Nordic food for thought

Undated Handout Photo of Wassim Hallal. See PA Feature TRAVEL Scandinavia. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Jesper Rais. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Scandinavia.
Undated Handout Photo of Wassim Hallal. See PA Feature TRAVEL Scandinavia. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Jesper Rais. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Scandinavia.

For the guy that’s the equivalent of Gordon Ramsay in the Danish version of Hell’s Kitchen, chef Wassim Hallal seems a surprisingly agreeable chap.

He arrives at his new deli, sporting a flat cap and the broadest of grins, and welcomes us, wholeheartedly, to Denmark.

Maybe my delight in his smorrebrod (Danish open sandwiches) has something to do with this, but even when my foodie companion, Bill, begins drilling him on sarnie specifics (‘Is there onion in the remoulade?’ ‘How, exactly, do you make the chicken skin so crispy?’) he’s still patient and polite. Bill and I are on a whistle-stop Scandi food tour. We’ve got three days to visit three cities in three countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

“Scandinavia is more than meatballs, pickled herring and Carlsberg,” Bill says, defensively. He’s already a bit of a fan.

We meet Hallal in Aarhus, on the country’s east coast. His deli, F-Hoj, has a classy cosiness. Our open sandwiches are heaped with toppings: smoked salmon with avocado puree, smoked cheese and fresh horseradish; potato and pear with mustard and honey; and eggs and crayfish with grapes and salsify.

“I think texture is as important as taste,” Hallal tells us. “I aim for crispy, creamy, salty and sweet, all in one mouthful.”

He also runs the city’s upmarket Restaurant Frederikshoj.

”Focusing on fresh, seasonal produce is at the heart of New Nordic Cuisine. It’s led to a renaissance of Scandinavian classics, including smorrebrod, which is now being seen, and served, in a new light.

Using organic, regional ingredients is also the aim of Nordisk Spisehus, where Bill and I have dinner. The restaurant serves signature dishes from Michelin-starred establishments.

“We get the thumbs up before we copy their menus,” a waitress reassures me.

The restaurant manager and sommelier, Ditte Susgaard, clarifies: “We don’t just copy; we try to turn every dish into a tribute to the chef who created it.”

I find the concept a little bewildering (shouldn’t a restaurant be defined by its own menu?) but it seems chef David Johansen, from Copenhagen’s one-starred Kokkeriet, is pleased. Nordisk serves his pigeon breast with truffle.

Our eight-course dinner (DKK 899; £90) with wine pairing (DKK 749; £75) features dishes from five Copenhagen restaurants.

Among them is Clou’s salt and sugar cured scallop, topped with tiny discs of crispy rye bread and dried seaweed, and Kadeau’s squid in shrimp emulsion - the creaminess of the shrimp contrasting with a crunchy, almost palate-cleansing swede salad.

Each time, Susgaard arrives quietly at our table to present the wines.

For roasted turbot (Nordisk’s own dish), she pours an oaked chardonnay. Its ripe, mineral taste works well with the intense lobster jelly. For beef tartar, it’s the light berry taste of an elegant Baden wine.

Pudding is Nordisk’s own: salty hazelnut ice cream with crystallized white chocolate. It’s outrageously rich and insanely indulgent.

“How many calories are here?” I ask. “Too many,” the waitress replies.

The next morning Bill and I catch a ferry to Sweden’s west coast city of Gothenburg and we’re heading to its “Fish Church”. It’s actually a 19th century fish market in a building inspired by Norway’s wooden stave churches that were built without pillars.

The “aisle” is laden with fresh lobster, shrimp and salmon. But it’s the variety of pickled herring that catches my eye. Choices include oregano and pink peppercorn, carrot and juniper and onion and bay leaves.

On a mezzanine at the far end of the market is Gabriel, where we’re having lunch. It’s run by chef Johan Malm, who won the World Oyster Opening Championships in 2010.

We eat sumptuously; fresh oysters from Grebbestad (two hours north of Gothenburg), the thickest of fish soups with sweet prawns and fish that’s almost al dente, and grilled plaice with browned butter and potatoes.

“I kept it simple,” Malm says, “to let the quality of the ingredients shine through.”

It’s quality again at the city’s new Koka restaurant, the latest venture from Michelin-starred chef Bjorn Persson.

For 14 years he ran the multi-award winning Kock & Vin. Then, listening to customers’ requests for more affordable fine dining, he closed it down and opened Koka in the same premises, winning a best restaurant in Sweden award last year.

Our five course dinner (SEK 680; £54) with wine pairing (SEK 600; £48) includes Swedish crab on a mound of leek puree, and pork belly with Brussels sprouts and grated walnut.

The pork is served with a 2005 San Guglielmo Magnum. Bill beams - it’s what he calls a “classy wine”. Its acidity cuts through the fat of the pork and there’s a hint of spice and black cherries.

By the time we reach Tromso, in North Norway, we’re glad of a “lighter” supper. We have “just three” courses from the a la carte menu at Fiskekompaniet, a restaurant overlooking the harbour, but then get carried away with the wine.

I enjoy ravioli filled with scallops served in a blue mussel sauce (NOK 215, £18), steamed salted cod with bacon, carrots and mushrooms (NOK 325, £27), and an apple doughnut (NOK 145, £12). But it’s the wine that excels: Macon-Villages 2014 (NOK 462, £40) with our starter, Madeira Boal 1984 (NOK 127, £11 a glass) with our pudding, but it’s the Meursault 1er cru Genevrieres 2011 (NOK 705; £60) that we can’t stop raving about.