20 November 2012
dinner at Noma. It took me a while to process my thoughts on my meal there, but on that July night as I walked away from the old warehouse in Copenhagen's Christianshavn, I had this strange lightness of step and giddy excitement, like some spotty teenager with a newfound crush. But this wasn't to be a holiday fling, I promised myself, it was the real deal, we'd keep in touch. I vowed to come back.
So much for good intentions for it would be over two years until I returned. Courtesy of a kind invitation from Arve at Starve – "would you like to eat at Noma with us?" he asked; a question that could only possibly have one answer – I found myself standing outside that same mottled stone building looking out over the cold waters of the canal. A little flutter of butterflies in my stomach betrayed my concern. Would it be just as good as I remembered? Or was that meal one of those rare moments where the right stars aligned at the right time to create something utterly magical, never to be repeated. What if it was just a fling? How had time changed my Noma experience?
We were joined for dinner by Danish food blogger Trine Lai, who's positively a Nomaholic, having had more meals at the restaurant than I can count on my fingers and toes. In fact not even getting hit by a car while riding her bicycle earlier in the day was going to stop her eating here tonight.
A bit ahead of schedule we stood chatting outside. The door to the restaurant swung open suddenly, catching us off guard, to reveal a smiling welcoming committee of chefs, as though welcoming back their Prodigal Son. Not in that fakey American kind of way, though, but in the sparse yet genuine way people seem to communicate here in Scandinavia.
"I hope you're hungry," says René Redzepi, Noma's mercurial chef and co-founder/owner. And then with a playful glint in his eye, "Do you guys like lasagne?"
We’re seated, and with glasses of Andre Beaufort Brut Nature Réserve Champagne in hand have a moment to take in the room. Since I was here last, the restaurant has undergone a gentle makeover; less of the botox kind and more of a revitalising facial. Gone are the brown and taupe hues, to be replaced by soothing tones of grey, white, and black. There's a new oak floor and bar, while the adjoining lounge area seems to possess much more of that intangible Danish hygge. Subtly different tables and chairs complete the calm and natural look.
But it's not just the design of the restaurant that has changed. The kitchen is now presided over by Californian head chef Matthew Orlando, who's been at Noma for over four years in between stints at The French Laundry, Per Se, and The Fat Duck. Redzepi has now stepped away from much of the day-to-day running of the pass to focus on being the guiding spirit for the evolution of Noma's food, spending much of his time in the test kitchen upstairs overseeing the creation of new dishes. Gone also is the formidable presence of Swedish sommelier Pontus Elofsson. Instead, the Norwegian (yay!) Mads Kleppe takes over this role and, for good reason, continues his predecessor's famous ban on Bordeaux (too full-bodied, too many chemicals).
But I've barely had time to contemplate these changes when the meal is upon us with arrival of the first flurry of the many opening ‘snacks.’
Snack 1: Malt flatbread and Juniper. Awaiting our arrival at the table was a vase filled with what, at first glance, looked like a pretty table decoration. This would actually turn out to be the first of our many ‘snacks’ before the main courses began in earnest. In the vase were twig-like sticks of crispy malt flatbread, dusted with juniper. We plucked them out of the vase and dipped them into some crème fraîche; a clever and playful way to start the meal, bringing smiles of surprise to the table.
Snack 2: Moss and Cep. An ethereally light tangle of this pale lichen had been fried to a fragile crisp and dusted with cep powder. Its flavour was a fleeting thing of damp earthiness, while the mushroom powder gave it an umami kick of savouriness.
Snack 3: Crispy Pork Skin and Blackcurrant was a delicious airy fried pork rind wrapped in a thin strip of tangy blackcurrant ‘leather.’ The best bar snack ever?
Snack 4: Blue Mussel and Celery. A plate of beautiful blue mussel shells arrived bearing three seemingly unopened specimens. We were instructed to discard the top shell off these, leaving the mussel in the bottom half of the 'shell,' and then eat the whole thing, shell and all. A little bit sceptical I gingerly bit into the inky black shell, to find it completely edible and completely delicious; its crunch contrasting nicely with the sweet mussel and soft creamy celery. I’ve no idea how the edible shell was made, but it was apparently a direct result of the weekly ‘projects’ that Noma chefs work on and which Redzepi oversees in the upstairs test kitchen.
Snack 5: Cheese Cookie, Rocket and Stems. An old biscuit tin was placed on the table and opened to reveal small delicate 'cookies' made with a sharp Swedish cheese (Västerbotten, I think) that went well with the vegetal freshness of the rocket.
