When the Guardian assessed the options for vegetarian travellers three years ago, Denmark scored poorly. “Any bustling city with a diverse population, cultural leanings and a university or two can generally be relied upon to offer a few exclusively vegetarian cafes, but often the food on offer is disappointingly divorced from the national cuisine,” the paper lamented. “Visitors to Denmark tend to rely on curry houses and Turkish kebab shops that offer falafels, tabbouleh and salad-filled pittas.”
Little has changed. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” the American food writer Michael Pollan once advised. Good luck with that in Denmark, where it’s still a challenge finding restaurants that cater for vegetarians, especially at the top end of the market. True, Copenhagen has plenty of cafés serving soups, salads and aubergine burgers. But fancier options have long been thin on the ground.
Until now. In the face of Denmark’s fetishisation of flesh, restaurants are increasingly unafraid of putting vegetables front and centre. A devotion to local, seasonal produce – the hallmarks of new Nordic cuisine – and the popularity of plant-based diets means vegetarians are no longer restricted to bland nut roasts.
Some tips: if you’re planning a night out in Copenhagen and have vegetarians in your party, consider Spisehuset. It’s in the meatpacking district – but don’t let that deter you. The kitchen does wonderful things with greens (specify your preference, though). Or head to Manfreds, which describes itself as “probably the world’s only veggie-focused restaurant famous for its raw meat” (their tartare is indeed excellent, if you’re into that sort of thing). A more casual option is The Corner at 108, whose two evening dishes always include a vegetarian option. Then there’s 108’s big brother, Noma, which intends to be solely vegetarian for at least a season when it relocates next year.
Article continues below photo.
Still, there’s nothing quite like VeVe, the latest in a string of restaurants launched this autumn by chef Henrik Yde Andersen. In addition to his flagship restaurant Kiin Kiin – the Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in Nørrebro – his stable also includes Kiin Kiin Bao Bao, on Vesterbrogade, which specialises in Asian steamed buns.
VeVe stands for vegetarian world cuisine (vegetarisk verdenskøkken), which is perhaps a nod to Noma whose name is derived from ‘nordisk mad’, or Nordic food. Its website also says it specialises in lacto-vegetarian cuisine. In plain English: the kitchen eschews meat, fish and eggs. “We are very conscious that there isn’t much below the soil during the cold months,” it explains. “We take as much out of the world as we give back. We buy and use milk from a happy cow.”
You’ll find VeVe on Dampfærgevej, a pedal push north of Østerport station, in a beautiful old bread factory. The space is spare yet elegant. Think: soft grey furnishings, black pendant lights, stone floor, white-washed walls. Four pillars split the restaurant into two areas – a dining room and a lounge where you start your evening. And no sooner are you settled into grey armchairs than waiters start bringing snacks.
The first is a “slurp of the ocean” (en slurk af vesterhaven), which comes in two parts. Perched on some rocks is an ‘oyster’– a leaf bearing two pearls, one made with black olives, the other with coconut cream. A bewitching bite, it boasts a bivalve’s cool saline creaminess. Part two involves using a straw to suck up cold seaweed-infused broth below the rocks. Slurp of the ocean? It’s more like snogging a mermaid – and I’m fast won over.
Moments later and a waiter brings what appears to be a bowl of dirt and starts to shake it. Two mushrooms seem to sprout from the soil. They’re not fungi, but salted soya meringues, and made with chickpea water not egg whites.
Article continues below photo.
The five mains are equally playful. First up is a salad with Grandma’s dressing (“as if grandma came from Morocco”) a medley of romaine lettuce, mint, rose petals and pomegranate seeds, topped with a rubble of frozen sugar-and-lime sauce. It’s intended as an homage to the sickly-sweet dressed salads favoured by Danish grandmothers from here to Horsens. Delicious as it is, the dish is doubtless wittier if you’re a Dane, or married to one.
Far better is the salt-baked celeriac that a waiter delivers on a trolley and dissects in front of us. He slices it in half, removing the knobbly outer layer, and serving segments alongside a chilled slab of olive butter. It’s a triumph, and the occasion seems appropriately ceremonial, as if to say: “Winter may be coming, but so is salt-baked celeriac season.” Also dazzling is a three-part mushroom dish: First a truffle ball. Then a broth 24-hours in the making, into which you squirt a syringe of tofu that coils up like a noodle. And finally smoky “mushrooms on toast”. Rich and earthy, it’s a superlative dish – and a million miles from mushroom risotto.
Article continues below photo.
Pudding is excellent, too – a kind of frozen ‘flødebølle’ containing lemon cream and a compote made with a quartet of citrusy Asian herbs. Light and fresh, it’s a perfect palate-cleanser. But don’t end the meal yet: skip the cheese course and order the petit fours instead. They’re served in the lounge and are even more fun than the snacks, not only because you may be tipsy by now – cocktails and Champagne are served with the snacks, and a wine pairing is recommended – but also because they come camouflaged on the plate. A chocolate-coated grape hides in a bowl of rocks. A chocolate twirl blends into a scattering of cinnamon sticks. And is that a pistachio chew lurking in the Lego set?
VeVe isn’t perfect. One or two dishes miss the mark. Service could be smoother (dessert-wine glasses appear unsolicited, suggesting a complimentary drop, only to be withdrawn). But these are quibbles, which can be easily rectified. And the point is this: VeVe shows that vegetarian food doesn’t have to mean gloopy stews, stodgy risottos or a choice between curry and falafel. It demonstrates that a plant-based diet can be refined, elegant, inventive and fun. And it solves a problem for a great many people in Copenhagen – vegetarians who want to go out and celebrate, who want to dine somewhere special when their friends or family are in town, but who don’t want to be lumbered with the sole vegetarian option, if it exists at all.
Nor is this a restaurant that rams its ethos down your throat. No need. It makes its point on the plate, leaving diners to become its ambassadors. Indeed, with cooking this good, every vegetarian in town needs to know about VeVe – and to drag their carnivore chums along with them. Oh, and someone should tell The Guardian their story’s a little out of date, too. M
Dampfærgevej 7, 2100