What they’re eating at the world’s best restaurants, from oyster pearls to rendered fudge of deer marrow – National Post

Posted By on December 14, 2021

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Howard Levitt and Dr. Josh Josephson embark on a gustatory journey from Paris to Copenhagen, tasting the richly creative and exquisitely traditional

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As judges on Canadian and international restaurant review panels, which we are in some cases not allowed to name, we had been waiting impatiently through the pandemic for the day the world reopened. We immediately booked a trip to what are, along with Tokyo and San Sebastian, Spain, the worlds two best restaurant cities, Paris and Copenhagen.

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Some might find the latter surprising, but Copenhagen is home to No. 1 and No. 2 on The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list, Noma and Geranium, whose ratings came out a week after we returned. There was only one Canadian restaurant in the top 100.

The movement to Nordic cuisine started, like much of food evolution elsewhere, with developments in France, from old style, complicated, heavy sauces, marinades and longer cooking times to what the French called nouvelle cuisine, involving none of the above but, instead, fresher ingredients and more use of herbs. Chefs became extremely inventive, creating new combinations and pairings. In France, virtually all of the ingredients are recognizable to us, while in Copenhagen they use local historical techniques of fermentation, smoking, wood oils and unique indigenous plants from foraging. They also use anatomical portions unfamiliar to us, such as, at Jordnaer, the small fatty portion of the shoulder of a king crab.

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Dishes that are commonplace here are revised to create something else. For example, again at Jordnaer, the bread and butter was a brioche-like Japanese milk bread saturated with goat butter, accompanied by a pat of sweet cow butter. The musky goat butter combined with the grassy, pasture-like cow butter had surprisingly harmonious flavours. Simple. The taste of butter on butter was surprisingly good.

Another feature of Danish cuisine is the use of insects as an ingredient, something Josh avoided. Howard partook, but did not find added value to the flavours.

We had eight meals in Paris, covering some of the new currents in French restaurant cooking, from brasseries to creative market cuisine, to the entirely experimental. The restaurant that surprised us the most, and to which we would quickly return, was Shabour, a heavily booked, one-star Michelin restaurant run by renowned Israeli chef Assaf Granit.

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Everyone sat at a counter, across from chefs on the kitchen side who assembled, served and discussed the courses. The dishes had riffs on traditional Jewish cuisine, such as gefilte fish and beet borscht. The gefilte fish, traditionally the lowest of the low, was skinned sea bass with carrot cream and caviar.

Broken borscht soup featured red cabbage, cream of beetroot with sage, pickled baby beetroot glazed with feta cheese, bacon, lobster steamed in vodka, cream of feta and horseradish, dill oil, powdered red cabbage and lemon juice! One of our favourites was a hay-smoked pigeon sandwich with a sauce made of smoked pigeon skin, cured lemon and sumac. The sauce alone required four days of very slow reduction to achieve its rich-tasting density.

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In Canada, particularly Toronto, restaurants often overcharge for seafood towers of less-than pristine shellfish. Paris has Le Duc, with its fabulous seafood, or Le Dome, where one encounters 10 varieties, some in different sizes, of the best and most pristinely fresh oysters sourced anywhere. Those from Maison Gillardeau are so prized that the shells are laser-engraved to prevent counterfeiting.

We then flew (with not even flight attendants wearing masks) from France, which no longer has a restaurant in the worlds top 20 on The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list, to Copenhagen, home of the top two.

Noma had a seasonal game menu, including reindeer brain and duck brain, as part of its rustic, earthy menu, with a dessert presented in a marrow bone, the femur of a roe deer, filled with rendered fudge of deer marrow with blueberries and calendula flowers. Also available was a version of traditional Danish pastry fried in bear fat with an egg-yolk sauce and crispy duck skin, all accompanied by a spoon covered with the reduced sauce of caramel and bear stock.

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Geranium had a refined, sophisticated approach, both in preparation and gustatory experience. One such dish featured oyster pearls, kelp and rugbrod with parsley ash, king perch and oyster, accompanied by apple and broccoli pearls, snail egg pearls and Danish cheese.

Neither of us had ever experienced the level of sophistication of this harmonious range of ingredients, fine details of presentation and combination of intriguing flavours.

We had a reservation at the two-star Michelin Jordnaer secured by our hotel, but it failed to confirm and we arrived to be told that we had been cancelled, replaced and no table was available. We were bereft. After protracted pleading (begging), the chef apologetically gave us his friends-and-family table in the kitchen, replete with occasional free tastes during the meal.

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We raved about the exceptional dining experience.

Indeed, it was Howards favourite meal of the trip, with course after course of exquisite, jewel-like displays and harmoniously tasteful selections of specialized ingredients. It reminded us in some ways of the presentation evident in the highest-end kaiseki Japanese cuisine. Of course, in what other great restaurant in Japan or anywhere can you find such unique esoteric local ingredients as lambs blood powder and coagulated formic acid derived from dried ants, the kind you will find in Nordic cuisine and that we had at our Alchemist meal?

Compare the following to a square grid-patterned waffle at a Canadian diner: A hollow roasted waffle shaped into a fenestrated flower, the interior of which was filled with a salad of fjord shrimp, chives, lemon zest, sour cream and mayonnaise, and topped with caviar.

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Danish comfort food is best known for its smorrebrod, an open-faced sandwich of buttered, dense, brown rye bread that may be topped with cold cuts or fish and cheese and veg garnishes. It has always been an artisanal composition of mostly traditional local ingredients. Schonneman has not changed in decades and is well worth visiting, but not easily entered. Indeed, they told us they had no further reservation spots available for months. Montergade, although no better, has modernized the approach to make it more consistent with the newer Nordic style.

The most fascinating and revolutionary dining experience of the trip, if not our lives, was at Alchemist, the $15 million construction extravaganza. This restaurant only seats 45 people once a night and has double that number in staff. The meal is eaten in 50 courses over 7 1/2 hours in five separate culinary theatres for the meals different stages. From mimes dancing with you to private recitals by members of the Danish philharmonic and a planetarium-like room with a dynamically changing kaleidoscope display overhead, presented during the main courses, the Alchemist experience is so remarkable it requires its own column.

Howard Levitt is a prominent employment lawyer, judge on several Canadian andinternational restaurant review awards and memberof the Chevaliers du Tastevin.

He has written restaurant review columns for this paper.

Dr. Josh Josephson, research optometrist, former owner of The Cookbook Store, former president of the International Wine and Food Society, Toronto, is a judge for several Canadian and international restaurant surveys, member of the Chevaliers du Tastevin; Chaine des Rotisseurs.

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What they're eating at the world's best restaurants, from oyster pearls to rendered fudge of deer marrow - National Post

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