Snack 6: Potato and Duck Liver. A sandwich of crispy strands of potato and creamy duck liver mousse dusted with black trumpet mushroom powder was wonderfully moreish with a satisfying contrast in texture.
Snack 7: Shrimp and Butter. Quite possibly one of the most challenging things I have eaten was a dish I had been anticipating with some trepidation. A kilner jar was opened to reveal three seemingly docile fjord shrimp ‘sleeping’ on some crushed ice. A quick poke of one of them revealed them to be anything but sleepy. In fact, they were very much alive and, judging by the way they were frantically wriggling, seemed very much aware of their impending fate.
Holding onto the little critters was a challenge in itself, with mine being positively hyperactive, bucking like a rodeo horse at the faintest prod. “Yeah, we’ve had trouble with him all night,” joked head chef Matt Orlando as he mercifully offered me the use of some tweezers for better grip.
The trick it seems is to dip them into some brown butter emulsion – whereupon they are momentarily stunned – and just go for it. A little squirm on the tongue, a quick scratching at the roof of your mouth, stilled as you crunch into them. It’s quite a disconcerting feeling, and after the initial rush of adrenalin subsides, your first sensation is one of surprise. It tastes like the freshest, sweetest prawn you could possibly imagine. A brief Eureka moment, as you realise that this is what prawns are meant to taste like!
A culinary stunt it may well be but, as a way of forcing you to confront exactly what is on your plate and focus your mind on the fact that everything we’ll eat here has at some level been living, it’s a little piece of genius that’s in stark contrast to the dish’s pure simplicity.
Snack 8: Dried Carrot and Sorrel. On an ash plate lay batons of dehydrated carrot. Removing much of the water from the humble carrot served to intensify its flavours and gave it a chewy rather than crunchy texture. They were dipped into sorrel sauce painted onto a plate. It was a simple, yet beautiful dish in both flavour and presentation.
Snack 9: Caramelised Milk and Cod Liver. One of my favourite snacks was this one of frozen cod liver, thinly shaved and served on a disc of crisp caramelised milk and sprinkled with kelp salt. It melted seductively on the tongue and was utterly sublime, with a rich creaminess from the liver and gentle sweetness from the milk. Surely this is Scandinavia’s answer to foie gras on toast?
Snack 10: Pickled and Smoked Quail’s egg. A Noma classic next, and one of the only two dishes common to my first meal here two and a half years ago. A porcelain egg was opened, releasing a wisp of warming smoke and revealing lightly smoked and pickled quail's eggs. The eggs were consumed in one go with the warm silky yolk exploding in the mouth.
Snack 11: Radish, Soil, and Grass. Again, another classic Noma dish next. Radishes were served in a small terracotta pot. Everything was to be eaten, including the leaves, which were pleasantly bitter with a peppery bite. A 'soil' made from crushed malt, hazelnuts and beer sat on a creamy dip made from sheep's milk yoghurt and grass. It was great fun to play gardener and pull out the radishes and scoop up the 'soil' with them.
Snack 12: Toast, Sea Urchin, and Duck. For this next course we would play happy guinea pigs for a brand new dish that would turn out to be one of the best things I’ve tasted all year. A thin sliver of toast held pristine raw Norwegian sea urchins that were covered with a wafer thin, glassy shard made from duck stock.
The crisp toast gave way to the soft and creamy urchins, which had such a delicate briny sweetness, like a savoury custard made from the very essence of the sea. There was a gentle hint of yeasty sourness (presumably from the addition of some mysterious sounding “lactic fermented sep water”), while the delicate duck topping added some rich salty savouriness. What an extraordinary bite of food this was!
The star of this dish was, of course, the sea urchins, which had been caught the day before by Scotsman Roddie Sloan who dives for them in the icy waters off Nordskot in the Arctic Circle. To give you some idea of the man’s sheer passion for sea urchins (sea urchins have literally become part of him from the many spikes that have become embedded in his body over the years) check out this video of his speech at the Mad Symposium this year. It’s really quite remarkable and shows you the lengths both he and Noma go to get produce of this stunning quality.
Snack 13: Æbleskiver and Muikku. Æbleskiver are traditional Danish doughnut-like pastries, typically eaten at Christmas time. However, Noma has created a very different version of this to create what is now one of the restaurant’s most iconic dishes. The sweet beignet-like pastry contained a ball of lightly pickled cucumber and was skewered by a whole muikku, a small freshwater whitefish found in northern Europe and a delicacy in Finland. It was absolutely delicious; a mix of sweet, sour, and salt, and I loved the way they sat there on the plate looking like little Viking helmets.
