Dining at the world’s best restaurant comes with its own set of anticipation and expectation.
I approached this meal the way that I have often approached meals in the past, my frame of reference limited (I am by no means as well-traveled and well-dined as some of my blogger-counterparts) and judgement criterion somewhat skewed by my dining experiences to date. What is a lunch at the world’s best restaurant supposed to deliver? Will every course delight, bursting with transcendental flavours? Will this be the most enjoyable meal of my life to date?
It was immediately evident that the normal dining paradigms are not applicable here. If you come to Noma seeking comfort in taste and contented familiarity, you will likely leave feeling unfulfilled. Each dish in isolation wasn’t always exceptionally tasty, not being imbued with heavy-handed seasoning that has become conventional in North American or Asian cooking, and by which we tend to judge most food we eat.
What Rene Redzepi has accomplished at Noma is revolutionary, pioneering, at times even feeling a bit too experimental. It stands a head above great restaurants because it delivers more than the sheer enjoyment of food. Subjectively, a simple bucatini in a neighbourhood trattoria is immensely enjoyable. Noma achieves something much greater than this, it weaves a narrative through the dishes, making a statement- a manifesto, if you will- of what we have come to know as the New Nordic Cuisine. It is this, among other reasons, that Noma is currently ranked the best restaurant in the world.
Our long anticipated lunch (reservations were made 3 months in advance) was a provocative, stimulative experience. The four hour, 12+ course meal was at once intellectual, technical, imaginative, playful. It kept me on my toes. Our party of eight was large, a medley of backgrounds and interests from all corners of the world, bound by a common curiosity and appetite. But despite the mosaic of characters, there was little exchange of the usual dining table banter as we all sat, engrossed in our thinking meal, trying to keep up with the speed of the courses.
I walked away that night with a bloated mind, and muddled emotions and impressions of taste that took some time to clarify. Each time I thought back, I discovered another detail, uncovered another layer in Redzepi’s complex vision. This was a meal that continued to nourish, long after the last bite.
Rene Redzepi’s restaurant is a trailblazer in Scandinavia’s culinary identity. It is a refresh, remix, and re-imagination of Nordic ingredients, taking form in foraged edibles, experimental techniques, and unlikely flavour combinations. This is a kind of personal, highly location-aware creation. As Redzepi says, it is his expression of food that happens at that place, in that moment. With Noma, he had paved the way for a celebrated modern age in Nordic cuisine, inspiring cadres of young chefs to continue provoking the excitement that has descended on Danish food culture.
Foraging has also become one of the biggest restaurant trends, inspiring chefs in Canada, New York (David Chang has been known to forage in Central Park), and other parts of Europe to work within the limits of their geography to convey a sense of place in their cooking.
It’s too unilateral of a view however, that Noma simply showcases; what is right there, right then. It also inspires; awareness of food origin, respect for the stages in its life cycle, a sense of wonderment. At the core of it all, it tells a story.
Noma co-owner Claus Meyer eloquently describes the importance of terroir to New Nordic cooking. In spite of the northern location of Denmark, the weather is quite temperate due to its coastal climate, mild winters and damp summers. Light conditions are also unusual, with long dark winter nights and equally long sunny summer days. The impact of all these natural forces create primary produce with distinct characteristics that are only found in this place.
To quote Meyer:
By consuming the produce we become part of the surroundings that go into the food, and the cultivation location becomes part of us. It works both ways. For that reason the origin of primary produce, its identity, is vital if we want to avoid becoming alienated from ourselves. No matter who we are.
This philosophy of food; the consciousness of a bilateral relationship between who we are and what we eat, is a key theme that reoccurs throughout our meal.
Our complete list of courses (photos here):
malt flatbread and juniper
moss and cep
pork skin and blackcurrant
leek and parsley
cookies and cheese
potato and chicken liver
pickled and smoked quail’s egg
radish, soil and grass
toast and herbs, smoked cod roe and vinegar
apple and jerusalem artichoke, garden sorrel and coriander
sea urchin and dill, cucumber and cream
biodynamic grains and watercress, dried scallops and beech nuts
chestnut and lrjrom
onion and thyme, gooseberry juice
pike perch and cabbage
carrot and truffles
pickled vegetables and bone marrow
venison and walnuts, bitter greens and juniper
gammel dansk (frozen apple dessert)
bone marrow toffees
marshmallows on crackers, coated in chocolate
chocolate-covered potato chips with fennel
We had 12 courses and a number of snacks that opened and closed our meal. Starters were presented as bits of nature, organic extensions of their habitat. Miniature twigs of malt flatbread nestled in a bouquet of pine prepared us for the journey to come.
Next was ‘Moss and Cep’; named thus for its value as a food source for reindeer and caribou in northern regions, reindeer moss is found in pine-hardwood forests and is presented to us on a display evocative of its origin. We used our hands to dip the brittle, crunchy moss in creme fraiche.
The next starter, definitely one of the most memorable for anyone who’s dined at Noma, came in a large brown-speckled porcelain egg.
With a flourish, the waiter lifted the top shell to reveal two slightly marbled quail’s eggs, nestled in a bed of hay and enveloped in a cloud of aromatic smoke. Pickled in apple vinegar and lightly smoked over apple wood from Noma co-owner Claus Meyer’s orchard, these were perfectly soft-boiled. Eaten whole, the soft, velvety yolk quickly bursts in one’s mouth, coating the tongue with its delicate, smoky flavour. Whimsically meta, this dish attempts to answer the age-old question of which came first. The egg, of course.
