Last week I made the now incredibly popular pilgrimage to a restaurant in downtown Copenhagen where I had heard that a man from Denmark was doing amazing things with foraged weeds and insects. The rise of Noma is quite an extraordinary one considering it came at a time when the world was enthralled by the exploits of Adria and Blumenthal, who were using new and crazy techniques to manipulate food. Their ethos of molecular gastronomy and technology, and Redzepi’s of natural and local, could not be more different. Redzepi is the antithesis of that new wave of food; almost a regression to an earlier, more simpler time.
When you become the “The Best Restaurant in the World” ™ this ethos is tested to its limit. It is not the sort of food that you might expect from a restaurant that can boast this sort of title. It’s devoid of the usual main stays of luxury menus around the world; where’s the scallops, the lobster, the foie gras? If you’ve decided to come to Noma purely as a tick box exercise, or another notch on the bed post of famous restaurants visited, I fear you’ll be disappointed. It’s unapologetically lacking in the glamour department, stoically seasonal and proudly local, all of which makes its rise to the summit of the world all the more incredible.
So what was it like? Well, when I visited The Fat Duck back in December, you really felt that Heston was telling you a story with each dish; that months of research and thought had gone into each one so that the story was told visually, then through smell, and finally through taste. At Noma, instead of a story, you are taken instead on a journey through an aesthetic, a country. It’s like you’ve been transported out to the woods of Denmark and the cooks are bringing you the food straight from the fields and trees and onto a plate. I won’t remember the dishes in the same way as I do The Fat Duck, what I will remember is the aesthetic.
From the moment you arrive the food is upon you, literally. What you think is a decorative flower pot is in fact hiding the first of the many things that arrive at your table, twigs made of malt juniper leaves and pine leaves served with crème fraiche. It’s a fun start to the meal and the next 45 minutes is a non-stop “attack” of little canapés ranging from a succulent blue mussel to goose liver biscuit, frozen grasshoppers and cod liver, all of it is amazing and all of it is inventive. The time flies by in a blur of flavours and smells. Food is brought out by the army of chefs working in the open kitchen, all with a smile and a genuine sense of enthusiasm and earnestness.
After 45 minutes there’s a pause to take stock, to breath, and then the “real” meal begins. We start off with a couple palate cleanser of sorts; first up a simple arrangement of fava beans and beach herbs, fresh greenery lifted by some interesting herbs, it’s light and wholesome. Second up another salad, this time one with beets, berries and herbs. It’s a perfect example of the food at Noma. Simple, fresh, clear flavours perfectly complimenting each other.
Next we move on to a bowl of brown crab, egg yolk and herbs. Succulent crab mixing perfectly with a slow cooked yolk and another round of herbs. It might seem that these herbs are just thrown on as a garnish but from the moment you taste every dish they make a difference, add another level to the food, and the herbs used are different every time. How you keep a steady stream of freshly foraged herbs to a restaurant that uses them so extensively, and for so many dishes, I have no idea.
The next dish is one I will remember for a long time and is one of the dishes that made the restaurant famous: a steak tartar with herbs, white onions and sorrel. This has been painstakingly assembled by hand and you are in turn told that it should be consumed with the hands. You pick little parcels up in the fingers and you wish it was double the size, the highest quality meat, delicate flavours and a sumptuous texture, amazing stuff!
Next up another vegetarian dish, cauliflower, pine cream and horseradish. The cauliflower slow cooked mingling with the woody flavours of the pine and cut through with the biting flavours of the horseradish, 3 flavours in perfect unison.
We had a bit more fish to follow, one I’ve never had before: pike perch with cabbage and dill. This was soft, silky and tender, the dill flavouring was the star really bringing out the flavour in the fish.
Our penultimate savoury course is another famous Noma dish and one that again might surprise the more higher end clients. A hot skillet is brought out with various ingredients, including an egg, hay oil and a timer. Instructions are to crack the egg into the skillet, let it fry in the oil for just over a minute and then add the other ingredients. The result is the most warming and lovely dish; rich egg yolk mixed with lovage, potato and herby buttered spinach. So good.
And already we are at the end of the savoury food with a final fish course to finish up, a lovely slice of turbot with more herbs and nettles in a bullion sauce. A fitting end to this trip out to the woods.
It’s not over though. We are warned by the Maitre D that the Danes don’t really do “sweet” but prefer their deserts more savoury. First off something we had heard about but still surprises you when you here it: a blueberry ice cream sandwich with ants. The bitter flavour of the ant tempered by the smooth ice cream and sweet berry, amazingly it does work but probably only in unison. The second was a little more traditional; roasted pears and pinewood foam, probably the best pear I’ve had the pleasure of eating, mixing with the woody flavours of the pine and finally melting perfectly in your mouth. It was a great way to finish up.
Before we paid up, one of the chefs was kind enough to give us a tour of the place. You really get a feel for how the culture of Noma goes far beyond what you see on the plate in front of you. From your table you see the open kitchen, a delicate opera that is made even more complicated by the fact that there are hardly any traditional waiters. Instead you have the chefs themselves coming out to serve you. This means that the kitchen is constantly moving, chefs changing stations all the time, everyone cooking everything. It’s the food equivalent of total football, I suppose, a purists kitchen.
Further behind the scenes is the staff canteen, a lovely place where the chefs make sure they all get together to eat once a day. The whole place is amazing really, a factory line of herbs and ingredients, and an enthusiasm emanating from everyone there. They told us that to keep the menu evolving each chef takes a turn presenting a new recipe to the team every Sunday night, which must be one of the most nerve wracking experiences in the world. It seemed like an amazing place to work and be a part of and I’m not surprised that so many alumni of Noma have gone on to do great things themselves.
It was a lovely day, full of suprises, unfamiliar flavours and combinations and we had a whole lot of fun. What I love the most is that if I went back next spring the menu will probably have changed beyond recognition. So that’s what I plan to do.