Snack 14: Veal Neck and Seaweed. An impossibly labour intensive dish of veal was next. Here, veal neck had been gently braised and then the individual muscle fibres were painstakingly separated one by one into single strands with tweezers. The strands were then formed into a ball and then deep-fried, dotted with crème fraîche, and slicked with some seaweed oil. They were fantastically light and crisp with a deep savouriness enhanced by the seaweed, and I’m sure I also detected a hint of liquorice. I still cannot believe how much work must go into this one extraordinary bite of food.
Snack 15: Sorrel Leaf and Cricket Paste. The next course was insects. Crickets to be precise. Tangy sorrel leaves, seemingly sprouting from a block of ice, were smeared with a dark sticky paste made from fermented crickets. At the base of the leaves was a dusting of peppery nasturtium leaf ‘snow.’ This was a clever dish that acted like a palate cleanser with its cool refreshing acidity. I would never have guessed I was eating crickets, yet they brought a pleasing bitter nuttiness to the dish.
Course 1: Potato and Snails. The end to the snack section brought the arrival of the cutlery. Everything we had consumed beforehand (apart from our cheating with the prawn) was eaten with the hands. However, the first course proper was eaten not with metal fork and knife, but with twigs adorned with leaves of sorrel, ground elder and rocket flowers. We spiked the sticks into small waxy potatoes cooked in fermented butter and dusted with rosehip salt, and marvelled at the depth of flavour of the seemingly humblest of tubers.
The potatoes were accompanied by a plate of Swedish snails served with parsley and watercress, that we dragged across the creamy parsley purée as though they were reanimated and sliding across the lawn. They had a meaty richness to them that was balanced by intermittent nibbles we took from the fresh leaves at the end of our twigs.
Drink pairing: IDUN Spontangæret Øl from Den Gale Brygger in Jerslev is a spontaneously fermented beer brewed from crabapples made according to old Nordic methods. A fresh and acidic beer with a complex yeasty note.
Bread: Warm bread made from grains milled at the restaurant was served with some heavenly “virgin” butter made by Patrick “Butter Viking” Johansson and pork fat sprinkled with crisp pork skin and onion.
Course 2: Fresh Milk Curd and Blueberry Preserves was served with lemon thyme and, as I later found out, featured a paste made with forest ants that added a sour lemony tang. Noma used to serve live ants, but apparently this was a step too far for many and they have since removed it from the menu. Soft fresh curd, sweet preserve, sour acidity and herbal freshness were a great combination of flavours, although the dish could do with greater textural contrast.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Schilcher from Wein & Sektmanufaktur Strohmeier, which is a type of rosé unique to Austria made from Blauer Wildbacher grapes. This sparkling rosé had intense acidity with lots of red berry aromas that were a good match for the acidity in this dish.
Course 3: Brown Crab, Egg Yolk, and Herbs. A dish of Danish brown crab was served with crab roe, seaweed sauce, lemon verbena tea, and egg yolk, which had a wonderfully smooth, almost fondant like consistency. This was a light and vibrant dish, with a fresh taste of the sea. If someone were to distil the essence of a rock pool, then I'm pretty sure this is how it would taste.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Nature from Domaine Julien Meyer in Alsace .
Course 4: Beets and Plums was a dish of grilled beetroot, fermented plums with a fennel and verbena sauce. Although small, this dish packed a huge punch of flavour. The beetroot had been roasted for three hours, giving it a dense, meaty texture with a mild hint of liquorice. Each bite exploded with complex flavours and my brain struggled to take them all in – caraway, chamomile, aniseed, sweetness, earthiness. It was really quite extraordinary.
Drink pairing: Quite possibly the greatest name for a wine. Ever. A 2009 'In A Gadda Da Vida' Rosé Extra Brut from Austrian winemaker Christian Tschida, named after the seminal 1968 17-minute long psychedelic rock song by Iron Butterfly.
Course 5: Oysters from Limfjorden, Gooseberry, and Buttermilk arrived on plates of damp smooth rocks, as though just lifted from their home in North Jutland. Once kept exclusively for the royal table, these oysters are some of the best around; the low salinity and cold waters of Limfjord concentrate their flavours giving them a slightly nutty taste. They were served with seaweed, a smooth, cooling buttermilk sauce, and lacto-fermented gooseberries, giving the dish a little acidic lift.
Drink pairing: A 2010 Bourgogne Aligote from Alice & Olivier de Moor was a real showcase for natural wine – mineralic, fruity and wonderful. With Aligote this good, who needs Chablis?
