All about Aarhus

Denmark's second city is coming out of its shell with a restaurant scene to rival the capital. We run down the best the city's food scene has to offer

Legend has it that when the city of Århus decided to refresh its brand, marketing men told the city elders to lose the old-fashioned Å and replace it with a tourist-friendly, Google-searchable double A. When developers subsequently had to name a new island built in the harbour, a different group of marketing men recommended calling it Aarhus Ø. The Danish spelling, they argued, would evoke old-world charm and help bring in the tourist kroner.

Fortunately, the food scene in Denmark’s second city seems impervious to the silver-tongued charms of marketing gurus. Instead, Aarhus is now home to a handful of trailblazing chefs, producers and entrepreneurs who are helping to reshape the city’s culinary identity.

Their timing is perfect. Next year Aarhus will be a European Capital of Culture, with the wider area designated a European Region of Gastronomy. For years, Aarhus has played second fiddle to Copenhagen and watched as the Danish capital shed its reputation as a gastronomic wasteland to become a world-class dining destination. But now, Aarhus is starting to win plaudits of its own.

Wassim Hallal, head chef at Frederikshøj. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

Wassim Hallal, head chef at Frederikshøj. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

Master of the basics
Much of the credit goes to Wassim Hallal, who in 2015 was one of the first Danish chefs outside Copenhagen to win a Michelin star. His flagship restaurant, Frederikshøj, remains a stellar dining destination and is a standout spot for special occasions. Plan ahead though. Reservations are snapped up months in advance – don’t even consider getting a walk-in.

Instead, head to Hallal’s deli in central Aarhus, F-Høj, which does an upmarket take on smørrebrød. Hallal, who was born in Lebanon but came to Denmark when he was four, always said he would serve smørrebrød one day.

“We have such good Danish food but so many ruin it,” he says. “I want to do it well, from the bottom up.”

Today at F-Høj, that means exquisite creations such as poached egg with truffle, dill and shrimps on crispy rye bread.

Few foodies were surprised when Frederikshøj won its first Michelin star in 2015. Its inclusion in the much-ballyhooed guide was long overdue, its absence a reflection of Michelin’s failure to venture beyond Copenhagen. More interesting, though, was the inclusion of Substans, described by Owners Louise and René Mammen as a “casual gourmet bistro” – and with good reason. The cookery is outstanding, the décor uncluttered, the vibe relaxed.

Rene Mammen, owner of Substans. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

Rene Mammen, owner of Substans. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

Taste and craftsmanship are the watchwords at Substans, where Mammen uses organic ingredients from local farmers and producers. Recent highlights included: scallop with pickled beach herbs, fermented celeriac and caramelized yoghurt; grilled pork with carrots, herb butter and buttermilk; and caramelized apple with thyme ice cream, ripe gooseberry and elderflower. A three-course menu is available, making Substans exceptionally good value.

Quality ingredients
Hallal and Mammen may have helped to put Aarhus on the culinary map, yet the most important person on the scene today isn’t a chef, but a 27-year-old farmer named Philip Dam Hansen. He runs Troldgården, a small organic farm south of Aarhus, which supplies at least a dozen of the region’s restaurants. Dam believes there’s a “spark of organic” in everyone—and that it’s up to food producers to ignite it. At Troldgården, he grows a range of fruit and vegetables, including plums, carrots, apples and gooseberries, and rears animals such as black-and-white spotted pigs, Jersey cattle and sheep.

Animal welfare and sustainability are Dam’s watchwords. But he also wants to shorten the value chain and reduce the gap between the farm and the fork. The result is Sårt, one of Aarhus’s best new restaurants and Dam’s collaboration with a trio of young chefs. They make as much as they can from scratch, from sausage and charcuterie to pasta and bread. In keeping with the vibe – Fleetwood Mac on the playlist, cartoons of Tom Waits and Courtney Love on the wall – the cooking is casual and the plates shared. Think: rough-and-tumble bowls of pasta, like pork ravioli with cream and fennel; or octopus marinated with cauliflower and roasted cashew nuts.

Hip and affordable
Dam’s farm supplies two other newcomers to Aarhus’s burgeoning restaurant scene. One is Domestic, an industrial-cool spot in the city’s Latin Quarter with a down-tempo vibe, a yen for fermentation (every nook and cranny contains a jar of pickled roots or shoots), and a knack for turning out well-executed seasonal dishes, such as cod with cabbage and buttermilk, or veal with corn and chanterelle mushrooms.

A serving from Domestic. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

A serving from Domestic. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

The other is Hærværk (its name means vandalism). The cooking is excellent here, too. Recent highlights included smoked blue mussels with asparagus potatoes and garlic cream; 150-day dry-aged rib-eye; and caramel with red sorrel and bay leaf.

“We needed a place where we could serve soul food,”says Michael Christensen, its 28-year-old manager.

Hærværk changes its menu daily depending on what’s in season and available. Head chef Rune Lund Sørensen has apparently come up with more than a thousand different dishes since Hærværk opened its doors two summers ago. The vast majority of ingredients come from within 65km of the kitchen — including Troldgården, of course. In keeping with the eclectic menu, the drinks list ranges from local cider to funky orange wine to Danish reds.

The Hærværk team. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

The Hærværk team. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

There are two other leading indicators of Aarhus’s growing reputation as a must-visit dining destination. One is the Landmad, a grocery shop that recently opened in the Latin Quarter. It specialises in vegetables, meat, cheese, beer and wine produced by local farmers and food producers from across Denmark — many of whom regularly stop by to talk about their products.

Maria, the owner of Landmad. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

Maria, the owner of Landmad. Photo: Benjamin Lund Nielsen

The other is the Aarhus Street Food market, which opened in a former car park in the city centre in August. Visitors from Copenhagen may be struck by its resemblance to their own street food market, right down to the repurposed shipping containers and the presence of Papirøen mainstays such as Duck It, with their pulled duck burgers and duck fat French fries. In fact, the only thing missing from Aarhus Street Food is the waterside location. Of course, if you’re after harbour views, head to Aarhus Ø — if you can find it on Google Maps, that is. M

Features, Culture

By James Clasper

Contributing editor. @jamesclasper

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