"We don't have a reservation," I said, grimacing apologetically, "but there are only two of us. Is there any possibility …?"
When you really want to eat at a restaurant but haven't been able to secure a booking in advance, waiting for an answer to that question can be a suspenseful business.
Last April, a restaurant in Copenhagen called Noma (www.noma.dk; 00 45 3296 3297) was voted the world's best place to eat for the second year in a row in an annual poll conducted by the influential Restaurant magazine. To say it's difficult to get a table at Noma would be an understatement. They take bookings three months in advance and, even then, with 10,000 people vying for fewer than 600 tables per month, it's a lottery to get one. I tried twice recently and failed. So I decided to take a more radical approach. I put our names on the waiting list for a particular weekend and booked a flight to Copenhagen. It was a gamble but I thought it might just pay off.
The barrel-chested manager looked at our hopeful faces with amusement. He glanced around the atmospheric, low-ceilinged restaurant, thronging with happy lunchtime diners. Waiters marched through the room bearing huge platters of weird and wonderful Danish food, much of it fresh from the sea. I spied an empty table in the far corner and my heart jumped.
This wasn't Noma. This was Kanal Cafeen (Frederiksholms Kanal 18; www.kanalcafeen.dk; 00 45 3311 5770), a small, traditional eatery just across the harbour. In my mania to get into the world's best restaurant, I had forgotten that other restaurants in Copenhagen might also merit advance booking.
After a moment, the man nodded and picked up a couple of menus. My partner and I grinned at each other. We took our seats and, just two hours after touching down in Copenhagen, we were tucking into a classic Danish lunch of smørrebrød, an open sandwich on dark rye bread. As we shared this particularly delicious plate of bread topped with marinated herring and capers (49 Danish krones [Dh34]), a curious thought occurred to us: maybe there is more to Copenhagen cuisine than Noma.
After a splendid lunch, we stepped out of the dark restaurant and into the sunlit city centre. Just across the Frederiksholms Kanal is Slotsholmen, the historical heart of Copenhagen, and through its quiet cobbled streets we wandered, admiring the imposing castles and palaces: this small island has been the seat of Danish rule since the city was founded in 1167.
Next to Slotsholmen is the much livelier Indre By district, Copenhagen's main shopping area. For foodies and fashionistas alike, Indre By's narrow medieval streets, mostly traffic-free, are a treasure trove. We skipped through several smaller shops before arriving at the magnificent Magasin du Nord (http://shop.magasin.dk/) on Kongens Nytorv. This venerable department store has five floors of fashion and design and a bounteous food hall in the basement. While my partner browsed the higher levels, I went downstairs to stock up on marinated herring.
With Noma momentarily out of mind, I was now thinking about liquid refreshment. I had heard that a new breed of young Danish specialists were roasting and serving up world-beating coffee in Copenhagen and I wanted to sample the evidence. To do so, we crossed through Indre By and headed into Vesterbro, the fashionable neighbourhood where Copenhagen's designers and media types congregate.
Our first stop was a 1950s-style cafe called Granola on Værnedamsvej 5 (00 45 3325 0080). You will find better coffee in Copenhagen (and we did), but it's hard to imagine a more beautiful setting in which to sip an espresso or a delicious fruit juice. (Its porridge, served with chopped almonds and cinnamon, is legendary.)
Noma still hadn't telephoned with a cancellation, so that evening we went for dinner at Fiskebaren (www.fiskebaren.dk; 00 45 3215 5656), a fish restaurant in Vesterbro's busy meat-packing district. I hadn't reserved, of course, but that was OK - we could wait at the bar. Our meal, when it eventually came, was very good - huge Danish oysters, posh fish and chips, halibut with potatoes and Romaine lettuce, all of it superbly fresh - but the wait was long, the service was slow and we almost passed out with hunger before the food arrived. (A meal for two cost 1,023 krones [Dh709]). The moral of the story: wherever you go in Copenhagen, book ahead.
We returned to our hotel, the brand-new Bella Sky Comwell in Ørestad. Billed as Scandinavia's largest designer hotel, with 814 rooms, it is worth booking for the building alone. The hotel consists of two towers that lean away from each other at an incline of 15 degrees, an architectural feat best appreciated by standing at the corner of the Sky Bar on the 23rd floor of the south tower, where there is an incredible 20-metre overhang. Peering at the ground 75 metres below is not for the faint-hearted.
With its location in northern Europe's biggest conference centre and its proximity to the airport, Bella Sky is primarily a hotel for business travellers, but we were impressed by how well designed it was, and by the fact that the city centre is just 10 minutes away by Metro. The hotel has five restaurants, a well-equipped spa and a special women-only floor, which I'm told offers extra-large pillows, smoothies, flower displays and a supply of women's magazines at no extra cost.
The next morning, after a restful sleep, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Noma wasn't going to call. I'd sent 18 begging emails and had attempted to befriend one of its waiters the day before, to no avail - so I went online and appealed to some friends with inside knowledge of the city.
