So there we were, two English, two Danes, one American, one Irishman standing outside Alouette, a restaurant with a French name in a derelict industrial site in a dodgy area of Copenhagen (if Copenhagen has a dodgy area).
The address was Sturlasgade 14P, 1.2300 Copenhagen S. That meant nothing to me or my daughter, Lois, (the two English) although the taxi driver couldn’t get away from the place fast enough. Can’t say I blamed him. Sturlasgade 14P, 1.2300 Copenhagen S seemed more of a place to go with a personal bodyguard than a sensible daughter.
Mind you, that’s the way I used to feel about Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Hackney,Spitalfields and Hoxton until they were colonised with the likes of Cornerstone, Bratt, Lyles, Smoking Goat, Pidgin, Brawn and the Clove Club. In other words, before they became super cool or hip or awesome or whatever the current word is for fashionable and gentrified. Perhaps Alouette is the first stage in the urban renewal of Sturlasgade 14P, 1.2300 Copenhagen S.
I was sort of reassured by the arrival of the couple responsible for booking the dinner, Anders Schonnemann, ace photographer, a man who knows a bit about food and wine, having snapped many of the world’s finest chefs, and his wife, Hanna, who has, if anything, an even more discerning palate (the two Danes).
Two other figures muffled in puffer jackets against the cold, (the American and the Irishman, as it turned out), stepped out of the shadows and welcomed us, and directed us to a garishly graffitied industrial lift, the interior of which was even more eclectically decorated than the outside. I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t reek of urine and there was no crunch of used syringes beneath the feet.
When we got out, the corridor wasn’t much better. The zest of the murals suggested the den of a drug baron or of a heavy metal hangout at very least. Instead we were ushered into a room of sleek and natural beauty, and the puffer jacketed figures who had been our guides through the ornamental Hades, turned out to be Nick Curtin, chef/proprietor and Darragh, maitre d’hotel and sommelier.
Now, this could have felt like tiresome posturing, over-declarations of contemporary restaurant zeitgeist had a) the food not been so good; b) the service not been so adept and charming; and c) the sense of fun not been so palpable. Balancing gastronomic brilliance and hospitable good humour is pretty tricky to pull off. But when you have praised a sauce highly (‘incisive, balanced, silky, elegant, jolly good) only to be handed a bottle of the stuff with your name on the label, how would you feel? Pretty chirpy, I dare say. Or been handed a decanter filled with another sauce when you’d praised that, too (‘a layered, rolling, rollicking, sumptuous, silken brocade of a sauce’). And, now I come to remember, I was also given a coffee mug of a third sauce as light as thistledown when I’d gone to town on that, too.
While these sauces were remarkable in themselves, they were selfless in the way they floated over or under or around the dishes they adorned. Alouette doesn’t publish menus on line because the dishes change by the day and even by the meal. But the framework remains constant – five courses, plus nibbles to start and fluffy brioche bread with apple bacon butter to fill in the gaps. Give the restaurant warning, and there’ll be a vegetarian and even vegan menus if that’s what you fancy.
Alouette’s sauces may be the fancy embroidery, but each dish is anchored by a superlative seasonal ingredient, in our case: 1) squid; 2) king crab; 3) monkfish; 4) old Danish dairy cow; 5) fig – each from a trusted Danish supplier.
‘Hegenshot eggs, king crab, Rossini caviar’ read the menu, brief to the point of gnomic. The reality was a steamed custard of the most exquisite delicacy with a faint current of dashi running through it. Upon this eggy hummock had fallen a white drift of flakes of sweet king crab claw meat heightened by a whisper of acrid bitterness as if the claw had been grilled over wood. A handsome dollop off glossy black caviar rested louchely on top, a dash of colour as well as of fishy seasoning. And over and around this supremely elegant structure was an etherial sauce of what Nick Curtin called tomato dashi – tomato water infused with dulse and bound with butter. Whoopdidoop or what?
And here’s another consideration. It seems to me that restaurants with ambitions tend to design dishes for Instagram dazzle rather than edible excellence these days. The dishes at Alouette are handsome enough, very handsome, in fact, but the seduction of tastebuds is never sacrificed to visual éclat. The point of each dish is how it eats, not how it looks. And they eat very well indeed.
I could wax eloquent about each dish, but I won’t. It seems like gloating. Suffice to say that the dinner was a masterly exhibition of intelligence, craft and pleasure. There wasn’t a single element of any dish that prompted a question as to why or what its was doing, any more than you would question a detail on a Chippendale masterpiece.
And so we ate and laughed and laughed and ate, while Nick and Darragh and their team were alert to our pleasure. At one point Lois pottered off for a fag break outside. Both Nick and Darragh kept her company and gave her a can of something called Smoke Beer to tide her over, turning an abominable proclivity into a celebration of hospitality, and brought her back to the table hiccuping with delight (not, she explained, with drink). We drank no ‘natural’ wines, so fashionable on Scandinavian wine lists these days(well, perhaps one), because Anders is as antipathetic to them as I am. Instead we worked our way through a succession of conventional bottles of quality equal to that of each dish. I can’t remember what they were because I drank many of them. Not too many, just many.
Of course there’s a price to pay for all this, roughly £837 for four of us; or £209 a head. For some this will seem wild and wicked extravagance, but my feeling that days of such pleasure, and happiness are not so frequent in this life that you really put a price on it when one comes your way.
Sturlasgade 14P, 1.2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark
Tel:+ 45 3167 6606