Review: Restaurant Substans – Aarhus, Denmark – One Michelin Star
“I wear a size 38 shoe if you somehow want to work that into your 5000 words about the experience,” said Piskeriset, fellow food blogger and one of my lovely co-diners for the evening, jokingly as we settled in for what was to be a strange, unpredictable, yet oddly fascinating and likable dining experience at Michelin-starred Restaurant Substans in Aarhus, Denmark.
My other esteemed co-diners for the evening included Malou from Klidmoster.dk and Piskeriset’s husband who played the part of the voice of sanity amongst food bloggers with a mission: a mission to try to tackle, tame and understand the delectable madness that, apparently, is Restaurant Substans and the summer menu they debuted days prior to our arrival.
Restaurant Substans is one of three Michelin-starred Restaurants in Aarhus and in the trifecta, encompassing also Gastromé (reviewed here) and Haute Cuisine temple Frederikshøj (reviewed here in Danish by my esteemed colleague and co-diner Malou), it is definitely the odd one out. It’s honest, unpretentious, raw and edgy, mainly organic with a tendency towards the biodynamic. 60-90% of ingredients used in the kitchen are organic and all are locally sourced and meticulously prepared. Restaurant Substans is also unpredictable, wild and overwhelming… That’s what I hear, anyway!
It’s long been a desire of mine to visit and review Restaurant Substans and my wish finally came through when Piskeriset, who seemingly adores my lengthy reviews, paid a visit to Aarhus along with her husband. She wanted to check out the buzz around Substans and invited her fellow bloggers Malou and Johan along for what would be my first review involving not only Michelin-star cuisine but also full frontal nudity to the tune of a marching band playing YMCA… But more on that later!
Substans: The accidental Michelin Star?
When first approaching Restaurant Substans, it becomes clear that this is not your average run off the mill establishment. Located just off High Street on the still hip yet completely (and delightfully) different Frederiksgade surrounded by dive bars, pubs, hole in the wall eateries and bistros, Substans seems perfectly placed for an establishment of its sort and appears strangely comfortable playing the part of the odd neighbor to the more posh and trendy restaurants situated a stone’s throw away.
Unassuming from the outside yet with heartwarming shades of new Nordic cool on the inside, the vibe of the place is somewhere between posh and laid back with room for playfulness and warmth. Looking at Substans both from near and far, it is as if the Michelin star drop was never suspected let alone planned, and as if they’re tackling the new-found fame and fortune in its wake in the best possible way: in their own unique style!
Indeed, in the Aarhus fine dining scene, Restaurant Substans is obviously the odd cousin in terms of location, appearance and approach and they don’t mind playing the part, as was evident the moment we arrived for our 6:30 dinner booking.
“Wait? Are you guys coming or leaving? Or what?” asked a waiter dryly with a barely noticeable twinkle in his eye, referring to the strange scene of three food bloggers walking through the door, then immediately dodging back out to snap the obligatory pictures of the restaurant exterior. And in delivering that snappy remark on the predictability of food bloggers, he pretty much set the tone for the evening in which the waitstaff treated us with total respect and their own very personal blend of humor, coolness and laid back attitude.
Having decided that we were in fact coming, not going, we walked inside and glanced upon the restaurant’s interior of exposed brick walls, wood, lumber and modern art in warming shades of sand, earthiness and brick. To be honest, nothing much in terms of décor separated the place from other Danish one-star restaurants or upscale eateries. However, as we were politely greeted and shown to our table by a small handful of waiters, it quickly became clear that what set Substans apart was not the look and feel of the place, but rather the personality, vibe and approach of the people running the show… And, naturally, the show itself!
On with the show: What to eat at Restaurant Substans?
If you’re the sort of person to debate in length about what to eat, you’ll be happy (or possibly shocked) to learn that the menu at Substans is simple. Very simple. It’s comprised of one seasonal tasting menu including snacks, seven courses as well as coffee (or tea) and petit fours. If you’re in a hurry, or easily overwhelmed, the menu can be shortened to a faster and cheaper four course menu, comprising two smaller servings a main dish and a dessert plucked from the full menu.
