So it was, just after midnight on a chilly April evening in Oslo, that I found myself in front of my computer, finger poised expectantly over the mouse button. Click. A heart-stopping wait of a few seconds, followed by one of the happiest sights a food lover can see - a brief message confirming a table for two for dinner at Noma, currently one of the most lauded restaurants on the planet.
Little did I know that barely a week later, the hype surrounding this restaurant would reach fever pitch as Noma would shoot to the top of the San Pellegrino rankings to be crowned as "The World's Best Restaurant", trouncing rival contenders such as the legendary El Bulli and The Fat Duck. The next day Noma's website would buckle under the strain of over 100,000 booking enquiries and tables for the next three months would be booked solid. Was this a classic case of hype over substance? Can it be possible to get this excited about just food? I simply had to see what all the fuss was about for myself.
Three months would pass until my meal at Noma, more than enough time to build my expectations to stratospheric levels. I did what I typically always do before going to a new restaurant and did a bit of research, read reviews and planned the whole sequence of dishes I would have in my head. OK, maybe a tad OCD but I like to know these things. I read some wonderful reviews, in particular from Luxeat, two very comprehensive ones from Food Snob, and also from Copenhagen resident and Noma regular, Trine Lai at Very Good Food.
Noma is located in an old former warehouse in the fashionable Christianshavn area of town and is run by chef and co-owner René Redzepi. I won't dwell on the history of the restaurant, as much has already been written on that topic, but you can read more on co-owner Claus Meyer's website here.
Mrs. Nibbler and I were warmly greeted at the door and shown to our table. At the suggestion of the 'sommelier' (he also serves some of the dishes himself), Pontus Elofsson, we had Noma's own beer as an aperitif. It was made with sap tapped from local birch trees and was wonderfully refreshing with a crisp, hoppy flavour, which we sipped as we surveyed the dining room.
The interior of the restaurant is calm and airy, with wood being the dominant material used. Soft lighting, candles and sheepskin throws over some of the chairs added to the hygge and created an archetypal Scandinavian atmosphere. The evening sun flooded in through the large windows and the light constantly changed as the evening progressed, changing the feel of the room. The kitchen was semi-open plan and was encased in clear glass windows, providing a perfect view of the chefs at work - it was an oasis of calm, with chef René Redzepi at the helm, quietly leading a team of chefs from around the world. This evening was also to be the last service before the restaurant closes for the summer, so there was a really pleasant, 'end-of-term' atmosphere.
We both opted for the 12-course 'Noma Nassaaq' menu (you're advised to plan on spending at least 4 hours eating your way through this menu, but a smaller 7-course menu is also available) that includes both classic Noma dishes as well as some newer inventions. We also opted for the wine menu, which paired each course to an appropriate wine. Interestingly the entire wine tasting menu comprised of wines from the Champagne region and really showcased what the area has to offer - blanc de blancs, pinot noirs, still, sparking, sweet, and dry.
Now at this point I must admit the mischievous cynic in me almost wanted Noma to be a flop. Given the amount of hyperbole surrounding this restaurant, I almost wanted to be able to say that the emperor had no clothes. As it turned out, I've never been happier to have been proved wrong. In fact I'm finding it hard to describe the beauty of the meal I had at Noma, other than to say I enjoyed one of the finest meals of my life that warm July night.
Noma is not the sort of restaurant that you can evaluate dish by dish; it would be a bit like looking at an Edvard Munch painting and exclaiming that you liked this particular square inch the best. Eating at Noma really is an all-encompassing experience for all five senses. As such, I think it is best to just present the dishes we enjoyed that night with minimal description and let the pictures do the talking, but I will try and highlight some of the key moments. The key themes you pick up from the food are intense seasonality and the bond with nature that this restaurant has. 'Wild nature' has a strong presence in all the dishes (indeed, Noma employs 3 full-time foragers) and the ingredients used here are balanced more towards vegetables, herbs, grains and fruits as opposed to meat and seafood.
To start with we were offered a series of amuse bouches, or 'snacks', as Noma likes to call them, to whet the appetite.
Snack 1: Sea-buckthorn 'leather' with pickled rose hip petals. Sea-buckthorn berries had been puréed and dried into thin strips of 'leather'. The astringent, tart berries combined with the pickled rose hip petals proved a perfect way of waking up the taste buds.
Snack 2: Savoury cookies with speck and blackcurrants. Next a biscuit tin was placed in front of us and opened to reveal the two savoury cookies. The speck had a nice smoky flavour, but was somewhat overwhelmed by the sharpness of the blackcurrants. Although still delicious, it was maybe a touch too acidic for me.
Snack 4: Pickled, smoked quail's egg. A classic Noma dish next. A porcelain egg was placed on the table and opened to reveal two quail's eggs as a wisp of smoke wafted out of the dish. The eggs were lightly smoked and pickled and consumed in one go with the warm yolk still runny and velvety smooth.
Course 1: Beetroot with sorrel sauce and malt. This dish consisted of thinly sliced beetroot with crunchy malt 'puffs' and sorrel sauce. The black beetroot obtains its colour by being cooked in ash.
