This will be a one-off post, a special entry – special to me anyway – as it concerns a special day, a special experience in every sense. For that reason, I shall abandon all the little rules, conventions and obsessive compulsions that have come to order my work. That means less script, more feeling and, as can be read already, writing in the first person.
This is the story of a day spent at noma. One entire day at a restaurant to which I have returned many times, but of which I have written only once. My original lunch was an enlightening event that changed how I eat – how I live. Successive visits have been equally as influential and have, without doubt, included the greatest meals of my life. I have, however, felt unable to share them – although not for a lack of wanting to. I filled that first post with (what I believed was) the best I had, with all my facts, thoughts, with every impression, inspiration – with everything. 6,633 words of everything. Another sentence, an additional word I feared would merely be redundant, repetitive or worse, might blunt what went before. This may have been miserly, neglectful…égoïste even, but it was nonetheless completely true. True until the 16th of March 2010 that is.
That third Tuesday of March saw the release of Michelin’s Main Cities of Europe 2010 guide, relevant to Copenhagen and the rest of the Continent’s major cities. In anticipation of the announcement (although in fact after any excuse at all), I made two reservations for the same day – this day. It was a triply thrilling notion: lunch then dinner at my favourite restaurant plus an opportunity to eat at the world’s newest three-star…
The night before the big day was an anxious one, heavy with a similar nervous excitement to that which comes about each Christmas Eve. At the same time though, it was also bizarre to be even having those sorts of thoughts myself – as someone unconnected to noma – but then again, such is the contagious effect that Redzepi and his team have: they enthral, they charm, they make you feel as if you too are part of something more, part of something together.
The morning prior to the pronouncement was almost worse. And, as history would have it, it was also anticlimactic. Nothing for noma. This time. That meant an awkward entrance at the restaurant – mostly for me than for anyone else there. The staff, their composure immaculate, seemed utterly unaffected; I, on the other hand, was uncertain how to act and so just attempted to follow suit, ignoring the earlier news.
Soon enough I was seated, ready to start. I was – maybe even more so than ever – eager and intent, excited to see what untried dishes would be tasted today, curious as to how they would structure the two meals. But I was not left ignorant for long. Moments later, the chef came to the table to explain…
With a typical puff and characteristic caress of his boyish wisps, Redzepi revealed how the day would unfold – for table four at least. He had a theme devised…
…for lunch, every dish will be over three years old; for dinner, each would be less than three weeks old.
Save for an impulsive if less than eloquent, ‘cool, OK’, I was left at a loss for words. Speechless.
As I alluded to previously, this post will be full of fewer words than ones past. Instead, I prefer to let the photographs speak for themselves.
Please scroll slowly…
Lunch – Then – Only dishes created over three years ago…
Forret 1: Boghvede crepe med rygeost og löjrom. Buckwheat crepe with smoked cheese and bleak roe.
Forret 2: Kammuslinger, kogt porre og ‘tør mayonaise’. Scallop, cooked leek and ‘dry mayo’.
Forret 3: Kartoffelmos. Mashed potatoes.
Forret 4: Kongecrabbe og muslinger. King crab and mussel.
Forret 5: Blæksprutte og kartofler; mayonaise og brunet smør. Squid legs and potatoes; mayo and brown butter.
Hovedret 1: Søtunge og blomkål, honningkager og enebær. Brill and cauliflower; gingerbread and juniper.
Hovedret 2: Torsk; syltede svampe. Cod; pickled mushrooms.
Hovedret 3: Stegt terrine på kalvehaler og færøske jomfruhummer. Fried terrine of veal tail and Faeroese langoustine.
Hovedret 4: Farseret vagtel med løg i forskellige teksturer. Stuffed quail with onion textures.
Dessert 1: Fåremælk yoghurt med mynteolie og Granola müsli. Sheep’s milk yoghurt with mint oil and granola muesli.
Dessert 2: Geleret kærnemælk, malt og roeiscreme. Buttermilk jelly, malt and sugar beet syrup.
Dessert 3: Æble og hasselnød. Apple and hazelnut.
(Dessert 4: Valnødde pulver og is. Walnut powder and ice cream)
Petit Fours: Flødebolle med yoghurt; chokolade kartoffelchip med fennikel. Yoghurt flødebolle; chocolate potato crisp with fennel.
Dinner – Now – Only dishes created in the last three weeks…
Snacks 1: Havtorn læder og syltede hyldeblomst. Seabuckthorn leather and pickled elderflower.
Snacks 2: Småkage med kogt kalvekød og solbær. Veal speck cookie with blackcurrant and sorrel.