Wine pairings are available for both the full and the limited menu at a very reasonable price, especially considering that wines are small-batch organic, oft-times biodynamic, niche wines free of sulfites; natural and funky in every way. These sorts of wines are an acquired taste, some will argue, and if you’re not yet a natural wine evangelist, you’ll be pleased to know that Substance does offer a “classic” wine list featuring well/known “safer bets”.
We, being the respectable reviewers we are, chose the very fairly priced full experience ranging from snacks through seven courses, coffee and petit fours with seven glasses of matching wines to go along. And literally minutes after making our decision, we were on our way.
Snacks at Restaurant Substans: Octopus, tartare and asparagus
Purists will argue that the snack game at Danish restaurants has taken a turn for the almost bizarre over the last couple of years with gourmet restaurants basically waging wars to see who can create the most elaborately complicated of snack servings. Substans, clearly, wants no part of this arm’s race and has found comfort in keeping things simple by sourcing a few quality snack ingredients and letting them speak pretty much for themselves.
Our snack serving this evening came in three distinct servings: A small single serving bowl containing grilled octopus and fermented gooseberries. A piece of rock holding four little croustades filled with veal tartare and an extra rich and heavy cream cheese from local darling Arla Unika’s ever growing lineup. And then, perhaps most simple (and most beautiful) of all: four little practically raw asparagus spears served with an intense mayo made with roasted sesame seed oil topped with crispy bread crumbs. All were tastefully plated and proudly served and personally presented to us by restaurant owner Rene Mammen who, being perhaps one of the most humble recipients of a Michelin star, was making the rounds with the front of the house team on the evening of our visit.
Octopus, in its non-Calimari form, was a first for me, but was very mild in flavor and other than interesting texture did not leave much of an impression aside from a sea-like funk. Much more pleasing were the bite-sized croustades topped with rich Arla Unika “Loke” cream cheese and equally rich, creamy and intensely beefy cubes of veal tartare. The soft on soft feeling of the veal tartare dish left a lasting creamy mouthfeel and an aftertaste that was broken by the snap of the green asparagus of our third appetizer, that paired beautifully with the roasted sesame mayo for a wonderful combination of green, grassy notes meeting dense, rich and toasted flavors.
If anything, the snack servings showed that you don’t have to go big to serve snacks at Michelin-level. These are perhaps some of the simplest I’ve had and already, I was starting to get a little impressed with Substans… Even more so when the efficient waitstaff whisked away our empty plates, topped up our wine glasses and started pushing out new dishes with perfect timing.
“Oi, is that not Nicolas Jørgensen,” I whispered to Malou as our first dish was put in front of us. “Nick who?” she whispered back. “Oh, you know, only the head chef of this particular establishment and the captain of the Danish Culinary team,” I shot back happy that for once my eyes had spotted someone her trained eyes hadn’t on the scene of young, talented chefs. And indeed, the team of waiters carrying out or first dish of the evening was spearheaded by none other than the head chef himself who in another endearing and non-pretentious move helped serve as the host of the evening as he very humbly and with great enthusiasm and perfect length talked us diners through the dishes of the new menu. Including this, our first proper, and somewhat surprising dish.
First course: Cod, oyster, cucumber, fermented apple juice, horseradish and lumpfish roe
Our first dish of the evening consisted of pieces of cured cod, cucumber and asparagus served with a side of sauce made from oyster juice, cream cheese and pungently bitter wormwood. More specifically Artimesia Maritima, one decidedly geeky co-diner will have you know! At the table, the dish was furthermore garnished with yet another sauce made from fermented apple juice, horseradish and lumpfish roe. A bit of a mess when put into writing, but a beautiful mess when presented to you on the restaurant’s signature earthenware dishes.
And in here, actually, lies one of the first major forces of Restaurant Substans: taking something that honestly may not sound too appetizing to the general public and making it not only visually appealing, but also intriguing and palatable. Sadly, despite all the best of intentions, the fermented apple sauce lacked salt and a bit of acidity to make it shine, making the otherwise stunning dish seem altogether a little bland.
