The main purpose of my trip to Copenhagen was to go to Noma for lunch on the Saturday. I mean, this was The Biggie. There’s a lot that’s already been said and known about Noma because of its status of the best restaurant in the world. These days, when so many restaurants talk about using local ingredients and foraging for ingredients locally, I did wonder how Noma would compare. As YKL pointed out, these days you can get horseradish snow or malt soil in plenty of restaurants, but how would Noma – as originators – cope? Actually, YKL has been going to Noma for about 6 or 7 years now – Before the restaurant broke into the Top 10, then to the very top of the San Pellegrino awards, anyway. So she’s well known to the restaurant and staff (more of that later), and whilst I wanted to go sooner with her, it just wasn’t possible with everything that’s gone on in the past couple of years with The Mothership. It was a couple of months after The Mothership passed that we started to tentatively make plans to go to Noma in the Autumn (it’s been a couple of years since YKL last went), and given how the reservations line pretty much implode when new reservations are available (think it’s something stupid like tens of thousands of people trying to get through for a restaurant which has about 40 covers). You can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to get a reservation and not wanting to take the michael, we went for a date 6 months later (given they’re fully booked 3 months in advance). Fortunately for us, they had a table so it then became a countdown to September..
Well, those 6 months crept up on us and before we knew it, it was time to go to Copenhagen. I’d had a brilliant meal the night before at Relæ, which was a fantastic introduction to new Nordic Cuisine but let’s face it, Noma is the Daddy when it comes to new Nordic Cuisine. Knowing that the table was booked for 12:30pm, YKL and I had a nice gentle morning walking around the streets of Copenhagen near our hotel (buying more Sarah Bernhardt cakes in the process) before we returned to the room to get ready. Choosing to get a taxi there, I think we must have got the only taxi driver in Copenhagen who didn’t have a clue who or what Noma was – It took YKL 5 minutes to find the address for him!
The building itself isn’t really one that stands out and there aren’t any signposts indicating where Noma was. In fact, I didn’t actually realise we had got there until I started taking pictures and realised that next to one of the doors was the Noma sign. Again, I’m not too sure if I was expecting some sort of fanfare (there certainly was one going off in my head), but it was quite refreshing to see that for all the grandiose statements and pronouncements of how important Noma and René Redzepi have been to our Culinary Worlds, it’s still in a very unassuming building in Copenhagen and doesn’t demand that you respect it. Yunno, it’s not housed in a posh hotel or have gold-plated windows. We actually arrive a bit early so whilst I’m taking pictures and we’re both trying to compose ourselves, I spot René at the door and he comes out to greet us. I say us, but it’s more to greet YKL as he gives her a warm hug like you would for an old friend and immediately says to her that it’s been too long since she was last there and checked that she was OK. I had always known that YKL knew René but I didn’t realise that she was *such* good friends with him. And when you’ve been going for as long as she has – Right from the beginning before Noma became “The Best Restaurant in the World”, why wouldn’t he consider her to be a good friend? It was only when we went inside and there seemed to be a Guard of Honour from all the kitchen and FOH staff that I realised just *how* highly they regarded YKL. My sister is pretty much like royalty in Noma – Who’d have thunk it?! Seriously, René – The man who was on the cover of Time magazine recently – introduced everyone to her and whilst you could dismiss it as something they did for every customer. René came out to meet a few guests (but not all) at the door, and nobody else got the Staff Guard of Honour 😉
We were shown to our table – right in the middle of the room, no less – And looking around, there were a lot of neutral colours to give a very natural look. Certainly, there was nothing too garish or out-of-place. Waiting for the rest of the party to arrive, we were offered some Bubbly – And I’m never going to turn down Bubbly! Once the party had all arrived, we were told of the menu for the day: Basically, they start off with a series of what they call “snacks” where you get one or two-bite appetisers. Once they’re all gone, then they launch into the 8 course tasting menu. Now, a lot of other blogs tell you a bit about Noma, its history, about René, the room itself and how the menu is constructed, but nobody really tells you what the food tastes like – Despite the many, many pictures of the food circulated on the Net. So I’m going to summarise everything we ate:
Malt Flatbread and juniper (with crème fraîche) – Cunningly disguised in the flower arrangement, but very tasty and the overtones of cumin tempered by the crème fraîche. However, I was slightly disappointed that the candle wasn’t made of white chocolate a là Heston. I mean, if you’re going to disguise the food as table decorations…
Moss and cep – Whoever’s pissed René off has to clean the Reindeer Moss. It was more about textures I think and not a great deal of flavour.
