To say that Denmark is having a culinary "moment" isn’t entirely accurate. The truth is the country has been at the forefront of edible innovation for well over a decade. New Nordic cuisine was thrust upon the global stage in 2003 when chef René Redzepi launched Noma, and the iconic restaurant remains one of the world’s toughest reservations. That style of cooking — artful, delicate, with a focus on fish and vegetables — is now prevalent well beyond the canals of Copenhagen where it was born. Ironically, though, as it has spread, New Nordic is defined more and more by its setting than it is its presentation.
Denmark holds over a thousand years of well-preserved history. Many of its medieval castles and fortresses loom large over the flat, rural grasslands. A handful of them provide more than just a portal to the past. They are grandiose platforms for world-class dining. It’s become something of a trend for big names in New Nordic, disillusioned by city life, to set up shop in these remote hideaways.
The best way to experience this phenomenon is by tasting your way across the Danish kingdom. There’s a lot to sample, but it’s sandwiched into a relatively compact space. At 43,000 square kilometers, Denmark is just a little smaller than Ohio. Most of the noteworthy dining exists on one of two islands: Zealand, containing Copenhagen and its surrounding metro area; and Funen, a coastal landscape at the mouth of the Baltic Sea. For the adventurous gourmand, a fairy tale awaits. It finds form within the dining rooms of Denmark’s culinary castles.
Seared lobster tail topped in caviar, served on a bed of fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, is a frequent star on Restaurant Marchal's tasting menu.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
Set sail on your adventure from the iconic neighborhood of Nyhavn. This instantly recognizable waterfront traces its history back to the 17th century when it served as the city’s gateway for a wide range of European merchants. Today it beckons instead to Instagrammers, thirsty for shots of the multi-hued rowhouses lining its main canal.
The area is home to Hotel d'Angleterre, one of Copenhagen’s stateliest guesthouses. Here you’ll be treated to five-star accommodations in the form of oversized rooms with terraces overlooking the harbor and the Royal Opera House.
Just off the property’s palatial lobby is Restaurant Marchal, a Michelin-starred outpost helmed by executive chef Andreas Bagh. Artfully arranged dishes have a maritime focus.Seared lobster tail topped in caviar, served on a bed of fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, is a frequent star on a tasting menu that fluctuates with the daily catch.
The restaurant takes its name from Jean Marchal, who established an eatery on the site all the way back in 1755. Today’s preparations with gelee, foams and citrus reductions would surely beguile diners of that bygone era. But the underlying proteins — oysters, scallops, fatty liver — have hardly changed at all. The menu’s extensive collection of sparkling wines does all of these gentle ocean flavors ample justice.
At Tarnet, chef Rene Hansen showcases a modern spin on the country’s most traditional sandwich: the open-faced smorrebrod.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
If you really want a taste of royalty, why not dine atop the parliament building itself? This multistoried dining room is hidden atop the Tower of Christiansborg, overlooking the center of Danish government. In fact, it’s so exclusive you’ll have to pass through official security (including metal detectors) to dine here.
For lunch, chef Rene Hansen showcases a modern spin on the country’s most traditional sandwich: the open-faced smorrebrod. Here, staple flavors are rendered with exotic accoutrement, such as the pickled herring served under hibiscus, beetroot and a swath of microgreens, or a beef tartare studded with baby shrimp and black currant puree. All of it arrives atop house-baked rye bread.
Don’t skip dessert. The talented pastry chef whips up a daily arsenal of a half-dozen confectionery cakes. Chocolate plays prominently — and decadently — in nearly all of them. Afterwards, make your way to the top of the tower for an unrivaled view of the surrounding cityscape.
Mielcke & Hurtigkarl
Fried shrimp crackers, covered in moss, come in a bed of seashells at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
In order to explore beyond the city, you’ll need to rent a vehicle as most of Denmark’s culinary castles exist beyond the realm of mass transit. A number of American rental agencies operate within Copenhagen, including Hertz which is located right in the city center. Rent from here rather than the airport and you’ll secure more affordable rates and a better selection of vehicles.