Except, that is, for one heavenly bite in which the bitterness of the wormwood and the natural salinity of the oyster juice mingled with the other impressions on the plate and ignited a small fireworks of flavors in my mouth and dreams of what could have been. All in all, a solid start from the kitchen to their new menu that needed a bit of fine tuning to really sing.
And speaking of singing, things were about to get really weird.
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA: My streaking experience at Restaurant Substans
”Dude, he’s naked!” cried one diner. “Well, if you are going to go streaking, I couldn’t think of a better time and place,” stated Malou in a much more matter-of-factly way. We were less than an hour into our full experience at Restaurant Substans and our conclusion that we were in the more, uh, “happening” part of town were confirmed.
Not only had an intoxicated young man just dashed by the restaurant naked, No Sir, he had done so to the tune of a local marching band leading a procession of childen’s choirs from around the world and members of Aarhus Pride Parade in a rendition of the Village People’s 1978 classic “YMCA.”
We may have dined at Michelin level, but the marching band refused to yield! (Streaker not pictured) – Photo credit: Malou from Klidmoster.dk
Not a view you’d generally expect during the presentation of a Michelin-starred starter but apparently nothing too out of the ordinary in Aarhus either. No further explanation was given to the incident other than some festivities taking place over the weekend. Judging by the cool reaction by staffers who by and large continued on with the chores as drums, trombones human peacocks and parts of the Malawi delegation passed by the restaurant.
This, apparently, was the sort of thing to expect when dining in the back streets of Aarhus on a festive occasion.
Our sense of wondering turned to a sense of wonder, though as the surprisingly effective kitchen pushed out the next course of the evening. A course that was not only visually stunning to look at, it was also hands down one of the best, most flavorful dishes I’ve had all year:
Second course: Norway lobster, new potatoes, Havgus cheese and bisque
How does one describe perfection? Plum, juicy, sweet and perfectly cooked pieces of Norway lobster with new Danish potatoes perfectly poached in a herb broth topped with lightly molten Havgus, a dry aged cheese from Arla’s Unika brand, and doused in a rich bisque made from the lobster shells and plenty of cream. Throw in some edible flowers and you’re pretty much there.
The combination of sweet lobster, herbaceous potatoes, pungent cheese and the richness of cream wasn’t one I’d seen coming, but like spring on a plate with the heavier elements of cheese and cream giving way to the freshness of herbs and the mildness of lobster, the balance of flavors was immaculate, and random sounds of praise were uttered by all – even well after our empty plates had been removed and our pleas of “please, Sir, I’d like some more” had been ignored. With somewhat mixed feelings, it was time to move on.
The third serving of the evening, you see, was probably the one I’d been looking most forward to since first seeing it teased on Instagram a few days prior to our visit.
Third course: Gothenborg chicken, morels, grilled asparagus, and ramson
Slow-raised chicken from local Gothenborg farm tossed in a morel mushroom mayo and plated with grilled white asparagus, cress, sorrel and ramson malto, a special technique in which flavorful oil is blended with maltodextrin to create a feather-light powder that turns to oil as soon as it hit’s the mouth. This was seasonal, local and other favorite buzz words of mine all blended into one and served up quite attractively. I was excited, I will admit. I mean, how often do you get to eat attractive chick in the company of a couple of attractive chicks?
Sadly, while an attractive and interesting dish, this was another under-seasoned effort from the kitchen, making the result of the kitchen’s hard work appear, again, a little bland. Luckily, though, this time Malou spotted a salt vessel at our table – a small detail that the rest of us had pretty brilliantly mistaken as part of a flower arrangement – and given a little salt the dish rose a little more to the occasion and showed true potential.
And then for something completely different…
Intermission: “Our Bread and butter”
Out of the kitchen came, once again, restaurant owner Rene carrying a – to some – somewhat strangely timed serving: Spongy, airy, little individually portioned breads that had been fried in a hot iron skillet rather than baked conventionally. Sort of like new Nordic johnnycakes with a nice spongy interior and the lightly charred crust providing a sort of outdoorsy funk. To go was a very nice compound butter with a plethora of herbs, rivaling my friend Malene’s mother’s homemade variety as the best I’ve ever had. (Sorry, mom!)
