noma

So, Noma. Ranked best restaurant in the world three years in a row. Currently ranked number 2. The reason for our trip to Copenhagen. We’d had to book three months in advance in order to secure a table. No expectations, then…

The restaurant sits just a few hundred metres from our hotel in Nyhavn. You can see the hotel there on the left: it’s the red brick building. And just in front of it is a half-finished foot bridge.  It was due to be completed last October but as the two sections on each side of the water came closer to one another the builders realised they’d miscalculated and that they’d made the two sides at different heights, so they wouldn’t meet in the middle. During their adjustments the company went bankrupt. Another company took over and it’s due for completion next year.
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A stylish rock and moss garden sets the tone as you approach the door.

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Inside the first thing you see is the kitchen; a hive of activity and bustle.

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And to the left, the dining room. It’s surprisingly small, with only a dozen or so tables of various sizes. Our table was the one by the window near the centre of the photo, where the man in the dark suit is standing. This gave us a nice view of Nyhavn and the half bridge.

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There’s no choice as to what you eat; everyone gets this menu:

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Off we go: gooseberry marinated  in elderflower oil on the right, and on the left the “Nordic coconut”, which is in fact a radish.

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The liquid inside was surprisingly warm.

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Fried reindeer moss dusted with cep mushroom powder.

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And a little juniper-flavoured crème fraîche on the side to dip it in. Very dry and crumbly, which made it a little difficult to eat, but lovely earthy flavours.

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In this bowl the only thing to eat was the little dark red ball in the foreground: a small, soft ball made of blackcurrant and roses.

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The pre-lunch nibbles were coming thick and fast, and sometimes I didn’t even have time to take a photo, note the ingredients and put it in my mouth before the next one arrived.

Biscuit tin:

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Containing just two cheese cookies topped with chopped rocket. Pleasant but unremarkable.

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A large egg.

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Containing two small eggs. Quail, to be precise, smoked in hay. Burst pleasantly in the mouth releasing a gush of creamy yolk.

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This one was weird: the white shavings are cod liver and the “leaf” underneath is caramelized milk. Thinking about it now, quite a lot of the amuse-bouches were kind of creamy, although they were still light.

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Another presentation where the container implied more food than you actually ended up with:

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This is a traditional kind of small puffed pancake called “aebleskiver”. Usually it contains apple but ours was filled with boiled spinach.

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Sliced raw chestnut with lamp fish roe and butter. Interesting. I’m not that into chestnut, raw or cooked, but this worked.

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This is more my kind of thing. Faroese sea urchin on toast topped with a slice of fried duck fat. I can imagine eating this for breakfast.

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Char-grilled leek. Pre-sliced to allow you to scoop out the insides. Perfectly edible, but at the end of the day it’s just burnt leek.

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At this stage we moved into the proper menu, and so we were allowed a little bread and butter. The butter was light and fluffy due to some complex preparation method which the waiter explained to us but which I didn’t follow because I was too busy salivating over the contents of the other pot: pork fat covered with an apple schnapps crumble. I didn’t need bread to spread this on; a spoon would have sufficed.

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A large bowl made of ice. We were encouraged to eat quickly, although this seemed redundant as a) a bowl this size and thickness won’t collapse into a puddle on the table within seconds, and b) the contents were only a few mouthfuls anyway. Very nice mouthfuls, though: squid, fennel, vinegar, broccoli stems, and green walnut.

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At this point a word about the wine. We took the wine accompaniment menu, which is a concept with which we’re familiar. However I was surprised by two things. Firstly the quantity. Rather than a glass every few courses, we got a new glass with almost every dish, which, when the meal consists of almost a dozen plates, is quite a lot. Secondly, most of the wine was of a very specific type, which is to say white, cloudy and quite acidic. A Nordic friend later suggested that this was to compensate for the lack of naturally acidic ingredients (like citrus fruit) in Danish cuisine. A couple in particular almost reminded me of scrumpy or cider.

Most of the wines were also organic and from very small-scale producers; one in particular came from a French vintner who only produced one barrel per year.