But before you dart off to the countryside, be sure to stop first in Frederiksberg, on the western outskirts of the city. This quaint, tree-lined neighborhood forms the subdued backdrop for Mielcke & Hurtigkarl, one of the ultimate destinations for New Nordic nirvana. The restaurant sits amidst the Royal Horticultural Gardens where Danish royalty would often retreat for weekends in the mid-1800s.
Menus are nowhere to be found. Instead, diners are treated to a nightly surprise known simply as "The Metamorphosis." It’s a parade of pretty plates adorned with whimsical, vegetable-forward presentations. Fried shrimp crackers, covered in moss, come in a bed of seashells. Pea shoots are accentuated by herbal purees, part of a series of single-bite appetizers prefacing more substantial offerings to follow.
Local fish from the Baltic is surrounded by shredded greens in a gentle saline broth, allowing delicate flavors to linger with purpose on the palate.
A loin of duck dusted in matcha brings some sort of umami component to the fold, yet still eludes easy description. As with many of the dishes here, there is mysticism to behold. Rather than trying to pin it down, it’s best to accept it all as profoundly satisfying. The full tasting menu costs 1,100 Danish kroner ($168). A sommelier-derived wine pairing is available for a supplemental charge.
At the Restaurant by Kroun, alfresco dining in the courtyard assumes a paleo-friendly feel with an assortment of lunchtime smorrebrod, all loaded atop platforms of carb-free bread.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
Less than 15 miles up the coast from Copenhagen is the charming seaside village of Skodsborg, population 1,222. It’s home to the 115-year-old Kurhotel Skodsborg, a Nordic spa and wellness retreat framed by a white colonnade and green-studded courtyard.
On the top floor, overlooking the narrow sound separating Denmark from Sweden, is The Brasserie. The rustic dining den takes a hearty approach to Scandinavian cuisine, offering up dishes like seafood stew, loaded thick with cod, mussels, and cream.
Elsewhere on the menu is a lightly sautéed fish filet to pair with the restaurant’s expansive list of dry, elegant white wines.
Downstairs at the Restaurant by Kroun, alfresco dining in the courtyard assumes a paleo-friendly feel with an assortment of lunchtime smorrebrod — smoked salmon, curried cauliflower, blanched carrots loaded atop platforms of carb-free bread.
But for those undeterred by midday indulgence, the property features an award-winning pastry chef who carries Danish cake-making to the level of high art.
Guests can bike from here along secluded pathways to the nearby Hermitage Castle, a massive hunting lodge built in the 1730s for King Christian VI. He would host banquets perched atop the sloping greenscape. Today the baroque structure remains magnificently preserved, a towering reminder of the region’s princely past.
At Sollerod Kro, smoked root vegetables are rolled into "cigars" and plated next to other playful amuse bouche, bite-size but big in flavor.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
Sollerod Kro is a savory study in contrast as a 350-year-old country inn housing one of the most modern kitchens in all of Europe. Chef Brian Mark Hansen’s menu draws inspiration from classical French cuisine but only as a springboard from which to leap fearlessly into the future.
Chef loves his caviar, and meals here often begin with a service of specially sourced fish eggs.
But its the inventive numbers that make for the most memorable fare. Vegetable pearls, frozen in liquid nitrogen, eat like earthy dipping dots bathed in basil-infused olive oil. Smoked root vegetables are rolled into "cigars" and plated next to other playful amuse bouche, bite-size but big in flavor.
Seared lobster in unctuous peashoot foam, its flavors stretched in the presence of wood ear mushroom and dill.
Heavier meats such as quail or "the best part of the duck" are buoyed by sturdy sauces, and truffles that are poured or shaved tableside.
For dessert, spongy madeleine-like cakes are propped up in a layer of diced and gelled citrus fruit, delivering a lasting acidity to cut through the pastry’s unapologetic richness. Mini-crepe arrangements are enlivened by thick sauces distilled from caramelized corn.
Come during the day to fully appreciate the bucolic setting: a thatch-roofed edifice wrapping around an outdoor dining patio where three-course lunches typically fetch 495 kroner ($75).
