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Food & Travel

Traditional Danish dishes regain their popularity

Mikkel Thourp, chef-owner of Turesen in Copenhagen, and waitress Birgitte Moller Staal. Mikkel Thourp, chef-owner of Turesen in Copenhagen, and waitress Birgitte Moller Staal. (Steven S. Ross)
By Rachel Ellner
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2009

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COPENHAGEN - You know you're in Denmark when the 20-item lunch menu at a small, offbeat eatery offers three herring entrees and mentions several herring side dishes. There's marinated herring in dill, herring in mustard-cream sauce, and herring hotted up with curry and chopped onions. If each of them sounds tempting, try the dish that combines all three. There are also fish balls (no herring involved), plaice, salmon, and shrimp.

"Danish lunch, it's mainly about fish and meat and schnapps and beer," says Mikkel Thourp, 34, the chef and owner of Restaurant Turesen. Ten years ago he turned a small disco into a bar and lunch spot.

Danish food - salted, marinated, smoked, and otherwise preserved - makes you think about the provisions that might have been carried aboard a Norse longship. Perfect for that raid on the English coast. The same cuisine has survived into the age of modern refrigeration.

Over the last two decades, as other fare became popular in this country, Danish food was considered unimaginative, relegated to landmark pubs and holiday tables. Today, traditional dishes are being celebrated again.

Turesen is in the ground floor of a small residential building, several doors away from the main drag, on Turesensgade, a side street a block from Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. The Buddha in the window is a tip-off to the eclectic interior, which includes Danish country folk art, old paintings, and fresh flowers. Every table has different artwork around it and a different quality of light. "It just came about," says Thourp, as he points to chairs and statues he picked up at auctions.

In a city known for its design, small restaurants tend to look like bars. Here the atmosphere is more like a personal parlor filled with items collected over a lifetime. As with many Danish restaurants, the bar is in the front by the windows. The chandeliers give the space a sense of prominence. Good design is found in items like the coffeepot, sugar bowl, and creamer. Prices at Turesen are in line with what Americans would spend at home. Thourp says he barely advertises, depending instead on word of mouth.

Locals find him. "There's this romantic feeling about eating food as only your grandmother could cook it," says Michael Boilesen, 41, a Copenhagen tour guide. "We're the generation that grew up on fast food. We were losing our cooking skills and forgetting the traditional recipes. Everyone from my generation can throw something into a wok but can you make a Danish pork roast and cook the skin crispy?"

Alas, that's the dish everyone loves. "I like it when made well and with not too much fat," says Iben Melbye, a novelist. At Restaurant Turesen, Melbye lunches with a friend. Her beef breast with pickles and grated horseradish is also traditional.

The Christmas feast, which features the meaty dishes of the cuisine, is Boilesen's favorite Turesen meal. "Warm liver pate, duck and roast pork with caramelized potatoes, warm red cabbage and gravy with ris a l'amande, a porridge of rice, whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds served with warm cherry sauce. It couldn't be more traditionally Danish," he says.

As befits Denmark's reputation as "the dairy queen of Europe," there's cream and butter in just about every vegetable, fish, and meat recipe, including cold dishes. But it has lightened up some. "The Danish kitchen for older Danes, with bacon and gravy, was heavier," says Melbye.

Birgitte Moller Staal, Turesen's only waitress, sums it up. "This food makes people feel secure." she says.

Restaurant Turesen, 6 Turesen St., Copenhagen. 011-45-3315-0536. www.nansensgaden.dk/turesen