It was two Octobers ago that Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark swept into New York City. Amid much hoopla, they were feted at the newly built Aamanns-Copenhagen, the first offspring of a celebrated Danish restaurant. The party for the prince and princess attracted press correspondents and bloggers, all pie-eyed at the sight of royalty. Via e-mail, the invitees had been schooled in a protocol that included curtsying for the women and hand-shaking for the men, not photographing royals while they’re eating, and proper forms of address. The next day, Aamanns-Copenhagen promptly closed.
The whole thing had been a publicity stunt. It turned out the food was trucked in, and the place possessed no functioning kitchen. As the year wore on, signs would periodically appear in the papered-over windows promising an actual eatery, but to no avail. Then just before Christmas, 14 months after its arrival, Aamanns-Copenhagen surprised us by actually opening. The specialty is smørrebrød (“butter and bread”). Think of them as Scandinavian tapas: small open-face sandwiches served on squares of dark, grainy rye. Standard toppings include pickled fish, chicken salad, and thin slices of roast meat, but Aamanns embroiders on a beloved Danish tradition by mixing startling ingredients with traditional ones.
The restaurant’s dining room—just south of Canal Street near the curving egress from the Holland Tunnel—remains stark and white, like a prairie after a heavy snowfall. Small wood-topped tables and hard-backed chairs might have come from a private-school lunchroom. A charcoal-black mural on the rear wall—the only contrast to the relentless whiteness—seems to show charred souls in torment. Though it’s a good spot for a brunch pastry and cup of coffee, Aamanns doesn’t offer much comfort for an evening meal.
But your first taste of smørrebrød is stunning. Missing its top, beef tartare ($10) looks like the work of a talented sculptor, the coarsely chopped meat bright pink and heaped on its morsel of rye. Capers and slivered cornichons cavort on the summit, and potato chips the size of SIM cards poke out on all sides. The contrast of flavors and textures is heavenly, though the thing falls apart at first bite: A meal of smørrebrød invariably involves chasing tiny ingredients across your plate, like a butterfly collector.
Less successful are a kale smørrebrød that engenders false expectations by being dubbed a “tartare” (it’s really just a plain veggie sandwich), and a chicken salad dotted with chives and celeriac. In spite of its boomerang of crunchy toasted rye on top, the mayo-gobbed chicken salad tastes too much like deli. But the pork pâté smørrebrød proves magnificent, a gravestone of cool composed flesh studded with hazelnuts and laced with aquavit. As the sandwich—topped with apple slices pickled brown like sausages, with shaved celery billowing overhead—hits the table, you can barely see the pâté.
Speaking of aquavit, the restaurant infuses its own multiple versions of this Scandinavian spirit. While caraway, lemon peel, and tiny yellow flowers called pericum are standard additions, Aamanns improvises and creates a colorful alcoholic panorama with beets, parsley, and toasted rye bread (that one tastes like soy sauce). Although some try to knock back the small glasses ($7) in a single gulp, the booze is better sipped, like bourbon.
Pickled fish are another focus of the menu. If you’re a real Russ & Daughters fan, you’ll particularly enjoy the “trio of herring” ($24). Arriving in jam jars and on gunmetal-gray platters, a recent selection included juniper-pickled fish with boiled eggs, capers, and black peppercorns; herring in tomato compote; and fish smothered in a pale tarragon sauce made crunchy with toasted crumbs of rye. You can never escape that rye bread. Thankfully, it’s very good.
The herring trio makes a fine shared appetizer for a pair of diners, as does a smørrebrød or two per person—but where do you go from there? The Seasonal Specials section of the menu offers only one entrée: a ragout of veal ($23). Served in a deep bowl, five or six chunks of tender meat and a scatter of turnips and rutabagas are mired in a thick, dark gravy. The only accompaniment is two squares of rye. Even though you try in vain to sop the gravy with the damp bread, your only real option is to drink it. Why no mashed potatoes?
Then it hits you: This is why Danes are so thin. They may as well be on the Paleo Diet.