Speaking of adding acidity, that explanation also held for the inclusion of a key ingredient in the next dish. Grilled onion, salted pear, and wood ants.

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This was a beautifully light and balanced dish. The ants were barely visible: the odd black speck here and there, so it was in no way off-putting. If we hadn’t been told they were there we probably wouldn’t have guessed. “Hmmm, there’s something vaguely formic about the seasoning on these onions…”

Next: plum and roast beetroot, crushed nasturtium seeds, unripe blackcurrants, fennel and rose broth. Lovely, although at this point I started wondering about the combinations of sweet and salty. This could easily have been served as dessert. But then, is there any reason not to mix up the two tastes throughout the course of the meal? Why does sugar have to come at the end? Thai cuisine (as you’ll see in the next post) combines sweet, salty sour and spicy in almost every dish.

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Celeriac, kale, cabbage, nasturtium reduction, and horseradish cream.

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Now this one was interesting: potato, kelp oil, and löjrom roe. The potatoes were slow cooked and so had a fascinating feel: hard (al dente, as it were) and chewy with a slight bitterness. There was an nice nutty flavour from the oil. I asked if the oil were available in stores but was told that they made it themselves in house.

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The closest we came to a proper meat dish in the whole meal: tiny pieces of duck, almost raw, thin slices of pear, and pickled, caramelised beech leaves. The second pear dish of the meal, you’ll notice, and a very successful one at that.

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And so to dessert. Aronia berries and ice cream. An unusual, sharp flavour, and the ice cream inside left my mouth weirdly dry, but it worked as a palate cleanser.

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The best dessert. Right to left: plum compote, sweet potato, and cream with plum and aquavit. A larger portion next time, please. Fill the bowl.

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Coffee. Now many restaurants, even places like The Fat Duck, are happy to just turn on the Nespresso machine when it comes to coffee, but not Noma. Here we got high altitude (over 1000 metres) Ethiopian coffee which had then been roasted in Oslo. It was surprisingly weak but that was probably for the best. A heavy, aggressive espresso would have spoilt the effect of the preceding dishes.

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One final nibble, and one of the best. Caramelised yeast, Icelandic yoghurt, elderflower salt.

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The yoghurt is called skyr and this was another product I’d happily have eaten a bowl of on its own.

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And because we’re in Denmark, a Danish pastry.

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And that was it. In terms of comparisons to other places we’ve visited I’d say it’s most similar in style to In De Wulf. Both restaurants are privileging local, organic ingredients over far-flung, exotic ones, and offering them in sometimes surprising combinations yet rather simple presentations. When Noma was elected Best Restaurant in the World I think it was a conscious decision to move away from the weirder, more science fiction-style food found at places like El Bulli and the aforementioned Fat Duck (although they’re still ranked highly in the list). I agree that it’s good to reward and encourage this “locavore” approach, and the friendliness and relaxed atmosphere coincides nicely with its proximity to the hippy commune Christiania. Then again, the prices and prestige inevitably attract wealthy foodies, and the fact that Noma is surrounded by the feverish construction of luxury apartments show that the area is already being gentrified.

And who are the clients, who can all book 3 months in advance? Are they all foodies? You can’t just pop in casually for lunch at a place like this (although you can check owner René’s twitter feed for late cancellations). Maybe corporations make regular bookings and then take along whichever big client is visiting that month for a business dinner? Looking around at the other diners, we saw a table of half a dozen Flemish fashion industry types, all scrutinising their smartphones between courses. At the table behind us was a young woman dining alone, taking photos of each course with a large professional-looking camera. One lady at a nearby table had brought a very young baby with her. Good for her. We only heard a peep out of it towards then end of the meal, so she took it to the lounge for a bottle feed.

At the end of the day, I’m glad we went. There was some very interesting stuff going on and I was introduced to some fascinating ingredients I’d like to investigate further, although in terms of dishes I’d want to eat again there were probably only four or five (moss, seas urchin on toast, onions and pear, potato in kelp oil, plum and sweet potato). I respect what he’s doing and enjoyed it, but personally I’m more of the weird, science fiction-style foodie type.