Blue mussel and celery – We were told to eat the whole thing, which we did after a moment’s hesitation. Of course, they recreated the bottom mussel shell and it was fantastic – A nice plump, juicy mussel bursting with flavour and I don’t know how they recreated the mussel shell, but that was also very nice. I could have eaten a whole bowl of them by myself..
The potato and duck liver was an interesting play on textures with the crisp potato and you got the creamy taste of the duck liver but without texture. That said, put the words “duck” and “livers” together and I’m already a fan.
The dried carrot with sorrel was one of my favourite dishes: carrot was dehydrated and slightly smoked so that you not only got the intense sweetness of the carrot, but there was a hint of smoke, too. That, with the sorrel sauce which was smothered over a the accompanying plate was a great contrast in flavours and actually complimented the carrot. I *loved* this, amazing how the humble carrot could be so flavoursome and delicious
The caramelised milk with cod liver wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it – The cod liver was thinly shaved whilst frozen so so they were still very cold, but the little smattering of salt really lifted it again the sweet, textural crunch of the caramelised milk disc it sat upon.
Next up was a few signature dishes for Noma; The pickled and smoked quail’s egg was every bit as tasty as it was theatrical. I mean, you lifted the lid and immediately see some of the smoke escaping from the eggs. Plop the whole thing into your mouth and firstly you noticed how the egg is perfectly soft-boiled so as the sweet yolk bursts in your mouth, you get a pickled taste followed by a slight smokiness. I’m sure this dish wows diners like us just as much now as it did when first introduced however many years back – And rightly so, this was a great example of what Noma is in terms of great cooking technique combined with theatrics to get the diner involved with their food.
The radish, soil and grass was another signature dish from Noma – But you get so many places offering malt soil these days. However, there was no denying the slight thrill you got when the dish arrived on the table, knowing that the fresh baby vegetables in the malt soil were first done this way at this restaurant, and you know what? They were pretty damn good – A perfect dish to highlight the superior quality of ingredients.
The Æbleskiver and muikku – or fish doughnuts – were ridiculously good. I mean, anything deep fried with the head and tail sticking out like that should not be allowed to taste that good. There was a ball of cooked cucumber in the centre of the doughnut but I could have happily eaten a whole plate of these by myself.
The herb toast and smoked cod roe looked amazing, but didn’t really deliver as much when it came to taste, but another of my highlights of the snacks was the grilled corn; baby corn with the outer husks removed, before one single layer was wrapped around the corn again and the whole thing simply chargrilled. It may not look like very much but the sweetness of the corn was somehow enhanced by the chargrilling process, and the sweetness was in complete contrast to the char.. It was almost Hedone-esque in how very fine ingredients are treating very simply to bring out the very best they have to offer. I later told one of the chefs how this was one of the standout dishes for me and he was really happy to hear that, I like to think that it’s because it was good for him to hear high praise for a simple dish like the grilled corn.
The next 2 snacks of smoked veal (brisket) and seaweed, then the sorrel leaf and cricket paste didn’t work too well for me. Although we joked and said that whoever has pissed off René will get the shit job of shredding the brisket fibre by fibre, it was a bit of style over substance for me. I got a faint whiff of smoked brisket, but it was all about texture and it didn’t melt in my mouth like I had hoped it would. As for the sorrel leaf and cricket paste, it wasn’t really that bad – Nice lemony flavour from the sorrel and the crickets. But you would never have guessed it was crickets from the blind tasting.