Snacks 3: Rugbrød, kyllingeskind, stenbiderrogn og rygeost. Chicken skin sandwich with lumpfish roe.
Snacks 4: Syltet og røget vagtelæg. Pickled, smoked egg.
Snacks 5: Radiser, jord og urteemulsion. Radishes in a pot.
Snacks 6: Æbleskiver. Æbleskiver.
Snacks 7: Toast, vilde urter, torskrogn, eddike og andeskind. Vinegar dust toast.
Forret 1: Rødbeder; Havesyre og rapsolie. Beetroot, sorrel and rapeseed sauce.
Forret 2: Rejer og søpindsvi; Fløde og strandurter. Shrimps and sea urchin; cream and beach herbs.
Forret 3: Tørret kammusling og karse; Biodynamiske gryn og bog. Dried scallops and watercress; Biodynamic cereals and beech nut.
Forret 4: Unge grøntsager og torskelever; Løg bouillon. Søren Wiuff’s baby vegetables and cod liver; onion bouillon.
Forret 5: Østers grød; Muslingeskaller og søl. Oyster porridge; mussels and søl.
Hovedret 1: Blæksprutte og havesyre; Brombær og slåenbær med æggeblomme. Squid and sorrel; blackberry, sloeberry and egg yolk.
Hovedret 2: Årgangskartoffel og valle; Løvstikke og Prästost. Vintage potato and whey; Lovage and Prästost.
Hovedret 3: Ramsløg og hvidløg; Timian. Ramsons; thyme.
Hovedret 4: Spejlæg; Svenbo og Gotland trøffel. Fried egg; Svenbo and Gotland truffle.
Hovedret 5: Oksekæbe og julesalat; Syltet pære og jernurt. Ox cheek and endive; Pickled pear and verbena.
Dessert 1: Bladselleri og knoldselleri. Celery and celeriac.
Dessert 2: Mælk og Gammel Dansk is; Dild. Milk and bitters ice cream; dill.
Dessert 2: Jordskokke; Æble og malt. Jerusalem artichoke; apple and malt.
Petit Fours: Flødebolle med yoghurt; chokolade kartoffelchip med fennikel. Yoghurt flødebolle; chocolate potato crisp with fennel.
The service at noma is incredible. Since I have expressed many more thoughts more fully elsewhere, I will try to be brief here. The front-of-house staff are delightful and amiable, brilliantly attentive and expertly coordinated. Servers move in flawless synchronisation, still always smiling. They are led by Lau and Pontus – two gentlemen of whom I could not think more highly or ever praise enough. Furthermore, engaging with the youthful, exuberant chefs as they surrender the plates they have just put together with their own hands, enhances the entire event immeasurably and is an idea that has already been revolutionary – restaurants literally around the world now do likewise. To quote what I scribbled afore: ‘breaking down any imaginary boundaries between customer and kitchen, there is also something very emotive and effective about this approach. Chefs, as they proudly present them before the diner, describe their dishes with the natural affection that the maker has for what he has made – and rightly so. After all, what they are achieving with these is worthy indeed: with each, they are giving back Nordic cooking its identity.’
One of the numerous little details that made lunch great was how the kitchen and staff shared in the experience. Only René and Torsten had cooked these dishes before whilst no one but Lau and Pontus had served them. Thus, there was a tangible and manifest animation and enthusiasm from everyone as each course was created and delivered. This was coupled with the nostalgia and clear sentiment of those for whom it had been some time since they had last seen them. Emotional moments – as the source and significance of the recipes were explained tableside by noma’s nestors – littered this meal. It was truly touching.
This also happened to be my first dinner here and it never ceases to surprise how different the same restaurant can be during the day and at night. Dining seems a near impossible choice between the two. At lunch, there is the vitalising light that sweeps in through the many windows and washes the room with brightness and energy. Evening, meanwhile, has its own charisma. Sunshine is traded for candlelight, intensifying the intimacy and making the room rather romantic. The waxy illumination adds something indefinable yet snug and quintessentially – and there really is no other word for it – Scandinavian.
Both meals were beautiful.