One could be entitled to a bit of wonder about having bread served mid-meal rather than at the beginning of a meal, and looking at one lovely co-diners review, I can see that the introduction of bread at this point seemed a little odd to some. However looking back at things now, it made an odd type of sense to have a decidedly small bread serving to separate the first light dishes from the heavier main dishes.
Also, I actually preferred to have it as a dish in itself rather than the “bread traps” that are usually served at the beginning of the meal and usually serve to fill you up against your better judgement. Besides, I enjoy people who take so much pride in their bread that they dare offer it up as a separate course, but to each their own 🙂
With the bread out of the way, it was time to move to the main portion of the show with the heavier, full-flavored meat dishes taking center stage, starting with something I’ve always considered a bit of a challenge.
Fourth course: Veal hearts, cauliflower, summer truffle and pine needles
There are visually appealing dishes and then there are those appealing to other senses, such as the sense of smell. This, while certainly not an ugly dish, in all honesty was less of the first and more of the latter. Set in front of us were little bowls filled with slow-cooked-veal hearts topped with cauliflower sliced thinly, thus releasing the sulphuric compounds and making the cauliflower not only look like, but also taste a lot like grated horseradish yet without the pungent smell of horseradish.
The lacking pungency was beautifully replaced by the strong juniper-like aroma of fresh pine needles mixing with the strange, hard to describe funk of freshly grated summer truffles that is somewhere between earthy and floral with a deep pungent intensity to it. Summer truffles may not be the most flavorful of truffles, but by God, I could have lived off the aromas of this dish alone. Especially, when a light veal boullion was poured into the bowl to enhance the beefy flavors and aromas of the dish.
Now, I have a challenging history with hearts and other internal organs, probably owing to many a bad childhood experience. But while still challenging in texture, the deep, robust, flavors of this the hardest working of all muscles mixed with the aggressive bite of the cauliflower and the sweet complexity of the sauce, made the dish work for me and completely won me over anew. Hearts? I may have to find a place for them in my life! Who’d have thunk? I’ll be the first to admit that at this point, I was starting to get quite impressed with the effort of the kitchen at Substans. But not as impressed as I’d soon be by the main dish.
Fifth course: BBQ pork belly, carrots, fennel and brown butter
“Oh wow,” said all of us in unison like a pack of Pavlovian dogs as Nicolas Jørgesen and his team placed their main dish in front of us. Not because what we were served was in any way posh, expensive or assuming, but simply because what arrived in front of us was a work of art in both preparation and presentation: Superbly tender, succulent and flavorful pork belly cooked sous-vide for 12 hours, then dragged round back for the BBQ treatment in the restaurant’s Big Green Egg cooker. Served with caramelized carrots, fennel tops and an intensely flavorful sauce made primarily from the reduced juice of caramelized carrots and brown butter. A simple dish on paper, yet stunningly beautiful to look at and bursting with meatiness and superbly balanced sweet, tart, rich, smoky and charred flavors.
And in here lies probably the greatest force of Restaurant Substans: In taking simple, carefully sourced yet comparatively cheap ingredients like hearts and pork belly and meticulously treating them with love and attention, surprising and exciting flavors are created. Some may find it cocky or arrogant to serve a main dish at a Michelin-starred establishment made from very few, very humble ingredients. But that is Substans for you. It’s neither pretentious, nor arrogant on the contrary, it IS absolute dedication to quality produce, to technique and to creating the greatest flavors from humblest of ingredients combined in exciting ways. It’s surprising, challenging and very rock ‘n’ roll.
Something that, by the way, could also be said for the next dish, a little surprise from the kitchen:
Pre-dessert: Goat’s milk and lemon curd popsicle with white chocolate and lemon verbena
This doesn’t look like rhubarb, I said, glancing at the menu and examining the popsicle that had landed in front of me. And indeed it wasn’t. Rather, we had been treated to an unannounced treat, a little pre-dessert if you will: A goat’s milk and lemon curd popsicle coated in white chocolate and lemon verbena, no less!