The next snack of Crayfish was just sublime. Cooked crayfish all lined up neatly on a platter for us to help ourselves, with the shells removed from the tails so all we had to do was smear the tails in the sauce accompanying it (can’t remember exactly what was in it, but it was DELICIOUS), and we were told that they had split the heads of each Crayfish so that people could suck the heads if they wanted to. That’s right, it was our feral-moment – in the World’s best restaurant.
Our final snack was of potatoes and snails. A hot earthenware bowl with some potatoes in a sauce and bit of burnt wood were placed in front of us and in the middle, a few long twigs with one end cut to a point like a spear and at the opposite end, a bunch of fresh herbs and leaves tied to the end. We were told that the wood in the potato dish was to give a bit of smoke and we were to spear the potatoes and brush the herbs and leaves into the sauce and then eat. The potatoes were al dente and so proved a bit difficult to spear, but the sauce was deliciously buttery, whilst somehow being savoury and sweet. The herbs and leaves dipped into the sauce not only cooled it down, but added a lovely contrast to everything. If I had any bread, I would have mopped up every last drop of that sauce. But that wasn’t it – Using the same spears, we were encouraged to spear the snails and again, rub it all over the plate as what were thought was the plate design, was actually the accompanying sauce to go with the snails. Again, sensational.
So that was all the snacks done – And how many there were! It was now time to launch into the main meal (!!). We were all feeling a bit full as bread was laid on the table and some home-churned butter, but the other thing they had was: Pork fat with Aquavit, topped with crispy onions. To be honest, they had me at Pork fat, but it would have been rude to not try, eh? The pork fat was delicious smoked and reminded me of bacon fat – Was this bacon fat I’ve just been duped into eating?! Don’t really care – It was delicious!
Kicking things off were some cooked fava beans and beach herbs; in the bottom of deep white bowls were a pretty arrangement of fava beans – all green and inviting – with a few beach herbs dotted up in and around. It did strike me how it’s only in high-end restaurants that they would take the time, care and attention to arrange the beans in a neat fashion – Personally, I would dollop them in a whole pile, but it is somewhat gratifying to see how Noma take the time to arrange the beans in the bowl. The dish was finished with a buttermilk sauce which was poured onto the beans at the table. My only gripe with this dish was that it required a lot of jaw power and I actually got jaw ache from the amount of time I had to chew everything to break it down. But the taste of the dish was lovely – Perhaps even worth the jaw ache..
The next dish of berries and cucumber exemplifies what Noma are famous for in a bowl. A mixture of seasonal berries – including one which is only available 3 weeks a year with some charred cucumber and foraged herbs (which a chef had been out for 2 hours this morning foraging for). The dish is finished with a light broth added to the berries, cucumber and herbs. This dish was light and delicate, but every ingredient was packed full of flavour.
I think it was at this point that James, the Restaurant Manager, came out to see how we were all doing. Of course, we were all loving every moment of it all and then James remarked how “the kitchen were getting a bit worried at the slow pace which we were all eating.” We had heard how YKL had dishes deleted from previous visits because she’d taken so long and we were determined that it wouldn’t happen to us, so we picked up the pace for the remaining dishes.
The next dish of Brown crab, egg yolk and herbs reminded me of the “Rockpool” dish I’d previously eaten at The Sportsman; fresh brown crab with herbs and a smoked egg yolk in the bottom of a deep bowl before a light broth was added to the dish at the table. Whereas I thought that the Rockpool dish at The Sportsman was a bit too delicate in flavour, there were no such problems with this dish. You almost felt cleansed just looking at the dish with the bright green of the herbs and the pure white of the crabmeat, the broth was flavourful without being overpowering. But the highlight of the entire dish was the smoked egg yolk, it not only added to the dish with its deep yellow, but the almost gummy texture and smokiness lifted the whole dish for me.
I was greatly amused when, after describing the dish of Cauliflower and Pine: Cream and horseradish, the chef said to us: “So, if you want to move the Christmas Tree bits, you can eat the cauliflower”. I didn’t catch what had been done the cauliflower (other than it was pan-fried), but it was genuinely delicious – And I never thought I would be eulogising about a cauliflower!
