LIVE ANTS, REINDEER, lichen and tree bark. Not exactly things that get your stomach rumbling. But these unlikely ingredients are used by the culinary genius behind the best restaurant in the world.
The chef in question is, yep you've guessed it, René Redzepi of Noma. He and his co-owner Claus Meyer have used bizarre ingredients and an interactive dining style to earn their restaurant such cult status that diners wait three months to eat here.
In fact, Redzepi and his edible ants have caused such a stir, the influence on the cheffing world has been dubbed the 'Noma effect'. And, bar a few (gasp) defeats, this influential restaurant has remained pretty much top of the Michelin ranks for 10 years. But this Copenhagen-centric food scene could be about to change.
The White Guide Nordic 2015 lists 250 of the best restaurants across seven Scandinavian regions. Those who make it to the top 30 are considered the cream of the crop. If you reach the top 250? Well, you're bloody good.
The edible eggshell has been designed to look like it's just hatched a deliciously crunchy chicken nugget
In second place behind Noma is Copenhagen's coveted Geranium. But for the first time in history, restaurants outside of Scandinavia's capital cities are being hailed by the Michelin lords.
One such pioneer is Wassim Hallal – a Danish-Lebanese chef who's putting Denmark's second city of Aarhus on the gastronomical map. He's number 14 on the list. And it's not just because he appeared on Gordon Ramsay's Danish Hell's Kitchen. This man has enough technical flair to give the likes of Heston a run for his money.
We wait eagerly at our table in his ultra-contemporary restaurant Frederikshøj on the edge of Aarhus – a town that hosts a popular food festival each year.
Like Redzepi's, Hallal's food can be confusing yet captivating. His 16 plus-course tasting menu is unveiled like a long and beguiling magic trick.
Sensory confusion follows with a bowl of 'sand', fake quails' eggs, onion paper and edible chicken shells. In isolation they don't sound in the least bit appetising. But the quail's egg and onion paper are served with a melt-in-the-mouth piece of Norwegian lobster and glistening buttery sauce; the edible eggshell has been designed to look like it's just hatched out a deliciously crunchy chicken nugget. And the sand – topped with a rich fish stock – is fashioned from seaweed and shrimps, melting into flavours of the sea.
As the courses keep arriving, Hallal's technical showboating creeps up a notch, as does his urge to confuse us.
"Ooh's" and "ahh's" crescendo around the table. Some dishes are so bizarre, we need instructions on how to eat them. Pour this in there. Don't eat that bit, eat that bit. This is a serious education in interactive dining.
Soon, I'm tapping my fork into a skillet of rocks. Well, some are rocks, some are soft blue potatoes. I can't help but laugh. Then a goldfish bowl of oxtail with King Bolete mushrooms and beetroot arrives. It rests on a bed of hay and we're hit with a Heston-style whoosh of fog.
When the desserts arrive, we're told to smash the back of our spoons into a sugar lemon that looks like a glass ornament. This reveals a sour, sherbet-like sorbet that's so moreish, it brings the table to silence.
This experimental cooking seems so far removed from the Scandinavian traditions of yesteryear. But as the guys behind Noma insist, this New Nordic Cuisine movement is about embracing traditions in modern ways.
Danish flavours reach British shores
Noma's former sous chef and waiter James Knappett and sommelier Sandia Chang pioneered Bubbledogs, a high-end hotdog and champagne restaurant in Fitzrovia. The adjoining Michelin-starred Kitchen Table champions sustainable cooking with an ever-changing menu that adapts to seasonal produce. bubbledogs.co.uk;
Snaps & Rye
Traditional snaps and rye bread are made cool in this boho Notting Hill café. Expect upscale smørrebrød and akvavit-based cocktails. snapsandrye.com
An acronym for Modern American Steak House (rather than a reference to spuds) this is an American steak house with a Danish twist where meat is dry-aged for 70 days. mashsteak.co.uk
So look past the eccentric exterior and you'll find many chefs stay loyal to this, pioneering the farm-to-table ethos. Traditional Danish snacks such as smørrebrød are undergoing a renaissance.
In fact, Hallal has just put his own twist on this rye bread staple with his recently opened deli, F-Høj. And Scandinavian snaps, akvavit (or aquavit as it's sometimes known over here) – once synonymous with the prohibition period – is now cool among the hipsters and making its mark on British shores.
The humble hot dog hasn't been forgotten either – you don't have to go far to find a truck selling this Danish street food delicacy. Aarhus hosts the Danish Hotdog Championships each year. And it's something the next chef I visit, Paul Cunningham, can't get enough of.
The three-time championship winner is a British ex-pat who worked his way up the cheffing ranks in some of Copenhagen's top establishments. He was awarded a Michelin star just nine months after opening his restaurant, the Paul.
After years on the Copenhagen food scene, Cunningham wanted a simpler life – which is why I'm dining at his restaurant in Henne Kirkeby Kro, a luxury inn on the wild, remote West Jutland shores. His number on the White Guide is an impressive 35.
This man manages to get the most offal-fearing diners eating pigs' ears and mallard hearts
This is a guy who famously accompanied his hotdog entry 'Good Morning Hennedog' with an army tank filled with Vietnamese men dressed as women.
Cunningham's cooking doesn't feature puffs of smoke – "There's none of that hocus pocus crap in my restaurant," he says. But as his hotdog entry suggests, he doesn't blend into the background either.
More Danish culinary talent
A hotel restaurant that's putting Denmark's northernmost town of Skagen on the culinary map. Run by chef Thorsten Schmidt, foodies are flocking to try his playful Nordic style of cooking. ruths-hotel.dk
All eyes are on Aarhus, as the Koch brothers reopen their fine-dining restaurant this year. A health-focused menu promises the 'best eating experience in Aarhus'. kocherier.dk
Restaurant Tree Top
Head chef Rasmus Munk, 23, is the next big thing. Championing an artistic Nordic style with unusual ingredients such as chicken feet, he runs the kitchen at Munkebjerg Hotel by Vejle Fjord. munkebjerg.dk
Head chef Kenneth Hansen is up for the highly esteemed Bocuse d'Or. His simple, flavoursome cooking draws crowds to the 1920s beach hotel in the north west. svinkloev-badehotel.dk
We make our way through a mammoth 22-course menu that begins with tasty bites such as chicken skin crisps and caviar, and potato crisps sprinkled with fungi salt. This is followed by plates of aged duck in a honey carrot salad; plump oysters straight from Denmark's fjords and spoons of cured pork in a sticky garlic and lime sauce.
What makes this food so appealing is that it's somewhere between hearty Danish cooking and the flashy New Nordic Cuisine I'm beginning to understand. Who else can turn lobster, basil and cognac into a cappuccino?
Somehow, this man manages to get the most offal-fearing diners eating pigs' ears, mallard hearts and veal sweetbreads.
But again, look past that shiny exterior and you'll find that this food actually stays true to the New Nordic ethos: we have pork reared right on the doorstep, fresh root vegetables grown in allotments, and fungi and berries Paul has foraged from the nearby forest.
Yes, you might call this new wave of Danish cooking pretentious or gimmicky. But the fact is, those kooky chefs in Copenhagen are encouraging us to open our minds as diners. And they're setting a precedent across the rest of Denmark for cuisine that's adventurous, yet sustainable.
I might not be ready to snack on ants just yet, but that can't be a bad thing, can it? ■