Yes, I know that sounds weird, but stick with me, my story gets better! You see, I’m really not much of a dessert person and I’m certainly not an ice cream lover, so it was with some trepidation that I bit into… another completely surprising highlight of the evening! A perfect blend of sweet and sour, creamy and tangy, sweet and herbaceous. No, really. My tales and praise have met many a “oh, sure… goat’s milk and lemon curd…” along the way, but go on, ask my co-diner, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t seen me this excited since I lifted a leaf off an onion during our dinner at Gastromé several months prior. This little pre-dessert dish was not only visually attractive and completely surprising, it was also very flavorful indeed.
Sixth course: Rhubarbs, cream and malt crumble
Following this strange and oddly welcome surprise, we were hit with the portion of the show that seemed tailored for the women in the audience, a trifecta of desserts and sweets, starting with more ultra rich ice cream (oh, bother!) served with several shades of another Danish early summer classic, you guessed it, rhubarb!
The first official dessert serving of the evening included, aside from a decadently rich and perfectly textured ice cream, two shades of rhubarb: a classic sweet compote served along-side thinly sliced ribbons of perfectly raw rhubarb. Raw rhubarb was certainly a first for me and while I do appreciate the concept of displaying an ingredient in its purest form, I’m not sure I perfectly enjoyed the taste and mouthfeel and I’d probably have loved to see them blanched, pickled or sugar-cured to take a bit of the raw bite and stringiness out of them.
The ice cream component however, was once again spectacular and the compote alone brought back a childhood memory or two… As did the next serving in the dessert tour de force:
Seventh Course: Honey, lemon and strawberries
There’s simply something magical about Danish strawberries, possibly because it’s one of the few plants that well and truly thrive here. And from that perspective alone, being treated to our final dessert at Substans was a bit of an honor. What came onto our plates, quite simply, were the very first strawberries of the season served up in what could best be described as an amusing play on a Danish classic: koldskål – cold, sweetened buttermilk soup, often served with strawberries.
In this rendition of a Danish classic, the part of the buttermilk was played by a buttermilk panna cotta while a honey merengue provided sweetness and texture. The early strawberries added a nice tart sweetness to the dish but weren’t positively bursting with flavor. That’s completely beside the point, though, as they shouldn’t be this early in the season. At this point in time, their mere presence serve as a reminder of good things to come and fond memories of childhood summers long gone. And that, by far, is good enough.
Our final dessert at Substans was playful, fun and well-composed. I suspect that the people eating it tonight, some three weeks after our visit, will find it even more fruity, summery and flavorful. For us, though, it still did the trick, serving as a great end to a great meal, leaving us sufficiently full without feeling stuffed to the point of bursting and with room for just one more trick or two.
In closing: Coffee and sweets
By this point of the evening, after some four hours of eating, drinking and talking our way through the full experience that was Restaurant Substans’ tasting menu, the restaurant had nearly emptied. Our gracious hosts, Nicolas and René, returned to our table one last time to exchange mutual pleasantries and offer us a choice between tea or coffee and a few last bites: white chocolate with fresh herbs and cream caramel wafers with sweet, pickled rosehip flowers. A couple of wonderfully sweet and floral little bites that our pictures in no way did justice.
After this final intermezzo, we payed our bill, upped and wandered full, happy and in somewhat heightened spirits into the warm Arhus night for a short, leisurely stroll down to Aarhus’ hidden gem of a cocktail bar, BarStart, to properly digest the experience that was Restaurant Substans over a Negroni or two and a talk about this and that.
We had been wined and dined by the owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant and the captain of the Danish culinary team. On one of the first nights of their new summer menu being served no less. Life, indeed, was good. But what were our conclusions? Some of us weren’t entirely sure, to be honest nor did we completely agree on the matter, and with some of us having to rise early the next morning, we eventually parted without having reached consensus on the matter.
Deciphering Restaurant Substans: Subtly brilliant and heart-warming with a can-do attitude
“Well? What do you think?” Asked Malou as we’d left town and finally settled down on her suburban balcony with a nightcap Gin & Tonic. Sunrise was less than an hour away but the night was still surprisingly warm and our minds were racing. “I… I honestly don’t know,” I said. And I didn’t. Substans was just so different from the norm. To be honest, I probably felt a little underwhelmed at the time: on the upside, the experience offered some truly overwhelming flavors and dishes, but at the same time a few flaws (mainly having to do with seasoning) that I’m simply not used to at this level of fine dining.
