In addition to their universally coveted happiness and often-imitated hygge (a mood of coziness and contentment), Danes are also defined by a willingness to follow the rules. They’ve been known to adhere to a once-fictional code of conduct called Jante Law, a ten-item list that begins with the stark reminder “Don’t think you are anything special.” Generally speaking, they follow every street sign, politely acknowledge “no smoking” symbols and would stand on a curb waiting for the “WALK” sign, even if they’re alone during a 3 a.m. downpour. And of course there are rules for the dinner table, especially when it comes to smørrebrød, their signature open-faced sandwiches.
The simplest definition of smørrebrød – a combination of the Danish words for both butter (smør) and bread (brød) – is that it’s a piece of dense, sourdough rye bread that is buttered and topped with neat layers of fish, meat, cheese and carefully selected garnishes. “[Toppings are] arranged in such a way that it looks nice, with more detailed texture and contrast than an ordinary sandwich,” smørrebrød blogger Marcus Schioler told Serious Eats. “Danes are sticklers for the rules. [Smørrebrød] are very regimented in that regard.”
Yeah, those rules again. There are rules for which toppings are matched with which breads (salmon never goes on rye), for what order you’d eat a variety of smørrebrød in (herring first, followed by other fish, then meats and cheeses), and for which utensils are required (a fork and knife, you feral monster).
But – and this is a Baltic Sea-sized but – that doesn’t mean that smørrebrød hasn’t become an art form in itself, or that it hasn’t been innovated and reinterpreted. If you want to have a completely different smørrebrød experience, then take a seat in one of the Arne Jacobsen chairs that line the marble floors at Copenhagen’s Royal Smushi Cafe.
The Cafe is located on Strøget, the pedestrian-only shopping street that stretches for more than a kilometer across the center of Copenhagen. When you walk through the door (which is decorated with red stickers reminding everyone of its frequent appearances in the Michelin Guide), you’ll step into an impeccably designed room that is half Alice in Wonderland, half Wallpaper magazine. You’ll be served on Royal Copenhagen porcelain china – the company’s flagship store is next door – handed Georg Jensen silverware, and when you look across the table, you’ll notice a plastic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man displayed under a glass cloche.
But the food! The Royal Smushi Cafe has created its own version of smørrebrød that cribbed its presentation from Japanese sushi. (And the name, which the Cafe has trademarked, is a twee portmanteau of the two dishes). “We travelled to the other side of the world to get inspiration and found sushi,” the cafe’s founder Lo Østergaard explains. “Our smushi is not a fusion of ingredients and flavors, but rather an authentic presentation of traditional Danish flavors in a simpler design and in portions that allow you to taste a variety of small dishes in one meal.”
Østergaard believes that “you eat with your eyes as well,” and these might be the most beautiful sandwiches you’ll ever down in two bites. During my visit, I tried three kinds of smushi: a creamy shrimp salad topped with dill and fennel, chicken salad with apples, bacon and herbs, and a decidedly non-traditional “traditional meatball.”
The Cafe is definitely worth a stop while you’re wandering down Strøget and, because it’s the lightest of light lunches, you’ll have room for one of the desserts that you’ll notice as you walk past the counter. It’s a bit pricey, even by Copenhagen’s standards – three smushi and a Diet Coke were DKK195 ($31) – but it’s worth it for an only-in-this-city experience.
Just don’t forget to use your knife and fork.