Second-rate smørrebrød has long been the dirty secret of Danish cuisine. The likes of Noma and Geranium may have put the country on the map. But when it came to the national dish, too many restaurants make the open-faced sandwich with bare-faced cheek. To please diners – who mistook quantity for quality – restaurants piled plates with poor-quality ingredients. Think: frozen fish, shop-bought toppings, and herrings cured with enzymes. Worse still, many chefs looked down on the role of the smørrebrødsjomfru (“the smørrebrød virgin”). Making smørrebrød was, quite literally, a woman’s job – and not one a “serious” chef should aspire to.
Thankfully today you can’t move for all the restaurants (in Copenhagen, at least) using fresh, organic, locally-sourced and in-season ingredients, and which prepare smørrebrød with a focus on quality and presentation, not portion size.
The revolution began a decade ago, when Adam Aamann launched his eponymous restaurant. It won rave reviews and paved the way for the likes of Almanak, Øl & Brød – part of the Mikkeller brewing empire – and Møller Snaps and Smørrebrød, which opened near Nyhavn last year and features improbably modern toppings such as Thai green curried herring.
This month sees the launch of Restaurant Palaegade, a stone’s throw from Kongens Nytorv. It’ll serve smørrebrød for lunch and traditional Danish dishes in the evening. Like its stylish predecessors, it eschews the wood-panelled stuffiness of the traditional smørrebrød restaurant and instead favours bright, clean, contemporary design.
Another sign of the times: Palaegade is a collaboration between the Michelin-starred restaurant Formel B and several former employees of smørrebrød specialist Schønnemann. Forget kitchen snobbery: Formel B’s chefs will work alongside the smørrebrød chefs Betina Simonsen Madsen and Karina Pedersen. Together they will come up with dishes, using the same ingredients in both the smørrebrød and evening dishes, and changing the menu three to four times a year to reflect the seasons.
“Smørrebrød is the most seasonal cuisine, if you do it properly,” says co-owner Rasmus Amdi Larsen. “And it’s indigenous to the Nordic region. It’s from here, it belongs here.”
Doing it properly means refusing to compromise on the ingredients. For too long, Larsen says, too many restaurants have served herring cured in enzymes – not the old-fashioned way, in barrels.
“You can tell right away,” he says. “Theirs are soft and disgusting, with a bad flavour. When you eat the old-fashioned ones, you can taste the difference.”
Of course, the focus on quality ingredients begins with the bedrock of smørrebrød – the rye bread. At Palaegade, the bread will be baked in-house every day.
Above all, Copenhagen’s latest smørrebrød restaurant is an opportunity to recognise the skill, artistry and pedigree of the kitchen’s smørrebrød chefs. Madsen and Pedersen met at culinary college years ago and enjoyed stints at a number of top establishments, including Aamanns and Hotel d’Angleterre, before teaming up at Schønnemann.
Together they’ve witnessed the sea change in smørrebrød – away from the limelight they played no small part in its resurrection. Still, with tourist traps fobbing off diners with second-rate smørrebrød, their work isn’t done.
“We should be very proud of our heritage,” says Madsen. “But we can do much better.” M