Be that as it may, we both though the ingredients to be a little, well, simple in lack of a better word and it took a good night’s sleep (well, as good of a night’s sleep as you’re going to get sharing a guest bed with a couple of nocturnal kittens) to realize that this was exactly the point of Restaurant Substans: to create something from nothing!
So here, now, is my revised opinion as shared with my hostess when we regrouped for breakfast the next morning:
Restaurant Substans offered a few minor letdowns over the course of a full evening all of which could be attributed to under-seasoning and, probably, a bit of nerve in regards to launching an entirely new menu. The clinks in the armor, however, were largely compensated for by a couple of major lifts, including one of the best seasonal and flavorful dishes I’ve enjoyed this year. Furthermore, the menu and dishes at Substans seem to be constantly evolving both in terms of flavor and presentation and not static from launch till retirement of a menu. Guests visiting now may well receive a slightly different dish in terms of presentation and taste. Bearing in mind that most ingredients are locally sourced under much scrutiny, mostly organic and of outstanding quality and freshness, the price of DKK 1400 for the full experience including seven glasses of wine, coffee and sweets seems a downright steal.
Despite “simple” ingredients and relative apparent simplicity of the dishes, there’s a level of dedication, attention and effort going into the dishes that at times boggles the mind. Furthermore, there’s a level of humility, playfulness and a daring to experiment (and fail) in the efforts of the kitchen and staff. At this level that’s the sort of stuff that lends a restaurant character and soul.
All is not yet perfect at Substance, but by God these kids have heart and character. Given time, practice and a willingness to retain their playfulness and willingness to fail – in the opinion of this reviewer – they’re not only going to retain their star, no, they’re more than likely going to be stars!
Wild, natural and biodynamic: The Wine Menu at Restaurant Substans
Don’t think I’d forgotten about the wines, did you? No, my friends, I’ve simply saved some of the best for last! I wouldn’t say I regret not taking more notes on the wine, I’m happy I spent my time enjoying the company, atmosphere and food, but I do wish I’d taken just a few more notes on the day or the day after because, really, the wines at Substans are worthy of a few words:
From the Riesling that kicked off the ball with it’s wild, crispy acidity on a bead of complex minerality with just a hint of oxidized petrolium despite its young age to the young and punchy Ausleese that rounded it off, and cleared the floor with it’s juicy tropical fruit laced with sugar yet kept wonderful in check by an ice pick like acidic core, the wines at Restaurant Substans were largely interesting, well picked and, well, probably a little less demanding than I had feared, or maybe in fact hoped.
A selection of the wine pairings served at Substans. Original photo credits: Malou from klidmoster.dk
Like the restaurant, the staff and the food, the wines were unusual and with definite character: From the veal heart paring of a 100% Gamay Beaujolais which tasted a confusingly lot like it’s much finer, much more expensive cousins up north in Bourgogne, over a laughably young and tannic 2015 Cabernet Franc served with the pork belly to a Bordeaux Blanc with notes of wild yeast and Bortyritis to match the rhubarb serving, the pairings were exciting and unconventional. None more so, probably, than a 2013 Jura rosé with notes of wild yeast, sour cherries and the usual funk you’d expect from a Belgian lambic ale which in itself seemed entirely out of place, until paired with chicken, morels and grilled white asparagus.
Restaurant Substans may not have the best wine menu in town, but they may well have the most interesting, and with that said the wine pairings, in my book, are a must try. They’re expertly poured, too, by the knowledgeable waitstaff who not only know their wines, but also show attention to class and detail when pouring. As became apparent when a glass was quickly snatched from in front of me during a pour only to be apologetically replaced within seconds by an even more generous glass and the whispered words “microscopic cork piece, I’m terribly sorry!” – a detail the casual diner (and for that matter a less skilled waiter) might well have missed. Good show, Substans!