Below Kokkedal Castle is The Cellar. Even with its original vaulted ceilings, the space emanates a cozy vibe that the Danish would refer to as "hygge."(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
Tucked away into the pastoral northeastern edge of Zealand is Kokkdeal Castle, a fully restored palace from the 18th century. The large estate on which it sits was originally a tenant farm and still holds stables and other farming structures from the era.
Today it is a 62-room premium hotel, highly regarded throughout the region for its afternoon tea ritual and extravagant spa treatments.
Below the castle is The Cellar. Even with its original vaulted ceilings, the space emanates a cozy vibe that the Danish would refer to as "hygge." Out of the kitchen arrives a Nordic rendition of comfort food: thick slabs of red meat and racks of lamb under condensed gravies, accompanied by crunchy-yet-moist potatoes splitting the difference between fry and chip.
The crackling logs in the fireplace, the absence of consistent cell service and the classical appointments of this subterranean layer all combine to evoke a feeling of long-lost royalty.
At Dragsholm Gourmet, soft-boiled quail eggs arrive in a makeshift nest, dusted lightly with a umami-salt coating.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
Along the western edge of Zealand, Dragsholm Castle rises from the lowland marshes like some medieval fortress, which is precisely what it is. Built in 1215 by the Bishop of Roskilde, its broad white walls hold nearly a thousand years of history.
It also holds one of the highest-rated restaurants in all of Scandinavia. Dragsholm Gourmet is the brainchild of Claus Henriksen, who defines his cooking style as "nature conscious." He forages the dense forest and thickets surrounding his castle in search of seasonal bounty. He scours the beach at morning, returning with seaweed and other edible treasure.
Much of what he encounters makes its way into kitchen experimentation. If he approves of the results, it eventually ends up in his stone cavern dining room, which seems stolen from a "Game of Thrones" set.
The food is meticulous in arrangement and presentation. Small servings of raw scallop are tucked into the contours of bespoke ceramic. Prawns are served whole, moist with drawn butter and brightened by the brine of the sea. Soft-boiled quail eggs arrive in a makeshift nest, dusted lightly with a umami-salt coating.
The dining experience here unravels with tireless precision and requires much patience. A typical dinner lasts upwards of four hours. It’s best to book your stay in one of the property’s Victorian-era guest rooms. After a meal like this, you won’t want to venture much further than a flight a stairs to find slumber.
The dining room at Falsled Kro features floor-to-ceiling windows, affording unobstructed views of the harbor outside.(Photo: Jared Ranahan for USA TODAY)
Falsled Kro is a Relais and Chateaux property set in a 300-year-old farmhouse just off its namesake harbor. It requires dedication to arrive here as the small village is a two-hour drive from Copenhagen, across a toll bridge on the island of Funen. Those who make the trek are rewarded with an enchanting retreat from cosmopolitan clamor.
The evening begins with a glass of bubbly and slices of locally cured pork.
Diners are walked through a centuries-old, stone-brick living room to arrive in a vaulted atrium. The dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows, affording unobstructed views of the harbor outside.
A six-course tasting menu includes a scallop appetizer presented in a tart-like construct, topped with sliced cucumbers and microgreens from the property’s 1,000-square-meter herb garden.
Grilled pigeon is another dependable highlight, presented on the bone alongside autumn mushrooms and sage under a savory brown butter reduction.
Save room for the after-dinner cheese course. A rolling cart contains dozens of standout selections, some sourced as closely as a neighboring farm with others shipped from as far away as New Zealand.
The restaurant doesn’t serve lunch, but overnight guests are treated to a continental breakfast featuring charcuterie and freshly baked pastries.
The hotel holds 19 rooms in total, most of which have their own fireplace, along with seaside views, balconies and rafter beamed-ceilings — a relic of the property’s rustic heritage. Rates start at 2,195 kroner per night ($335)
Explore the adjacent harbor during the daytime hours and treat yourself to lunch at Havengrillen Falsled. The A-framed eatery specializes in the most pedestrian of Nordic delicacies: a perfectly grilled sausage between buns. Because in Denmark, under the right light, even a hot dog hut can double as a culinary castle.