Catcher in the Rye
Aamanns-Copenhagen brings New York the Danish staple we didn't know we needed
In the bathroom at Aamanns-Copenhagen (13 Laight Street, aamanns-copenhagen.com), among a medley of framed photos of Danish scenes both archival and new, is a page cut from a magazine. On a stark white background is a glamour shot of a loaf of dark-crusted, chocolate-brown bread, a slice carved suggestively off to reveal the moist crumb within. Above it, the loaded question: "Is America Ready for Rye Bread?"
It's easy to bristle at the Euro arrogance of the question, posed by a local magazine on the occasion of the opening of the first U.S. outpost of the Copenhagen café that is seeking to revive the ancient Danish art of smorrebrod, or open-faced sandwiches. True, for those with an insular New York image of the stuff, the malty, crumbly, nut-studded slices that are the foundation of Aamanns's menu can be a startling departure. But remove the question of nomenclature and it's undeniably delicious, transcending nationalism with one butter-slathered bite.
It can also be easy to bristle at the waitstaff's practiced upsell for us clueless Americans, who may be confused by the presence of foreign-language words on a menu. They are quick to recommend the "Taste of Copenhagen," a four-course sampler that carries the hapless eater along on a gentle wave of the restaurant's greatest hits. It's not, truth be told, a bad deal, and the items included are very good ones. But of the trio of herring, only the mildly mustardy, cream-sauce-topped and sweetly savory, tomato-based preparations are offered in the Taste, omitting the astonishingly delicious juniper- and allspiced-scented, lightly pickled version served in a mason jar with capers, fresh dill, and a wedge of soft-boiled egg. This is what Copenhagen tastes like, and it's disingenuous (not to mention a disservice to the diner) to pretend otherwise.
By day, the interior seems stark at first glance. The echoingly tall chamber is lined with white tile, blond wood tables and gray Arne Jacobsen-esque chairs set generously apart from one another, with a bar against one wall backed by sky-high minimalist shelving artfully arranged with jars of mystery pickles and white ceramics. But even at noon, fully wintry sun blazing through the enormous, iron-laced windows, tables are topped with softly flickering tealights. Coffee comes in a handle-less mug meant for cupping in both hands, and each sandwich's towering assemblage of beautifully composed elements is just a hair too high, leading to giggles and rounds of sandwich Jenga that leave no room for stiff pretence. The comfort offered here is a quiet kind, not the hit-you-over-the-head American sort that stands for butter and gingham aprons and a down-home twang. But it's all the more potent for it.
At night, this quiet coziness becomes a full-scale den, as the sun lowers and the tealights become the primary illumination. It's then that the bar shifts from showroom art installation to the heart of the place, pouring native beer (no, not Kronenbourg, the ubiquitous Bud Light analog of Denmark), cocktails, and an assortment of house-infused aquavits. Infused liquors so often are wan ghosts; with a good deal of squinting and not a little bit of psychosomatic imagining, the intended flavors reveal themselves oh-so-slightly, to disappear again under the waves of the base spirit. But here, the infusions are almost startlingly pronounced, an even bigger feat considering the infusee is aquavit, the caraway-scented Scandinavian grain alcohol designed to singlehandedly ward off the winter chill of the Arctic Circle.
From the choices that include earthy-sweet roasted pumpkin and blood-red beet, the parsley and rye bread are not to be missed. Parsley aquavit is grassy and clean, an emerald-green-tinted vegetal that feels as though it is upholding aquavit's reputation as a digestive aid. The rye bread-infused option, on the other hand, is a deep caramel brown, malty, and not a little salty-a sip on its own may be too much, but wait until your food arrives before you send it back. Sipped alongside its mother loaf, whether under smorrebrod or crumbled over herring, it mellows to a perfect counterpart.
Yes, America is ready for Aamanns-Copenhagen's rye bread. The real question is: Why were we made to wait so long?
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