One of the things I found in traveling through the Nordic countries is that the local chefs have a profound respect for their ingredients. When waiters bring dishes tableside, they go over in detail every ingredient no matter how mundane. It feels downright Japanese at times, yet Japanese cooks seem more willing to accept the idea that a whole can be greater than the components. My feeling is that this concept is lost on Relae, a non-interactive temple of ingredient worship.
A statement like this is marginally unfair to make about the restaurant Relae, one of the worlds 50 best restaurants in 2017 according to the Michelin guide. Relae is tasting menu only and relatively easy to get a reservation, composed around the concept of experimentation through successive tastings. It’s supposed to be progressive; about trying new combinations and concepts. It’s also not cheap (although it does seem that prices have come down since my visit, albeit only slightly). I was interested in getting the cookbook, as I’ve seen it on countless chef’s shelves, then I saw the price.
I repeatedly found that the Michelin system is far too generous in Sweden and Denmark. Copenhagen has 15 restaurants with Michelin stars, for a city with a metropolitan population of just over half a million. Tokyo has 227 restaurants with one or more stars; though more people by the millions – is this a fair comparison? Is the Michelin system kind of nonsense/biased/skewed? Arguments can be made in either direction, yet I couldn’t help wondering why I Relae is Michelin star level establishment, whereas I never felt that way about even a $9 Michelin meal in Tokyo.
The silverware and menu sliding out of the table was a cute-ish touch, but I felt put off. Can’t you hand me the menu or change my silverware given the amount of money it costs to dine here? Marking and setting the table elegantly is one of my favorite parts of fine dining. Apparently, the awkward sliding of a drawer into your stomach throughout the meal was the answer to my question.
Luckily the only thing affordable to drink was an off-tasting, not cold enough Pét-Nat that rested on the table without anyone noticing. It succeeded in not pairing well with any of the dishes until it reached an undrinkable room temperature and lost all effervescence.
Looking around the dining room I noticed very few people engaged nor deeply interested in the meal. Lots of international guests checking their phones and staring off into space. Our immediate neighbors were from Washington D.C and seemed highly unimpressed.
After the amuse bouche was brought out, it was explained in detail with pinky finger pointing by our inert waiter. Sporting some interesting flavors and deft positioning of the little micro leaves. The taste was not exciting nor was the plating, and this was unfortunately to be the theme. Chilled leaves wasn’t the first thing I wanted to try on a rainy night in Copenhagen.
Next, a slice of bread was brought out, that for me was the highlight of the meal. It was explained how special the process to make the bread is, and where the grain comes from. The olive oil was grassy and pleasant. Just one slice for two people, no more offered. I immediately removed a point mentally, thinking about the temples of gastronomy in NYC and elsewhere, featuring full on bread service.
The next two courses were underwhelming; sliced al dente potatoes and intricately placed cured salmon in a warm liquid. My descriptions are vague because the detail given wasn’t all that exciting or extensive. The main course was a locally raised heritage breed pork shoulder, barely cooked served alongside some miserable looking roasted fennel heart. At this point, I was almost ready to throw in the towel. The meat was not tender nor adequately salted but the plate ware was elegant and handmade.
To quote blogger Samphireandsalsify “we found the same problem here as we did with the others – all the hard work and effort that goes into each dish, resulted in a plate that doesn’t taste very good. ” My thoughts precisely.
The next dish just felt uninventive, a confit of that same pork with a pickled seaweed in edible cups. It’s always unfortunate when you are in the middle of a tasting menu and you feel trapped in a sequence you don’t want to continue.
Even though we were two diners, only one of the experimental taco dishes was delivered to the table. By this time, I could tell that the waiters were as bored as we were, and we got barely any explanation. This was the cheese course and the flavor was actually good; I liked the texture of the ‘tortilla’ and the scant dusting of salt. Sadly I was put off that we couldn’t get two of these, as we were two diners overpaying for a meal.
Dessert was a citrus granita on a mild custard in a shallow bowl. It was neither bad nor good, simply textural. It seems obvious to me that this dish should’ve come earlier on in the sequence as a palate cleanser rather than at the end where it just served to fill us up. I liked the color but it was just so plain, a reflection of the experience and the meal.
The kitchen at Relae was small; the minimalism in the dishes, service, and experience combined with the high price makes one wonder why they have a Michelin star. Seems more like a test kitchen with a flair for mute flavors and high prices.