Having read Christian Puglisi’s “A Book of Ideas”, I fast-tracked Relae to the top of my restaurants in Copenhagen to try and on my third visit to the city went for lunch. Compared with all the glossy covered, large format, restaurant chef cookery books, Relae (the book) stands out as refreshingly different. And the presentation of the book reflects the raison d’etre behind Relae the restaurant. The opening of the book, about how Christian Puglisi moved from Noma to finding his own voice and launching his own restaurant, is written in a captivatingly casual and honest manner that is very endearing. The book does not open like a cookery book by a great chef but it reads more like a “how to” guide to starting your own business and seemingly despite the odds, making it hugely successful.
Going to eat at Relae was my first excursion from the smart quarter of Copenhagen but whilst Norrebro district, where the restaurant is located, was once noted for its drug deals, the feel of the place now is bohemian, relaxed and welcoming. Jaegersborggade has some genuine boutique shops. For mugs like you have never seen or felt before (well, I hadn’t…) go to Inge-vincents. How refreshing to buy things that are made in-situ and to even watch them being made.
Relae offer two tasting menus; five or ten courses. The food is about flavour and the focus is “simplicity with quality” to quote the manifest of the restaurant. I don’t want to write much about the food or wine specifics because, like all really good restaurants, Relae is an experience that never really translates onto the page through words. Besides, the dining experience is always modifed by what you bring to it and that includes your expectations and mood at the moment.
What I would venture to say though is that, the style of the place, its service and food and wines may not appeal to those who take comfort in starched white table clothes, a barouque setting and a sense of self-importance. Relae from its inception, to quote Christian Puglisi, was “anti-fine dining”. I found the restaurant to be smaller than I’d imagined and far more casual, or at least, seemingly so. The welcome was refreshingly natural. I announced in Danish that we had a reservation and the chap who met us at the door, glanced at his bookings screen and then welcomed my partner (who’d booked by e-mail) by her first name and then laughed as if we were friends who had booked under an assumed name and had tried and failed to surprise him. Before we knew it we were sat with a glass of sparkling wine and as each member of the staff team came to our table, we were made to feel that we’d had the good fortune to be part of a really friendly gathering that just happened to focused around organic and mostly vegetarian cooking. The throw way lines like “Yeah, this cheese we make on our farm”, just served to underline that the attention to quality here is paramount but there’s no song-and-dance about it.
To give you a snap-shot of the food; of the ten courses we ate, only one had meat and I thought it the least interesting of the meal. One dish was a tiny bag of carrots with a dip made from egg yolk that had been cured for two weeks then dehydrated and then grated onto a hollandaise. The menu started with a green strawberry tart and ended with a strawberry and sage mille-feuille. If I was trying to keep a Michelin star I might worry about using strawberry twice. I don’t think Relae have worries like that though. With the restaurant website having just one page but their sustainability report running to twenty pages, I think its pretty evident where their focus is.
When you enter Relae you sort-of go through the kitchen to go to the dining area, you choose your own cutlery for each course and you pour your own wine. Relae do things their way and whilst it may seem casual, the service is as good as it gets and refreshingly natural. The food tastes very natural too: ingredients generally look like what they are and taste like what they should taste like when they are growing. Emphasis on the plate is about organic produce tasting good. Presentation and decoration are paired back. There is a very happy atmosphere here. Whilst some restaurants feel like food shrines, the atmosphere at Relae is closer to a well organised house party.