Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Considering my first trip to Copenhagen hadn't quite fulfilled its promise of giving me the greatest meal of my life, it's perhaps odd that my first reaction on arriving back in London was to plan a return to the Danish capital. Partly it was because That Meal at Noma had been such an event, taking up so much of the weekend mentally and physically, that I felt I hadn't really made the most of the Copenhagen restaurant scene and wanted to see what else was out there.
But I also knew that I liked Copenhagen and that even if it turned out that, after all, New Nordic cuisine wasn't entirely my bag, this was still a fantastic city to visit; clean, comfortable and friendly, and thanks to Norwegian Air (returns £55 and free in-flight Wifi) and AirBnB (a genuinely lovely flat in Freidricksberg for £23 a head per night), inexpensive to boot. The number of organic bakeries, craft breweries, natural wine bars and house charcuterie options pointed to the fact that there's far more to this town than small-plates tasting menus in converted warehouses on the waterfront.
And to prove that point, for Saturday lunch we had booked a small plates tasting menu in a converted warehouse on the waterfront. To be fair, it's more or less impossible to escape Rene Redzepi's influence in this town; I lost count of the amount of times I read "ex-Noma" on a restaurant's menu or website, to the extent it became a kind of running joke. But Amass was to be my last deliberate go at this kind of thing, and if I still left this meal with more questions than answers, desperate for a kebab and with a renewed hatred of lovage, well, at least I could say I gave it my best shot.
The first thing to do, in this stunning cavernous room with its grand views of the Refshaleøn wetlands, is to order a drink. The barrel-aged Negroni is something almost approaching a cliché in trendy London circles (they do a very good one at Pidgin a restaurant you should visit as soon as you possibly can for that reason and so many others), but this version was superbly balanced and incredibly good, and tasted even better whilst nosing around their kitchen garden in the springtime sun.
Back inside, and without much fanfare or overture - in fact without even so much as a bowl of nuts, never mind the series of exquisite snacks that are presented to introduce the tasting menu at, say, Fera at Claridge's - the lunch began. First up, a bowl of silky smooth chicken liver parfait topped with "Seville orange skin" and dusted with black pepper. A tried and tested flavour combination, and one used to great effect here; in fact the paté itself was right up there with the classic Heston Blumenthal "Meat Fruit" at Dinner.
House bread was a fermented potato cake, piping hot from the oven, and an interesting "butter" containing spiced shredded celeriac (yes, really) which was just as strange as it sounds but still rather enjoyable. My nana used to make potato cakes, and had she been using a real wood-fired oven I'm sure they would have turned out just as good as this. I think she used to serve them with margarine and Marmite though, not spiced celeriac butter.
There was a lot to like about this bowl of raw (or at least ceviche-style) pollack, enoki mushrooms and sweet potato in nasturtium vinegar, even if at the same time there was very little to love. Fresh and invigorating, with a clever broth boasting just the right balance of vegetal sweetness and gentle acidity, it tasted like the kind of thing that would bring many positive health benefits. The problem is that I go to restaurants to eat delicious, unhealthy things and feel guilty about it later, not to have my shakras realigned.
Similarly this dish of carrots and salted goats cheese, which was clean and refined and delicate and all the other words you'd hope to have associated with a plate of carrots and salted goats cheese but really, in the end that was all it was. Some carrots (sweet and firm, right on the line between raw and cooked) draped over some citrussy cheese.
A main course of pork neck was far more to my greedy tastes. Slow cooked to a kind of sausagey tenderness and finished with a smoky char from the grill (perhaps the Big Green Egg we saw lurking out back) it was dressed in a "Grilled bitter greens" sauce that tasted so rich with umami I thought they must have added parmesan cheese, like you would in pesto. But no, they insisted there was no cheese involved, just a lot of complex techniques and many different foraged vegetables.
The pescatarian alternative was this pretty pile of flowers and greens, underneath which was a perfectly cooked fillet of Brill. The fish itself had a beautiful meaty texture, and the buttery glaze gave it the appearance and taste of the finest Dover Sole. Which, of course, as anyone who's ever had really good Dover Sole will tell you, means this fish was very good indeed.
Roasted Tea Ice Cream took a bit of getting used to, as the tea they'd chosen to make the ice cream with was so strong and powerfully smoked it was a bit like eating frozen ash. But once the initial shock wore off this was an exciting and unusual dessert, the ice cream being flawlessly smooth and the bits of chewy dried citrus like chunks of Haribo. This is a good thing, in case you weren't sure.
With some (unremarkable and quite dry) "Brown Butter Coffee Cakes" came some blueberry jam, very nice although it really was needed to stop the cakes sticking to the roof of your mouth. "Coffee Graham Cracker" was good though, little square sandwiches of coffee cream topped with (I think) caramel.
From the digestif menu I spotted "Amass Whiskey Cream - ask Dave for %" so obviously had to order it. And boy am I glad I did; it was a gorgeous thing, rich with the three pleasure points of alcohol, cream and whisky, and a luxurious thickness in the mouth. Oh, and Dave said the ABV was "about 40%" so that's good enough for me.
So there we are. A fun afternoon, and a pleasant lunch, just one that was - very much like Noma in fact - technically impressive rather than consistently rewarding. I didn't leave Amass hungry, or even disappointed as such, just with a vague feeling of missing out on what I generally go to restaurants to find - fat and flavour, fun and fireworks. At just over £100 a head (I can't work out the price exactly as we swapped and changed from the tasting options and ended up with something in between the cheapest and 2nd cheapest) it's certainly a lot cheaper than Noma, and to that end if New Nordic is your bag then this, Noma's little brother (they'll probably hate me for saying), would suit you down to your single-herd dry-aged leather boots.
But also much like Noma, there's something about Amass that sticks with you. Whether it's the cheerful enthusiasm of the staff (the sommelier who talked us through a succession of increasingly bonkers natural wines from increasingly huge bottles deserves a special mention), the brutalist cool of the dining room, the theatre of the open kitchen manned by a troupe of chefs with so much facial hair it was like having your lunch cooked by The Cousins Itt. It's undeniably a very, very cool place to eat. And if that's the kind of thing that you want from your restaurants - and there's no reason why it shouldn't be - then you'll have a great time here. Me, I'm still undecided. Maybe I'll go back to Copenhagen one more time to make absolutely sure.
P.S. Buy my app!