"Where do you go in Copenhagen if you can't get a table at Noma?" I wrote. The replies came flooding in fast. "Paustian on Kalkbrænderiløbskaj [www.paustian.dk; 00 45 3918 5501] is wonderful." "Mielcke & Hurtigkarl in Frederiksberg [www.mielcke-hurtigkarl.dk; 00 45 3834 8436]: it's amazing and weird." "Restaurant 1 th. [www.1th.dk; 00 45 3393 5770] is a secret restaurant in someone's apartment." "The chef at Geranium [www.geranium.dk; 00 45 6996 0020] in Østerbro just won the Bocuse d'Or - the Oscars of the culinary world."
But one reply caught my eye: "Try Relæ. A new restaurant set up by two former members of Noma. Meant to be great."
I picked up the phone and asked the fateful question. There was a pause. "You're in luck: we do have a table for two," the man answered. "See you tonight at eight."
With Noma out of the equation, there was no time to lose. What other foodie delights could we uncover in Copenhagen? We picked up rental bikes from the hotel and headed back into the city centre - a pleasant journey through Amagerfaelled park and along the inner harbour. Copenhagen is superbly equipped for people on two wheels, and cycling is definitely the best way to explore the city.
We began at the bohemian island of Christianshavn, named "Little Copenhagen" for its many canals and brightly painted Dutch-style houses. We ate a satisfying brunch - yogurt with berries, smoked salmon, cold meats and good bread - at Cafe Wilder (www.cafewilder.dk; 00 45 3254 7183) and then sped across to Nørrebro for coffee.
Historically one of Copenhagen's most deprived areas, Nørrebro has recently been colonised by a wave of artists, designers and artisans driven out of Vesterbro by rising prices. It's hard to find a more happening address in Copenhagen right now than Jægersborggade, a handsome Nørrebro street lined with vintage clothes shops, design boutiques, food spots and, according to reliable reports, the best coffee shop in Denmark.
If you're a bean nut, you'll be interested to learn that the Coffee Collective (www.coffeecollective.dk; 00 45 6015 1525) is run by a former World Barista Champion and a World Cup Tasting Champion. What does this mean? In short, one of the best coffee experiences you'll ever have. They roast their own beans in the small basement cafe and labour over each cup with thermometers, stopwatches and top-of-the-range equipment. We ordered a beautifully mild Kenyan roast filtered through an Aeropress (25 krones; Dh17), and drank it with amazing raspberry pancakes from Meyer's bakery over the road. Total bliss.
Relæ (http://restaurant-relae.dk/; 00 45 3696 6609), where we were due to dine, is also on Jægersborggade, but first we needed to catch up on our sightseeing. At the end of the street is a large, leafy cemetery called Assistens Kierkegaard. It's not just any old cemetery: it's where Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author of children's stories, and the 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, after whom the cemetery is named, are buried.
After paying our respects at Andersen's grave, we cycled to the majestic Statens Museum for Kunst, one of the city's grandest galleries, which exhibits seven centuries of art, and caught an exhibition of woodcuts, featuring work by Albrecht Dürer.
Afterwards, we headed to the Davids Samling Museum, on nearby Kronprinsessegade, to see the permanent collection of Persian, Indian and Arabian art. Amassed by a wealthy Danish lawyer named C L David, it is one of the most important collections of Islamic art in Europe, boasting beautifully illustrated Qurans, bejewelled daggers and finely decorated bowls.
We spent an enchanting hour at Davids Samling and then wandered across the road into the splendid Kongens Have ("the king's gardens") and admired the Rosenborg Slot, a grand turreted palace straight out of one of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales.
Whistle-stop cultural tour over, it was now time for dinner. Back on Jægersborggade, we took our seats at Relæ. It's a relaxed, informal place with a neighbourhood feel, but in the kitchen something altogether more serious is going on. This was our first proper taste of the new Nordic cuisine that Noma has pioneered in the past seven years - an experimentalist, boundary-pushing approach to cooking but with locally sourced (and, therefore, often quite traditional) ingredients.
Everything is fresh and many things, including the asparagus in our starter, are served raw. Some produce, such as the tiny discs of still-green peach in one of our main dishes, is deliberately unripe. Familiar ingredients are served in unusual ways: the solidified "milk skin" in my dessert sounded like a bad idea but, in fact, worked very well, separating the cold ice cream with almonds from the warm, tangy rhubarb compote to create a superb climax to the meal.
Relæ is not to everyone's taste and, in our opinion, not all of the dishes were successful, but it's certainly an experience and, as co-owner Kim Rossen explained to us afterwards, its intention is to provoke as much as to please. We were certainly provoked, but we were also very pleased to have experienced Noma-style food at reasonable prices - the four-course set menu cost 325 krones (Dh226) - without having to wait three months for a table.
Noma never did manage to squeeze us in, but that didn't stop us from having a wonderful gastronomic weekend in the Danish capital. If anything, it made us dig deeper into the city's vibrant food scene, with unexpectedly delicious results. So if you fail to get a seat at the best restaurant in the world, don't despair. Copenhagen has so much more to offer.
If you go
Emirates (www.emirates.com) will commence direct flights from Dubai to Copenhagen from August 1. Return fares cost from Dh3,075, including taxes.
Double rooms at Bella Sky Comwell (www.bellaskycomwell.dk; 00 45 3247 3000) cost from 890 krones (Dh620) per night, including taxes.