I was told the bread was exceptional in Denmark, and Herman was proof of that. But nothing quite prepared me for how good the bread was at Noma. A pyramid-shaped felt pouch arrived, emitting a gorgeous warmth I could sense from halfway across table. Piping hot wedges of sourdough hid beneath the felt, the perfect balance of crusty exterior and warm chewy dough beneath. Made with a special flour from Denmark, the bread is freshly baked before lunch and dinner. It was served with pork fat with apple aquavit and ‘virgin’ butter, half-churned buttermilk so light and fluffy that it makes me wonder why anyone ever bothers to churn it all the way. The butter melting upon contact with the warm bread was like a dream. Definitely some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted in my life. We asked for seconds, and thirds.
A playful take on pork skin. Made to look like the cured skin of a pig’s back, the thin upper layer was actually made of compressed blackcurrant berries. Its tartness was a good balance to the light and crunchy pork rind.
One of the most famous dishes at Noma, and one that has spurred numerous copycats around the world; radish, soil and grass brings us close to the earth by encouraging us to get our hands dirty and dig up our own food. The radishes and carrots are buried in a pot with yogurt base and a crumbly malt ‘soil’. This dish is visually enticing, fun to eat, and a wonderful contrast of flavours and textures.
The last of our starters, this snack was a sandwich to be eaten with your hands. A thin, crispy bread as a base, dots of smoked cod roe emulsion was combined with fresh green herbs and dusted with powdered vinegar. This is topped with a thin layer of “duck stock”, the skimmed and dried film that forms on a pot of boiling duck stock. The savoury and smokey notes from the cod roe, combined with the freshness of the herbs and acidity of the vinegar was a perfectly delicate combination of flavours.
The first main to grab my attention, this was perhaps the most visually arresting dish of the night. The local sea urchin wasn’t as flavourful as I’ve had elsewhere, but what i liked about this was the way elements worked together. Cucumbers in the shape of little balls are rolled in ash and scattered over the dish like mysterious glass beads, emulsions of dill and cream add additional dimensions of texture and subtle flavour. This was the culinary equivalent of a Matisse.
Another memorable dish was Redzepi’s famous vintage carrots. See him telling the story behind this dish in this video. It’s no secret that Danish winters are excessively long and cold. One such year, constrained by the limitations of this terroir once again, Redzepi begged a farmer supplier for anything he had. The farmer mentioned he had a patch of carrots that have been under the ground for over a year that he didn’t have time to harvest. These were purple to the point of black, and so hard they were basically inedible. Faced with the challenge of creating something great out of not much, Redzepi treated these carrots like fine pieces of meat, simmering it for two hours with melted goat butter, turning and basting until the carrot’s natural sweetness was released and became almost caramelized in flavour. This discovery was paramount, and yet another illustration of the creativity that spurs from Noma’s geographic limitations.
Another interesting dish, thinly sliced laminates of dried scallops were beautifully arranged on a bed of biodynamic grains, watercress and beech nuts. The scallops were not salted, thus quite unlike the preserved Chinese variety commonly used in soups and stocks. But its briny flavour tasted distinctly of the sea, an interesting balance with the fresh, earthy flavours of the watercress and beech nuts.
My favorite dish of the meal was also one of the simplest in preparation. Raw chestnuts, thinly sliced into discs, on a bed of lojrom- exquisite caviar from North of Sweden. The chef added a slightly tangy, creamy sauce at the table, which when combined with the smooth texture of the chestnuts and crunch of caviar was perfection.
To drive home the hunter/forager spirit of the meal, we were each given a puukko knife, handmade in Lapland with a base sculpted out of reindeer horn and encased in a rustic leather holder. This was beautiful, a reflection of the intricacies of Scandinavian craftsmanship.
The venison was served with raw walnuts, bitter greens and juniper. The idea behind this dish is to showcase the main ingredient with co-existing elements in nature, things that the wild roe deer would have foraged for in the woods. As we took to the perfectly cooked venison with our hunter knives, we were reminded of the origins of this food, the greens as the deer’s sustenance, and all the elements in nature that contributed to the flavours now on our plate. This dish was superbly executed.
Unfortunately it got a bit too dark and I don’t have proper photos of the desserts. You can refer to my fellow diner and HK food blogger e_ting’s photos for those.
Highlights included a bone marrow caramel- salty and slightly smoky, made without butter but veal marrow. Served in hollowed out bones, these confectionaries were wrapped up in brown butcher’s paper and tied up with string. Another dessert looked like the ubiquitous chocolate covered marshmallow treats found across Europe, which finds its origin in Denmark. This version is a meringue made from yogurt whey sitting on a base of malt biscuit and draped with a fine milk chocolate coating that melted upon contact.
Four hours later, we once again faced the cold Scandinavian air, now with the veil of dusk draped over the sky. It was only 4pm, but the sun has mostly set, ushering Copenhagen residents into Winter’s hibernation. Our cheeks still rosy from the restaurant’s warmth and bellies round from having experienced a tour de force of New Nordic cuisine, we slowly made our way out of Noma, reluctant to leave our newfound state of hygge behind.
For more thorough discussion of Noma, Rene Redzepi and his food, read this exceptional post by Food Snob.
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