This review was originally published in 2017. Geist closed in 2021.
I didn’t think it was possible to love and hate a restaurant in equal measure – that was until I went to Geist in Copenhagen. Located at the western end of Nyhavn (the main tourist drag) and opposite the iconic Hotel d’Angleterre, it couldn’t be more central. Chef Bo Bech’s post-Noma neo-Nordic cuisine impresses, but the whole experience is just a tad too bizarre – uncomfortably so.
Geist, aptly named, indeed captures the zeitgeist. The Noma heyday is behind us. Marcus Wareing has already warned of the death of fine dining – fancy fussiness is just not what customers want, nor do they want to pay 2000 krone to lick moss off a rock. People want ethically sourced, simply prepared food in relaxed surroundings, without the rigidity of fixed-price tasting menus. To this end, Geist ticks all those boxes, especially with its informal and democratic food bar taking centre stage.
However, on arrival, I wondered if I had crossed into some alternative anti-service universe. There was no-one to greet me or direct me to my seat. What are you supposed to do? Reserving in advance turned out to be a pointless exercise. It was dark with loud, thumping music. Had I walked into a nightclub by mistake? (I’ve been known to do that before). Guests were mysteriously going off to the toilets downstairs in pairs (more on the toilets in a moment). It was bewildering as it was annoying. In my fugue state, I tried to make myself comfortable at the food bar and announced my presence to the sleepy waitress. She yawned as if it was already the end of a 12 hour shift (the low lighting will do that to you) and directed me straight to the cocktail list when all I wanted was a glass of red. She seemed perplexed by this request (and it wasn’t the language barrier, since Danes speak better English than the English). At this point I was considering just gulping down the wine and going elsewhere. Sitting at the dining bar with the commotion of people going back and forth behind me made me anxious too. This is how I imagine Tony feels in the last scene of The Sopranos – the feeling that you could get whacked at any moment. I was on the verge of consigning Geist to my restaurant blacklist already and I had only been there 10 minutes.
I was on the verge of consigning Geist to my restaurant blacklist already and I had only been there 10 minutes
A menu was eventually presented to me. I tried my best to resist using the torch on my phone (no-one likes to conspicuously illuminate their face – it makes you look like a guilty flatmate raiding the fridge for a midnight snack). But it was barely possible to read it, not just because of the darkness but the words used too – or lack of them. Now, when it comes to menu construction, succinctness not prolixity is the key – on that we can all agree. But we’ve got to the point where menus are so laconic that they need further elucidation. A dish is described as “Egg with herbs.” OK. It’s minimalist in its abject rejection of adjectives, sure, but what does it mean? What are the herbs? Was the egg laid by a duck, a quail or a hen? Is it scrambled, fried, poached or boiled? Is it real or 3D printed? Am I real or a replicant? Who knows??
And then the toilets. These are a crucial part of the overall restaurant experience don’t you find? (Can you relieve yourself in comfort, etc?). The loos at Geist have to be up there with one of the bizarrest lavatorial experiences of my life. The sound of a Mohammed Ali boxing match in the background, a giant sphinx-like statue of a cat and Scarface-esque mirrors on the ceiling aren’t particularly conducive to relaxation.
I was also a bit perturbed by how low the lighting was over the centrepiece kitchen. Obviously the idea is to show off the kitchen and this works in daylight, but at night this fails on two fronts: you can’t actually see what the brigade are doing anyway, and more concerning, neither can they! It’s like being in a cave where the only light is the dying embers of a wood fire. Only the preposterous Dans Le Noir in Farringdon is darker. Now, when I cook I channel Keith Floyd and cook by candlelight with a bottle of Claret open (when I eventually write a flop of a recipe book it will specifically instruct you to pour yourself a glass after chopping the parsley or rolling the pasta – you’ve earned it). But then again my guests (or guinea pigs) aren’t paying, and they’re my friends. As for Geist, there may have been fingerprints on the plate or hairs lurking on a stakeout in the vegetation, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re plunged into such temporary blindness. And you’re paying for this, remember.
whilst I hated the JG Ballardian sci-fi noir ambience… I liked the food (from what I could taste rather than see, as I couldn’t see much)
The thing is, whilst I hated the JG Ballardian sci-fi noir ambience, and wasn’t too impressed by the service, I liked the food (from what I could taste rather than see, as I couldn’t see much – Bo Bech’s dishes certainly look the part, if his Instagram gallery is all you’re going on). It’s all about the small plates (sigh) but there are plenty to choose from, ranging in price from a tenner for a simple plate of Chanterelle mushrooms to £30 for turbot ravioli (the portion size being the same as tapas, bear in mind). I dived in with the aforementioned egg, encircled by crispy parsley and herbs – so, so simple and yet so wonderfully executed. The egg had been fried delicately with no resulting rubberiness. Similarly, wild duck with pumpkin and Arabica was essentially just finely carved slivers of the meat concertinaed on the plate, and was utterly delicious. I didn’t bother with dessert, since they were each around £12 and by this point I was expecting a phone call from my bank. When I got my bill I nearly fell off my chair onto a passer-by behind me.
Copenhagen remains one of my favourite cities in the world, if not my favourite. But it also remains ludicrously expensive – even more so thanks to Brexit and the be-crippled pound. So, if you’re trying to maximise value in this costly city I’d suggest dining elsewhere. If only you could take the food of Geist with the calm atmosphere (and light) of the Marachal Bar across the road and then you’d really be on to something.
Kongens Nytorv 8
by J A Smith