s kitchen works. Through movement and creativity, a feeling of positive energy is generated: Relæ.
For diners, it’s a relaxed atmosphere, with fashionable décor and design quirks: cutlery and napkins are found, hidden, inside a small drawer under the table. During my visit, the place is full of young Danes, all jolly in conversation and sharing plates. Tablecloths, over-bearing artwork and fancy lighting have all been forgone in favour of a stripped-back feel. This restaurant is all about the food.
Awarded a Michelin star in 2011 and named in the world’s top 100 restaurants in 2012 (no. 56 in 2013), Puglisi’s no-nonsense approach has earned him plaudits as well as awards. His unpretentious menu showcases how simple ingredients can be manipulated to their advantage.
These are plates which use no more than four ingredients, each stretched to their furthest ability. “Squid, oysters and seaweed” begins: an exploration of locally caught, picked, plucked, foraged and – most importantly to Puglisi – in-season ingredients. The careful balance of components has been meticulously researched, and the result is a plate of delicious squid, softly poached oysters and the mild sea-salt texture of thinly-stranded seaweed.
The menu continues with “Jerusalem artichoke, quinoa and coffee”. The artichoke has been blended into a smooth purée, topped with quinoa grains and coffee granules. It’s a strange coming together of textures, where the research of what Puglisi calls “flavour authenticity” has been explored to the full – and it works brilliantly. The earthy, almost nutty, consistency of artichoke purée holds warmth against the sweet, popping quinoa and the lingering aftertaste of the additional coffee leaves a gentle spiciness.
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Plate after plate, Puglisi demonstrates just how far his ingredients can be manipulated. After a dish of chicken broth, cod and leeks, “Sheep’s milk yogurt, beetroot and blackcurrant” is another example of naturally sourced simplicity. A beetroot gelatine lies across a dome of yogurt and a scattering of dried blackcurrants finish the plate, balancing sweetness and lip-puckering sour stings.
A cheese course (for an added 85 kr.) finishes what has been my best meal in Copenhagen: “Rød Løber, carrot and orange zest” involves a colourful example of local cheese and vibrant oranges; the “zest”, really a dehydrated orange peel, shards like crackling when you attack it with a fork.
For all the unending talk of Scandinavian brilliance, the proof of all that careful sourcing of ingredients and innovative kitchen wizardry is in the experience itself, and the final product that arrives in front of the paying customer. What Puglisi is doing at Relæ is excellent: he’s modern, exciting and, without attempting to conjure up a new concept or simply reproduce what he’s learnt from more acclaimed chefs, producing something of real simplicity and wonder.
Relæ, Jægersborggade 41, 2200 Copenhagen, Denmark
+45 3696 6609; restaurant-relae.dk