I am almost too abashed to admit that during the day’s first couple of courses, I was so unstrung and skittish that I was nearly unable to enjoy the food properly. Maybe it was the adrenaline from earlier or the consequence surrounding the occasion, but I did have to take a pause ahead of the next plate. From that moment onwards though, it was easy…
Each serving was one of quality and creativity; of alluring aesthetic and ethereal appeal. A delicate crepe concealing smoked cheese started the meal. This was proceeded by the kartoffelmos, an amusing deconstruction of a traditional Danish dish, that was light-hearted and toothsome; its colourful assembly suggestive of some child’s plaything. Then, after a superbly poached piece of king crab paired with quail eggs and mussels in many forms, a sequence of four fantastic courses followed, commencing with the delicious blæksprutte og kartofler, an instantly recognisable noma classic. The tender squid tentacles, teamed with various textures of potato and enlivened with vinegar tapioca, were outstanding. The søtunge og blomkål that arrived with a small burning branch of aromatic juniper was one of – to my mind – most Nordic things I have ever tasted; the gingerbread’s spicy-sweet inclusion here, inspired. Next came the immensely satisfying slow-baked and tasty cod perked up with pickled mushrooms. Stegt terrine på kalvehaler was another stunner. The 2004 Årets Gericke winner comprised sweet, supple langoustines together with a rich morsel of veal tail, all seasoned nicely with mustard seeds and balanced with bitter endive.
Desserts too were excellent. They began with a lovely sheep’s milk yoghurt that played very will with minty oil and crunchy, subtly sweet breakfast muesli. Buttermilk pudding implanted with malt tuile wafers and surrounded by raisins imbued with aquavit and a drizzle of sugar beet syrup was sublime. Æble og hasselnød, painting-like in its design, was a delectable ending.
I did not know what to expect from these older dishes. I suppose that deep down, if pressed, I might confess to assuming that they might not live up to the exceptional standard of today’s ones. However, any such presumptions were proven foolish – and not surprisingly so. After all, these were the plates upon which noma made its name, earned two Michelin stars and forced its way into every aware eater’s consciousness.
Dinner picked up were lunch left off. The composition of snacks that one starts with has changed a little – evolved – since my initial visit and are still very much my favourite series of amuses anywhere. Subsequent to these, two of the traits that separate noma’s cuisine apart from that of the crowd’s were displayed with the rejer og søpindsvi foremost and then tørret kammusling og karse immediately after. The former, something simply stunning to receive, was evocative, intriguing and boasted raw shellfish combined with dairy. In fact, since tasting Redzepi’s blæksprutte og grønne jordbær; fløde og dild, I have been almost incapable of enjoying uncooked squid, oysters, mussels, etc without a similarly creamy complement. For me, this is one of the most genuinely intuitive of ingredient pairings – and, having first found it here, it is one I now inseparably associate with this kitchen. The dried scallops and watercress, alternatively, highlighted another asset altogether. Every time I have eaten at noma, entirely brand new taste profiles have been revealed to me. By this, I refer not to simply sampling the unusual, like a cloudberry, beach mustard or woodruff, for the first time – all unknown to me themselves yet with an essence essentially familiar (tart, pungent, sweet) – but something broader. Dishes show off a whole scale of flavours utterly unrecognisable – without frame of reference – and irritatingly difficult to articulate into text. More remarkably, Redzepi consistently creates such courses.
Lissom octopus legs, entwined amidst acidic sorrel stems and sat in swirls of sharp sloe and blackberry with rich egg yolk, left behind another lasting memory ahead of an amazing act of table theatre. A small wooden tray carrying Danish cheese, grater, goat’s milk butter, oil and felt-tip tattooed egg was placed before me. This odd arrival was eventually accompanied by a sizzling hot iron pan as well as a set of specific instructions: oil the plate; crack the egg; add the butter; shave the Svenbo. The splendid smells along with the hiss and sizzle of the cooking captivated and entertained the entire room. This was a frugal dish in a fine-dining setting – until the final flourish. When the egg was just about ready, the chef reappeared and ladled Gotland truffle purée around the finished plate. Delicious. And I had made it myself. The meal’s terrific rhythm continued with a real climax – oksekæbe og julesalat; syltet pære og jernurt. Since June, the main course has improved every single time I have been back and this was definitely the best yet. Ox cheek, tender and intense, rested under a canopy of pickled pear slivers that, alongside redcurrant wine-infused endive and lemony verbena sauce, cut the meat’s richness impeccably well.
At the risk of relentlessly repeating myself, desserts too were tremendous. This is another part of the carte that seems only to have become better during my time. A refreshing mix of celery and celeriac was succeeded by tantalising milk and bitters ice cream sprinkled with sharp lingonberries and dill. The final sweet may have maybe been even better. A scoop of Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, in a shallow pool of apple sauce punctuated by ink-like spots of malt oil, sat smothered with super-thin slices of the same fruit and studded with matching ebon discs made of malt oil – these biscuits being addictively good.
I cannot say which of today’s two meals I enjoyed more; it is too difficult a thing to decide. However, what I can comment on is how lunch and dinner differed; how the cuisine has changed – and how it has stayed the same.