Course 2: Dried scallops with biodynamic grains, hazelnuts and squid ink sauce. The second dish was crisp slices of dried scallops with al dente grains, hazelnuts and a smooth squid ink sauce. A real variety of textures but I'm not convinced that drying the scallops is the best way to showcase their flavour, I would maybe have preferred a couple of grilled fresh scallops instead.
Course 3: Tartare of Danish beef, wild sorrel leaves, tarragon emulsion, and juniper berries. This is a famous Noma dish that used to be made with musk ox instead of beef. I gather they had difficulties securing an acceptable supply of musk ox so switched to Danish beef instead. This dish is eaten with the hands and the idea is to scoop up some of the tartare with the lemony sorrel leaves, smear this in the tarragon emulsion and then dip into the juniper berries. A wonderful dish that was surprisingly light.
Course 4: Langoustine with oyster, parsley and seawater emulsion, and rye crumbs. This was a truly stunning dish. The most perfect langoustine, barely cooked, was placed on a warm stone that was dotted with small pearls of an oyster, parsley and seawater emulsion. A purple powder of seaweed was sprinkled over the stone. This was a dish you eat with your hands and we were encouraged to 'make art' as we dipped the langoustine in the emulsion. I closed my eyes and felt transported to a beach on a hot summer's day (with no iPod needed, à la The Fat Duck). Simply amazing.
Course 5: White asparagus and pine shoots, asparagus and pine sauce.
Course 8: 'The Hen and the Egg'. This was a very fun dish; essentially you fry your own egg. A plate containing some herb butter, spinach, ramsons, and lovage was placed at our table and we were told to await further instructions. A second plate soon arrived bearing a hot skillet placed on some straw. Next to it was a duck egg, an eggshell containing salt, and some potato crisps. Pontus squeezed a drop of hay oil onto the hot skillet and we were told to break the egg into it, he then placed a timer on the table and told us to wait. When the timer went off we added the herb butter and the leaves. This was left to cook for a minute and then a sorrel sauce was pored over. The potato crisps were then crushed and sprinkled over the top. The best fried egg I have ever had.
Course 10: 'Strawberries and straw'. Another relatively new dish. Strawberries were served with chamomile, elderflower and small discs of hay parfait. The waiter then poured a cold, thin chamomile and rapeseed oil sauce over the top. This dish was wonderfully refreshing and stunning in its simplicity. The strawberries melded perfectly with the floral aroma of the chamomile and elderflower, and the parfait provided just enough sweetness. Just perfect.
Course 11: Carrot sorbet, covered with buttermilk foam surrounded by dried, raw and blanched biodynamic carrots and pieces of desiccated star anise cake, garnished with carrot leaves and roots. I found this dish the most challenging. This dish was almost savoury and relied solely on the natural sweetness of the carrot. It seemed odd to have it just after the relatively sweet strawberry dish and probably should have been served as the first 'dessert'.
Course 12: Jerusalem artichoke sorbet with apple, shortbread and chocolate discs, apple reduction and marjoram. I also found this dish quite challenging, the combination of flavours is initially so unusual that you can't quite work out if you like it or not. Halfway through eating it I decided that it was indeed magnificent. The earthiness of the jerusalem artichoke combined brilliantly with the sweet and crunchy discs and with the tartness of the apple purée, with the marjoram providing citrus and mint notes. A wonderful way to end the meal.
It is easy to get carried away with the hype surrounding this restaurant, but at its core Noma delivers some of the most thoughtful and, yes, lovingly prepared food I've ever had. Inside the restaurant, the flood of acclaim Noma has achieved thankfully does not seem to matter or indeed to have come as much surprise. After all, this is a restaurant that has been going for seven years now with the singular purpose of creating a new Nordic cuisine, and you get the sense that no Michelin stars, restaurant rankings, or food fads will cause them to deviate from this path. The staff conveys real warmth and pride for what they are achieving here, and it shows not just in the cooking but also in the wonderful service. The fact that the chefs often personally serve you the dishes they have just prepared serves to engender a sense of inclusivity and informality, a very Scandinavian trait, and cements Noma's identity further.
So is this restaurant worthy of the hype it has been generating? Most definitely. The sheer quality and intelligence of the cooking is simply breathtaking. However, I would say that overall I feel Noma is just a touch short of reaching its full potential and I can fully understand its current status as 'only' a 2-Michelin star restaurant. I felt a couple of the dishes were missing that intangible magic that separates excellent cooking from truly legendary cooking. Now don't get me wrong, the food I had here was truly amazing, but you sense the trajectory of Redzepi's cooking will lead to even greater things.
A meal at Noma serves to remind you that sometimes food is not just food and that the combination of perfect ingredients, a sense of location, and brilliant execution can transcend the sum of their constituent parts. It's the sort of meal that becomes laser-etched into your memory, forever to change your palate. Noma excites and delights in equal measures, and I can't remember ever being this excited about a restaurant.
Food: 10 / 10
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
1401 Copenhagen, Denmark
Tel: +45 32 96 32 97