Course 6: Cauliflower and Pine, Cream and Truffle arrived looking beautiful, yet restrained. Roast cauliflower was served with pine oil and horseradish cream. "One of the things Thomas Keller used to say to me was 'you can never have too much truffle'," proclaims head chef Matt Orlando, as he presents a basket brimming with Gotland's finest black truffles. "Just tell me when to stop," he says smiling, as he slices a never ending cascade of beautifully marbled slices of pungent black gold over our plates, elevating the dish to the realms of unbridled luxury.
I loved this dish, not least for the heady aromas of truffle, instantly activated by the warmth of the food, but for the great combination of sweet, soothing cauliflower, pungent horseradish and refreshing pine.
Drink pairing: A 2010 Côtillon des dames from Jean-Yves Péron, a vibrant orange natural wine made from Jacquère and Altesse grapes with notes of apples and yeast.
Course 7: Pike Perch and Cabbages, Verbena and Dill. A beautifully plated dish of soft, silky pike perch gently cooked in a cabbage leaf and served with a creamy sauce made from the fish's bones and a vibrantly green verbena and dill sauce.
Drink pairing: A 2010 Chardonnay Les Boutonniers from Les Dolomies.
Course 8: Beef Cheeks and Bitter Greens, Hazelnuts and Mushrooms marked yet another high point of the meal. Beef cheeks had been cooked very slowly at 72°C and served with grilled bitter greens chanterelles and crisp fresh hazelnuts. A complex mix of textures and rich deep flavours, this dish was a total joy to eat.
Drink pairing: A silky and powerful 2008 Grange des Pères made from a blend Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes was full of flavours of ripe dark fruit and spice.
Course 9: Potatoes and Plums. That's right, potatoes and plums for dessert. And who am I to argue with that logic as it was simply one of the best desserts I've had all year. Angular strips of potato purée and plum gel were served with a dollop of plum seed cream. Sharp, intense sourness from the plum, comforting earthy stodginess from the potato, and the utter surprise of marzipan sweetness from the plum seed cream. I'm going to be having warm fuzzy dreams about this dessert for a while I think.
Course 10: Øllebrød. A take on a traditional Danish breakfast dish was this dessert of rye bread soaked in beer and served with skyr sorbet, milk foam and rye crumbs. A great combination of sweet, sour, fresh, malty all in one bite.
Course 11: Yeast and Sea Buckthorn. Our final dessert was an unusual bite of aerated caramel made with sourdough starter and sea buckthorn berries served with elderflower salt and whipped skyr. The idea was to spread some skyr on the caramel and sprinkle a bit of the salt over it. The caramel had a texture just like a Soreen malt loaf (this is a great thing in my book) and the mix of flavours was so complex with all six taste senses working overtime to register everything.
Drink pairing: Desserts were paired with a 2009 Coteaux du Layon Vieilles Vignes from Bruno Rochard.
Petit Fours: We then moved to the cosiness of the adjoining lounge to finish our meal with little treats, coffee and digestifs.
And then, almost as quickly as it begun, it's over. Matt Orlando comes across to give us a tour of the kitchen and the test kitchen upstairs. I got a real sense for the sheer complexity and effort that is needed for a restaurant like Noma to exist. Some 40 or so chefs from around the world, half of whom are stagiaires, are needed for a dining room that seats 42. But you never get a sense of the restaurant's size, it always feels familial and the levels of energy and creativity are positively palpable.
The front-of-house and kitchen seem seamlessly integrated, and the service, with each chef presenting his or her dish to the table, is a model that most high-end restaurants should aspire to. It's warm, generous, totally unpretentious and a joy to behold.
But what's immediately obvious is that the food at Noma has really stepped up several gears since I was last here two and a bit years ago. While the food is still presented simply and beautifully, and the focus on produce is just as obsessive, the flavours now seem truly turbo-charged. The frequent use of fermentation lends such a deep complexity to many dishes, bringing out new and unusual flavours from seemingly familiar ingredients. Whereas before there might have three or four main flavours on the plate, now there seems to be many more layers working together, all perfectly balanced.
Noma has stayed true to its guiding principles first laid out almost 10 years ago. But what is so impressive is how this relatively dogmatic approach has yielded such stunning results. By limiting their palette to produce from the Nordics, Noma has succeeded in pushing the boundaries of our understanding and relationship with food in these northern climes. For by limiting your resources, you're forced to imagine and invent; two fundamental traits of our very human condition.
As I left the restaurant that night with that strange yet familiar feeling of walking on air (no, it wasn't the aquavit's fault), I realised how complete an experience a meal at Noma is. It's truly up there with the greats, and the restaurant world will be feeling its effects and influence for a long time to come. Far from being a summer fling, I think this one might just be a keeper.
Food: 10 / 10
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
DK-1401 Copenhagen K
Tel: +45 32 96 32 97