We’d seen other tables around us have the next dish of The Hen and The Egg and were greatly intrigued by it all, so by the time we got to having this dish ourselves, we were almost giddy with excitement. I think this is another dish which sums up Noma: A combination of theatre, interaction, great ingredients and still tasting great. The table was laid with napkins upon which were some bundles of herbs, vegetables and a flavoured butter on a spoon. Whilst in front of us was a VERY hot cast iron skillet upon a bed of hay, with a perfect fried potato curl at the side, a half egg-shell with some salt and a whole egg. As it was explained to us, some hot oil was squirted into our pans and the idea was that we crack the egg into the pan to cook, then add the butter into the pan (not onto the egg!) so that it melts, then you can add the herbs and vegetables to cook for a bit, crush the potato curl and season to taste. The whole dish should take 1 min 40 seconds to cook so a timer was placed so that we knew when time was up. I loved the sense of fun and interactive element of this dish and whilst the egg was REALLY hot, you couldn’t help but enjoy this dish.
Because I was too busy enjoying my dish of The Hen and The Egg, I missed how the chefs came out to show us the prime piece of turbot which they were cooking for us – It may only have been a small section of the whole fish, but you could see how it was a THICK beast which could only mean that it had some tasty meat on it!
When the dish was actually served to us, the turbot was served with bitter greens, celeriac and mushroom which included some of the smallest chanterelle mushrooms I have ever seen. The flesh of the cooked turbot was pearly white and I remarked how it was a shame that we didn’t have the bones as I would dearly loved to have been able to and immediately, the chef finishing the dish at our table with a drizzle of sauce stopped what he was doing and said: “Oh you should have asked!” before immediately calling over the James, the Restaurant Manager to go back to the kitchen to see if the bones were still available. Sadly they weren’t, but I joked that it was going to be given to the staff for their lunch.. However, it didn’t detract from the wonder of a dish that was presented to us. I had some steamed turbot before I flew out to Copenhagen and jokingly asked if I would get any Turbot as nice as what I ate then. Well, the answer is a resounding YES! This piece of turbot we were given was sweet, juicy and everything and more you’d want when eating turbot.
The blueberries and ants didn’t really set my tastebuds going (!!) – The ants were there for texture I think, but it was a bit lost in the crispbread really. But still, I can say that the blueberry part of the dish was very nice.
However, the Gammel Dansk was a perfect way to round off the meal – Light and refreshing with really clean flavours, it actually pepped me up a fair bit (I was suffering a bit from too much free-flowing booze towards the end!). I loved it.
We took our teas and coffees in the bar with our petits fours – Something they called “Yeast” with elderflower seasoning and a spread of sea buckthorn and lard (Yep, there is was again!) which was pretty tasty to the wonderful Flødeboller which looked a bit rude, but tasted delicious, to the chocolate covered crisps which is every bit as weird as you think chocolate and fried potato would be
We were then offered a tour of the kitchens which all the men in the party quite literally leapt up onto their feet when called. In the finishing kitchen, I was amused at the booking clipboard which had YKL (and us as her party) listed in the “VIP/Regular” section. But I loved being able to chat to the staff there and it’s really clear that every single one of them love working at Noma – One of our party remarked how he had never seen so many people so happy to be working in a restaurant before. I wonder how much of it is because they can say “I work at Noma”, but I suspect it’s because it looks like an environment where you not only learn to embrace and love new techniques and ideas, but are encouraged to think differently too. As we were chatting to Tom (whom René had previously said to YKL that she probably didn’t know him as he was in jail the last time she was there, given the amount of tattoos he had all up his arms), he was working on a green emulsion of some sort and explained to us that it was an oyster and parsley emulsion which they serve with a large crayfish/langoustine tail. YKL had (obviously) eaten the dish before so knew what to expect, but the rest of us were not going to turn down the opportunity to try it, and how glad we were to try it. The emulsion was impossibly packed with the flavour of oysters, with a cleansing note of parsley at the end. I would happily get some bread and eat this stuff by the truckload if given an opportunity – I was a bit sad we didn’t get it during our own meal but hopefully I’ll be able to do so another time.
