More than a decade af­ter Noma’s open­ing, Copen­hagen is still the cap­i­tal of mind-blow­ing culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ences. But have restau­rants that aim to pro­voke gone too far?

Esquire (USA) - - The Big Bite - By Jeff Gor­dinier

I have vis­ited thou­sands of restau­rants in my life­time, but over the sum­mer I got an early peek at the strangest one I’ve ever seen. This happened in Copen­hagen. The Dan­ish city has been a vor­tex of culi­nary in­no­va­tion for about 15 years now, thanks to the rip­ple ef­fect of chef René Redzepi’s Noma. But noth­ing could have pre­pared me for Al­chemist.

I met 28-year-old chef Rasmus Munk out­side what ap­peared to be a ware­house. We stepped in­side and be­held a Roy Licht­en­stein–style tableau of New York City street scenes from graf­fiti artist Lady Aiko. Then

we moved into a wine cel­lar that looked like some­thing out of The Ma­trix—8,000 bot­tles stacked three sto­ries high in glass tow­ers with trans­par­ent glass floors. Then we am­bled into what re­sem­bled the in­te­rior of an ob­ser­va­tory. Din­ers at Al­chemist sit in dark­ness, at places il­lu­mi­nated by tiny lamps, and gaze upon a domed vista of a sky filled with stars. Munk told me that when the dome was com­pleted, he in­structed the de­signer to go back to the draw­ing board be­cause he felt that his panorama of the aurora bo­re­alis and float­ing jel­ly­fish was slightly askew.

That must’ve been an ex­pen­sive redo, but, hey, erect­ing Al­chemist is said to have cost around $15 mil­lion any­way, and a meal with wine will set you back $600 (more if you want a bot­tle of Pétrus). There are performers to pay—not just servers but also trained thes­pi­ans who in­ter­act with you, à la mari­achis and mimes—and dishes that force you to con­front the is­sues of the day, from cli­mate change to racism to avarice to pol­lu­tion to African water short­ages to oceanic de­bris. There is a course that’s meant to mimic a clot of plas­tic pol­lut­ing the sea. There is also a lamb brain, crim­son from cherry juice, sliced by your side. That’s meant to shock you with the re­al­ity of how much food goes to waste. Munk calls that one “Think Out­side the Box.”

Toto, we’re not in Noma any­more.

No need to slap a cat­e­gory on all of this. Munk has al­ready done so. He calls it “holis­tic cui­sine.” “In the same way as the an­cient al­chemists sought to fuse phi­los­o­phy, nat­u­ral sci­ence, religion and the arts to cre­ate a new un­der­stand­ing of the world or­der, the aim of Holis­tic Cui­sine is to re­de­fine and broaden our un­der­stand­ing of the con­cept of din­ing,” the Al­chemist site tells you. (The an­cient al­chemists were con men, but what­ever.)

Look, I like to think of my­self as an ally of risk-tak­ers and en­velope­push­ers, and it would be all too easy to mock an enterprise that ap­pears to edge per­ilously close to the restau­rant in Al­ways Be My Maybe, the one at which Keanu Reeves, in headphones, sheds tears for the an­i­mal that has died so that he can be fed. But I’d be ly­ing if I told you that I want to eat at Al­chemist. I care deeply about cli­mate change, yet I don’t ne­c­es­sar­ily go to a restau­rant to worry about it even more. I go to a restau­rant to get away from the aw­ful news for a few hours.

That’s an an­ti­quated per­spec­tive, though. We are experienci­ng a surge of restau­rants that give pay­ing cus­tomers the opportunit­y to ex­per­i­ment with their own dis­com­fort— es­pe­cially (iron­i­cally) at the high end. In Hous­ton, at In­digo, chef Jonny Rhodes in­vites you to con­tem­plate, via tast­ing menu, the odi­ous his­tory of slav­ery, racial op­pres­sion, and mass in­car­cer­a­tion; in Los An­ge­les, at Ves­per­tine, chef Jor­dan Kahn ush­ers you into a ver­i­ta­ble space­ship, where ev­ery­thing from gelati­nous bites to re­peated loops of mu­sic is meant to foster as much dis­ori­en­ta­tion as plea­sure.

Does this rep­re­sent the fu­ture of fine din­ing, or is it a de­cline-of-the-Ro­man-Empire sign of its im­mi­nent demise? I will only say that I spied a dif­fer­ent vi­sion of restau­rant bliss right down the street from Al­chemist in the once-aban­doned Ref­shaleøen area of Copen­hagen. This was a place called La Banchina. It’s a shack over­look­ing the har­bor where you can or­der some an­chovies and a glass of wine. There’s swim­ming in the sum­mer, a sauna in the win­ter.

You won’t think much about the sorry state of the planet at La Banchina, but you will come away feel­ing bet­ter. And that, my friends, is its own form of alchemy.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON FOIE FOAM At Copen­hagen’s Al­chemist, dishes like “Food for Thought” (foie gras topped with aer­ated foie gras foam) are meant to make you, uh, think. It’s made from the liv­ers of geese that haven’t been force-fed.

1 2 3 4 5 6 1. Slurp 2. Apollo Bar & Kan­tine 3. IIuka 4. Al­chemist 5. La Banchina 6. Noma

HAVE A THINK This is lamb brain. The red col­oration comes from cherry juice. It’s sliced ta­ble­side at Al­chemist.

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