As hard to pronounce as it is delicious, smørrebrød, Denmark’s traditional open-faced sandwich, has been reinvented for the 21st century by a handful of local chefs.
By Gemma Z. Price
Curried herring with egg, boiled shrimps, and mayonnaise. Fried turbot with creamy rémoulade. Corned veal tongue topped with a dollop of creamed horseradish and herbs. I’d never seen the humble open-faced sandwich elevated to something so creatively nutritious and decadently delicious. As my friend Niklas ushered me in from the cold and down the old tiled steps toward tables draped in pristine white tablecloths, I spent several minutes trying to shake off the snow and take in the myriad dishes illuminated by the light of oil lamps suspended from the restaurant’s low wooden ceiling beams.
“It’s customary that the first courses are always fish, usually starting with pickled and curried herring and then smoked salmon and fried plaice,” Niklas said, handing me a plate. “But make sure you leave room—the rugbrød [rye bread] is pretty heavy, and we still have roast beef, pork, and duck smørrebrød to go.”
It turned out that the run-up to Christmas was the best time of year for me to delve into Denmark’s signature lunchtime tradition, smørrebrød, which involves thick slices of sourdough rye bread accessorized with a seemingly infinite variety of toppings. Starting mid-November, friends, colleagues, and families all over Copenhagen line up lengthy julefrokost—Christmas lunches—where tables groan beneath the weight of their favorite dishes. And as courses are always accompanied by 80 proof aquavit, or snaps, as its more commonly known here—as the Danish saying goes, “the fish need something to swim in”—these affairs can last anywhere from two to five hours and always get rather jolly.
My julefrokost with Niklas was taking place at Restaurant Kronborg, an old-fashioned establishment set below Copenhagen’s cobbled street level that is as famous for its smørrebrød as it is for its hygge (cozy) setting and extensive snaps menu. Many of its distillations are infused in-house; the carefully paired selection for this lunch included options flavored with hawthorn and sea buckthorn botanicals served in vintage Jacob Eiler Bang decanters. “Skål!” said Niklas, proffering a glass.
As for the smørrebrød, I was hooked. And the more I discovered about the open-faced sandwich’s place in Danish culinary tradition, the more infatuated I became. Literally translating as “buttered bread,” smørrebrød (pronounced smuhr-broht) is said to have roots in the Viking era; rye bread smeared with butter or animal fat was the Norseman’s sustenance of choice while out pillaging. With the onset of industrialization in the second half of the 19th century, smørrebrød, which made a handy packed lunch, emerged as the standard factory workers’ midday meal. From there, it became an urban staple. But as Danish diners developed a taste for gourmet cuisine—particularly French fine dining—in the 1960s and ’70s, smørrebrød began to fall out of fashion. For hip Danes, it was seen as something their grandparents would eat—a lump of bread topped with the previous night’s leftovers.
Now, thanks to a handful of Copenhagen chefs, smørrebrød is undergoing a revival, with contemporary—and delicious—reinterpretations of this lunchtime classic popping up all over town, winning over young foodies and traditionalists alike.
Tellingly, when the Nimb Hotel, which occupies a Moorish-inspired 1909 building in the Tivoli Gardens, was looking for a new dining concept to pad out its raft of acclaimed eateries a year ago, it chose a smørrebrød restaurant. Fru Nimb today serves more than 45 different versions of the sandwich, running the gamut from a simple, classic pickled herring with capers and pickled red onions to decadent steak tartare crowned ostentatiously with oysters. My favorite, the eponymous “Mrs. Nimb,” fell somewhere in the middle—fried smoked eel with creamy scrambled eggs and shaved truffle.
Elsewhere, microbrewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø says he chose smørrebrød for his first foray into the restaurant business partly because he wanted to try something new after opening five bars in less than a year, and partly because his new 10-table eatery Øl & Brød (“Beer and Bread,” also a pun on øllebrød, Denmark’s traditional beer-and-bread porridge) wasn’t allowed to have a stove. Located on the ground floor of a 19th-century residential building in Copenhagen’s rapidly gentrifying Vesterbro neighborhood, the space “was perfect for smørrebrød as these are often served cold, with pickled or cured fish and meats,” Bjergsø explained. “And I always liked smørrebrød; I’m glad to see it’s coming back. Also, it goes really well with beer.”
In addition to its seasonal smørrebrød lunch offerings (if available, try the blood sausage with apple compote and cinnamon), Øl & Brød serves a smørrebrød-inspired tasting menu for dinner that is likewise all about the ingredients: fromage from artisanal cheese brand Arla Unika; meat from an organic butcher; and fish hand-sourced from the Øresund coast, which Bjergsø pickles himself.