The clearest distinction was that during lunch it was arguably possible to see some external influences on the cooking. Any such inspiration was very subtle and perhaps only observable as these older dishes were juxtaposed so directly against dinner’s newer ones. Those earliest plates featured, for example, more el Bulli-esque foams whilst the farseret vagtel smacked strongly of something classical – something more likely to be found on Kong Hans’ menu than noma’s. In contrast, the evening’s recipes seemed to have had any such residues removed – these were incomparable to anything that I had seen before. The kitchen had clearly and markedly improved and matured over the years. Although, of course, development over time is to be expected everywhere. What is so special here is the pace and the product of this progress – a cuisine supreme and singular.
Some of the most distinct dissimilarities were seen during desserts. Those at lunch were noticeably sweeter whilst crafted from a wider range of raw materials; the geleret kærnemælk, for instance, contained now-uncommon alcohol (aquavit-suffused raisins). Wary of satiating diners and keen to leave them feeling comfortable at the meal’s end – plus the chef’s personal preference and pursuit of something distinctive – afters have become seriously more savoury and almost strictly vegetable-based. Further observations may be less significant, but were nonetheless interesting. They included the occurrence of scallops, which I had not yet seen at noma; that portions, if not larger, were more substantial; and the incidence of some products at the restaurant’s start that continue to be employed today – the crispy potato ringlets, various fish roes and vinegar tapioca amongst these. As well as using some of the same signature components, some of the original style of plating has also still survives even after six years; examples being same-shaped smears and swirls; entire, intact stems; and upstanding vegetable cylinders.
Individuality and unbroken betterment at noma is undeniable, but it is not limited purely to this one restaurant. It is endemic to Copenhagen. Initially, it was indeed René Redzepi that drew me to Denmark, but what I have found whilst there is a dining scene unequalled by any other anywhere else. It is my favourite city to eat in. Sure enough, I do have my most regular tables – MR, Paustian v. Bo Bech, Søllerød Kro – but there exists here a whole host of ambitious places teeming with potential including the Paul, Kiin Kiin, Mielcke & Hurtigkarl and Herman to name but some. Not only is the standard so high, but the style at each so individual. And – just like noma – they are not standing still. In merely the last ten-or-so months, I myself have seen an evolution at many of them – Paustian v. Bo Bech and Søllerød Kro especially. I must also single out another place that has impressed me considerably: Restaurant AOC. Only opened last autumn, the huge strides made between my two meals – the foremost straight after its launch, the second six months later – are astonishing. Its momentum is simply immense and it is one of the city’s most exciting kitchens. Nor is it solely me who thinks thusly – it has already made headlines and been recognised by Michelin with a first star (coincidentally on this same day).
Recently, the results of the annual San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best poll were announced in London. The next morning, the world awoke to realise that noma had become its best restaurant. It was a suspicion shared by many beforehand with Redzepi long-accepted as one of the most influential chefs cooking today. The consequences of what he has accomplished at the Grønlandske Handels Plads are overwhelming and can be sensed in kitchens and dining rooms worldwide. The tables have indeed turned: it is now his cuisine that inspires those of others. Nonetheless and although totally deserved, the attention that this latest acknowledgment has brought with it has still been incredible and, more so than any earlier, pervasive – ordinary people now know the name noma. And now that they know noma, it is my own hope that they will learn about all of Copenhagen as well…
noma changed my life. It changes it still. As I have explained, I owe those there for the introduction to Nordic cuisine, but my debt is decidedly deeper than that. In countless visits to the Danish capital, I have met many new people – people whose instant acceptance and warm affability have quickly compelled me to consider them friends. There are few places now that I am more comfortable – few places I miss more.
Although I do suffer a certain affection for it, I remain a relative newcomer to noma, having missed its first five years. Therefore, to be allowed a day like this and be given a glimpse of into the restaurant’s history was a most amazing thing and spectacular present. It was an experience I cannot compare to anything else – just like with René’s cooking, no reference points exist. I am sure that anyone for whom noma means anything will understand and appreciate the significance and relevance of these meals.
Finally, I must end with some mention of the enormous gratitude I feel towards René Redzepi. I exaggerate not when I write that he amazes me anew every time we meet and too few are those about which such a thing is true. He is the best man I know. And that’s enough about him.
An incredible tale of six years told in one day, in two meals, in thirty-five smashing courses. It was a gesture unexpected, a gift undeserved.
Strandgade 93, Copenhagen, 1401
tel:+45 3296 3297
nearest metro: Christianshavn