Text by Oliver Thring / Photos: Chris Tonnesen
The bull’s testicles look as innocuous as fishcakes. They’ve been breadcrumbed, fried to a reddish brown and speckled with glinting crystals of sea salt. They’re flatter than I expected, less overtly round. Shatter the crumb and the steam escapes in wisps. The texture is coiled and yielding, smooth as mashed potato, with a savoury, almost yogurt-like quality. A dollop of tartare sauce cuts the richness of the offal: it’s a simple, accomplished, perfectly delicious dish.
Bror restaurant opened last April on a quiet street near the University of Copenhagen. The “bull’s balls” – the menu spurns euphemism – have been served from the start. Victor Wagman, the 31-year-old co-founder from Alvsbacka, Sweden, calls them “a cool product to work with”. Don’t you wince a bit when you prepare them? “No, it’s OK, you get used to it. Once you’ve sliced one ball you can slice many.”
In a few short months, the venue has far exceeded its owners’ modest expectations. “We have more guests coming than we thought we would at this stage,” says Wagman. “We’re more than happy with how the restaurant is running.” Sam Nutter is the other owner, a 28-year-old from tiny Eggleston, County Durham, in the north of England. Bror means “brother” in Danish and, though the owners incessantly josh and tease each other, it testifies to the fraternal qualities of their friendship.
It’s no surprise the restaurant is doing so well: Bror may well epitomise the next phase of Nordic cuisine, that style of cooking rooted in rare foraged ingredients as well as a love of preserving – smoking, pickling and drying – born of brutal winters. Of course, a lot of what is new Nordic can be traced to René Redzepi at Noma, deemed the best restaurant in the world for three years running between 2010 and 2012. But Nutter and Wagman, who each spent years working under Redzepi, have taken elements of Noma’s style and philosophy and translated them into something thrillingly new.
Wagman jokes, “We robbed René” to get the money to open Bror, but the line is almost true: the two chefs have deftly made use of lessons learned under the master. The menu includes Noma signatures such as mosses and pines, wild garlic, Danish cheeses and skyr (strained yogurt), rare mushrooms, the nightmarish wolf fish. There are charcoal-grills, smoked foods, and meat is often paired with fruit. Nonetheless, says Nutter, “It was easy for us to be labelled a ‘Noma brasserie’ or a ‘Noma bistro’, so when we started, we were careful not to use too many of Noma’s ideas. We wanted to create our own identity as soon as possible.”
The testicles are part of that identity, and meat is generally embraced in a franker way than at Noma. Even the butter is enriched with bone marrow. Lamb’s brains are whipped into a smooth and fluffy puree, flavoured with pine and an apple and mustard-seed chutney, then spread on homemade grain crackers like Hannibal Lecter’s canapés.
The most surprising dish is off-menu. “We don’t want to put different classifications on the guests,” says Nutter, “but it’s more for friends, chefs or anyone we don’t think will be intimidated.” If you ask, they’ll do it for you: the waiter brings a large and steaming pot from the kitchen and lifts the lid to reveal a sheep’s head, stripped of its skin, ogling you with blind eyes. The brains, which are eaten on crackers, have been wittily replaced with lookalike cauliflower.
You’re handed a sharp knife for the tongue and cheek meat: this is food you’ll have to work at. Under the skull is a verdant sauce made from seasonal leaves – spinach, ramson (wild chives) and ground elder when I went – while on the side are a beautifully mild puree of roasted garlic and a little pot of lavender salt, for garnish. It’s a proudly elemental dish, the taste of thrift and tradition. Western culture tends to shun meat’s animal associations. But when you stare at a head in a pot, and it stares back, it stands as a memento mori while still being dinner.
Wagman and Nutter admit that the offcuts and offal are partly to shock. The Englishman says they serve a new dish of sheep’s eyeball stuffed with » mushrooms under a magnifying glass “so it looks even more intimidating”.
The ingredients are also cheaper; Bror was put together for next to nothing and costs a very reasonable DKK350 (NOK400) for the tasting menu. But the owners point out that neglected cuts have environmental advantages too. “With the climate slowly fading away,” says Wagman, “we felt we had to use products that often go to waste. Everyone has a good life here in Denmark and there’s no reason to throw away food at all; René used to say it was the worst thing that could happen.”
The not-quite brothers were drawn together by Redzepi’s reputation: according to Nutter, he and Wagman met in 2007 “by the vacuum-packing machine”, at the then well-regarded Vineyard at Stockcross restaurant, outside London. Nutter, who had arrived on a culinary scholarship to work as a commis chef, bumped into Wagman when the latter was raving about an article on Noma he had read. “Vic gave me a ‘Martin Luther King’ speech about why I should go and work there,” says Nutter. Both cooks managed to inveigle their way into that kitchen – they insist it was easier in those days, when Noma was less famous – and were later hired by Redzepi, who has always recruited on his own perception of a candidate’s aptitude rather than his or her experience.
Nutter had never lived in a city before and found Copenhagen “very big at the time”. He spent the first month living on Victor’s floor. “He gave me one month to live there, and on the last night he kicked me out – luckily I found another room. It was a long bike ride after work that night, carrying my two suitcases across the city.” Adds Wagman, in a joshing, woe-is-me tone: “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The chefs agree the four years or so they spent at Noma transformed their understanding of food. Wagman describes working for Redzepi as “mind- blowing”, and Nutter says: “From the start, you could feel you were onto something very special. It’s to do with the philosophy; the way he thinks about ingredients and food was just so different, especially at that time. And he was a pioneer of foraging. It was just really fun to be part of something new and to be constantly challenging yourself.” Wagman eventually became “product sous chef, so I dealt with all the farmers, purveyors and foragers, and Sam was in the test kitchen. I would find an interesting ingredient and Sam would make something interesting with it.”
During the years at Noma, the idea of setting out on their own began to take shape. Both knew from the outset the kind of restaurant they wanted it to be. “It all seemed to fall into place,” says Nutter. “We both wanted to do something kind-of similar to Noma, where the dining would be relaxed, but would also challenge the guests a bit.”
There are four or five people in Bror’s kitchen. The charming and mismatched crockery was salvaged from Sunday morning markets. You choose your cutlery from tin buckets on the tables, and they’ll only give you paper napkins. What was the main design inspiration, I ask Nutter. “Thrift,” he says. The two chefs pooled their savings into the venture and their families lent them a bit of money to get started, which has since been repaid. “The theme was kind of ‘black and wood,’” says Nutter. “And we had these terracotta tiles that it would have been too expensive to rip out, so we had to roll with those and adjust things as we went along.” The effect is honest, unpretentious and winning.
Because it’s so clear what the chefs enjoy, I ask Nutter what kind of food he dislikes. “When it’s made without love,” he says. “When people don’t care about the product. I want to say a couple of brand names but I’m not going to.” Go on, I say. “For example, McDonald’s, but don’t print that.” Why not? “I’m worried someone’s going to see me in McDonald’s after a drunken night out and catch me contradicting myself.”
I’ve eaten at Bror and Noma within the last few months. While Noma’s dishes have a delicacy, lightness of touch, and simplicity wrought from rigorous testing and a thousand kitchen failures, the playfulness of Bror, its tentative confidence – as well as the fact it costs a fraction of its parent – make it the more exciting place to eat. Along with other Noma stables such as Christian Puglisi’s Relæ, with which it shares a friendly Copenhagen rivalry, Bror represents the bold and invigorating next step for new Nordic.
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