We were then taken to the rest of the kitchen downstairs with the trolleys upon trolleys of mis en place, ready for the dishes to be finished in the Finishing Kitchen, then took pity on the Pastry Chef whose job also included having to make up the butter portions of the lard with Aquavit, then top with fried onions and cleaning every single butter dish so that it’s clean and presentable (and uniform).
We were then taken upstairs to view what used to be the function room which houses a beautiful single wood table which they don’t use so much these days, but I could see it being a really fantastic place to have a big gathering for dinner. Across the hallway was the main kitchen where we could see all the staff busy getting their staff lunch before disappearing through some double doors the other side of the kitchen. To my surprise, we were taken through the double doors and were privy to the creative hub of Noma. To our left, all the staff were busy tucking into their lunch and to our right, was a smaller kitchen where the man himself, René Redzepi was tucking into his lunch. There was a whiteboard jotting down ideas for dishes/menus for autumn behind him and various ideas/drawings from magazines all dotted around like a cluster of creativeness. By the office, I had a look at the bookshelves to discover there weren’t just books kept on the shelves, but this is where they keep all their awards – They’re not blasé about the awards they’ve won but recognise that a lot of hard work and effort from everyone in the Restaurant has gone into winning these awards, so it’s right that people should be able to see the awards from day to day.
We then had a bit of a chat with René and again, you’re struck by how this man had not only a great vision, but a great philosophy of what Noma should represent. I’m sure he was initially taken back by how far the world has embraced his philosophy and ideology, but in chatting to him, he seems very much like a man who is content. Sure, he has ambitions and great dreams still, but he’s still got that fire and love for what he does – And it willing to share this enthusiasm with anyone and everyone who is game enough to talk to him about it. We were mindful of keeping Sam from being able to get any staff lunch – This was meant to be a 10 mins tour, but we’d so far spent a good 20mins chatting to René alone. In fact, even the fact that our taxis had arrived didn’t stop us from staying longer to chat. I mean, it’s not very often you get to chat for so long to the chef/proprietor of the best restaurant in the world, is it? René even joked that we should let the taxis start charging us for waiting because “This is Denmark – EVERYTHING is cheap!” (Yes, he was being very sarcastic). By the time we finally got into our taxis, the driver was really apologetic about having charged us for waiting and whilst YKL and I thought it was going to be another £40 – £50 for waiting, the fact it was £20 – £25 was nowhere near as painful and was actually worth it for the amount of time we got to have a chat with René. I only hope that Sam managed to get some lunch..
So that was it; my meal at what’s been voted as the Best Restaurant in The World. And what did I think of it? I absolutely LOVED it! I had so many high expectations going in to this place yet they actually managed to EXCEED some of my expectations. Every single dish looked pretty as a picture and generally were delicious tasting. But that’s not to say that EVERYTHING we had was awesome – Some things were had were more style over substance and were lost on my as a result. But in tasting that Oyster and Parsley Emulsion during our kitchen tour, it showed how there were some dishes at Noma which have the potential to blow my mind completely – And when you consider the high standard of food we did eat, that’s pretty extraordinary. Our trip was obviously made all the better in chatting to René afterwards and that would have been a pretty awesome way to end the day, but the final touch to seal how impressive our meal was there wasn’t a culinary one: We were all offered copies of the menu and being the slick operation that they are, they were printed on thick paper with the Noma logo and we were all given individual copies. All very well and normal, yes? Until I happened to glance over the should and took a peek at another member of our party’s copy of the menu who had a juice pairing with his meal and it listed all the different juices he had drunk. Again, all very normal, yes? Then I opened my copy of the menu and saw that my copy of the menu didn’t list what juices B had drunk – But rather what wines on my reduced pairing were drunk. Yes, not only didn’t the remember who had taken what menu, but they printed out individual menus for us and made sure we were given the correct menu – *THAT’S* good service! Truly Noma, you showed your class and why you’re such pioneers. I may try to go more often with YKL now..
You can view the full set of photos from my visit at Flickr