Hi Dad, we just managed to get a booking for Noma in Copenhagen. Would you like to join us?”
My son Ilan is a chef and one of the things chefs love to do is eat in really high-end restaurants. Noma is one of the best and most storied restaurants in the world. Through connections, my son’s partner in Los Angeles, who interned there a few years ago, landed this coveted reservation.
I decided to join them and make a business trip out of it by visiting my German, Danish and Swedish distributors. Through Airbnb I found a lovely one-bedroom apartment in old Copenhagen. Situated very close to the university, the apartment had an old bar almost directly below it. A really good coffee shop was nearby and opposite the apartment was the newly-renovated Great Synagogue of Copenhagen complete with two 24/7 guards.
That first night, I descended to the bar. The room is cozy with half a dozen tables and some bar stools. Most of the customers were young. The friendly barman served me various aquavits and I started to talk to two women who coincidentally hailed from Long Island.
Opposite me was a table with a young woman sitting, staring any me. She beckoned me over.
”Sit down.” She said. I sat. She put her hand on mine and looked into my eyes. “Stay with me,” she commanded. Intrigued but disinterested (or perhaps a little too scared by her offer), I declined and returned to the bar and my new companions.
Ilan and his friends had taken an apartment not far from Freetown Christiana, which is a commune established in the 1970s by hippies wanting an alternative lifestyle, available marijuana and a life free of government interference. Now that the hippies have aged and the area has become more gentrified and further away from its original aims, it has become a large tourist attraction.
Ilan’s apartment, in a newly renovated old building, was on the sixth floor of an elevator-free residence. The walk up, seemingly endless, wasn’t too hard for me. Not so for two of our party. Both of them, half my age, had to frequently stop for breath.
What can I say about Noma?
From the beginning to the end, it’s a performance.
We, the chosen few, congregated outside until summoned by name. We were greeted by René Redzepi, the owner and all the staff.
The restaurant is airy and bright. Very Scandinavian in feel with light wood on the ceiling and walls. The floor is made from very large light pine planks.
The menu, all 15 courses, was more of an event than a meal. Prawns caught by one fisherman in a certain fjord in Norway. Berries only grown on a tiny volcanic island in Denmark’s Kattegat. Giant mussels from the Faroe Islands. Sea snails and roses. Horse mussel ragout. Squid in seaweed butter. Head of the cod. Venus clams. Sea snail broth, Sugar kelp tart and plankton cake.
The menu in winter is always seafood-based and the wines to match were perfect. Everything was delicious and served by the chefs themselves. After the meal, René Redzepi showed us around the kitchens. There were rooms full of all sorts of liquids fermenting. We saw his test kitchen where other chefs were experimenting with next season’s menu.
There is something wonderful about eating in such a place. A once in a lifetime experience since I doubt I will return.
Since I was traveling with chefs, eating was central to the trip. We ate in another two or three top-class restaurants but the one that stood out in memory was Schønnemann. About 150 years old, it is a lunch-only restaurant specializing in freshly-made smørrebrød and all sorts of the most amazing herring you could ever imagine. Marinated herring, fried herring, curry herring, ginger herring, pickled spiced herring and smoked Bornholm herring – just to mention a few. There was a recommended and perfectly matched aquavit for each different herring. Ultimately this much simpler food made the biggest impression on me.
The transport system in Copenhagen is magnificent. Trains, subways and buses seamlessly integrate. The station near my apartment had a subway and a train station in one place. In fact I caught the train to Gothenburg, Sweden from that very station. Gothenburg is where my distributor lives and it is also the home of Volvo cars. It’s about three-hour journey from Copenhagen on a very pleasant, quiet and spotlessly clean train.
On the day of my departure, I had an afternoon flight to New York. To save time, that morning I purchased a subway ticket to the airport. As the train was pulling into the airport station, an inspector approached and asked to see my ticket. I gave it to him and on looking at it he declared, “This is invalid.”
Perplexed, I asked why.
“You purchased it this morning, it is only valid for 90 minutes,” he said.
Incredulously I looked at the ticket and he was correct.
By this time we had disembarked the inspector had taken my passport and written out a ticket. He explained that there was a website, in English, that I could contact to dispute the charge. I thanked him and continued to check in.
On the plane I got chatting with my neighbor and told her the story.
“How much was the fine?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Let me look.”
The fine was equivalent to $100.
On my return, I contacted the website, explaining that I bought the ticket in good faith and had no idea about the time limit.
The reply was terse. Rules are posted in English in all subway stations and I had to pay the fine. (Note to myself. After arriving jet-lagged in a foreign country, before anything else, make sure you familiarize yourself with the subway rules.) It also said that if I wanted to further dispute this finding, there was another website I could go to file my grievance. I clicked on it and it informed me that to continue I had to pay the equivalent amount of $100.
I took the ticket and added it to the pile of unpaid European tickets I had previously collected. Four speeding fines from France, One from Spain and another from Norway. ($375 for going nine miles over the 50 MPH speed limit…?) Now I am a scofflaw in four countries.