Its past midnight in Copenhagen and my mind is still buzzing from the meal I had 12 hours ago. I can’t remember a meal that made my mind work like this for ages. I had all but given up on the prospect of eating at Noma until the kind people at Singapore Airlines and Visitcopenhagen offered me the chance to be in the city, and of course Noma was the first restaurant I made reservations at.
To say I was confident about the experience I was going to have would be a complete lie, it was quite the opposite. I have heard many friends, many bloggers that have criticized the food at Noma for various reasons, so I felt that I had to approach the meal with caution, not too different from a child with an innate fear of water, dipping his toes in precariously, never fully trusting it. I had an optimism for the meal that I kept inside, and if I have learnt one thing over the last few years of visiting restaurants, it is that food is extremely subjective, and I refuse to form an opinion on a restaurant based on a collection of other peoples thoughts- I had to decide on my own.
The meal starts off with a small bite of rhubarb rolled into a rosette, proving that even the top restaurants in the world are not immune to instagram fads. But this was no avocado rose; the rhubarb, although seemingly simple in flavor, was dressed in a viscous kombu oil. This dish was a necessary precursor and set the tone for the entire meal, that if you are served an infused oil in Noma, it will taste exactly as advertised. The intense umami and unmistakable sea flavor of the oil combined with the tartness of the rhubarb and sorrel to create a flavor combination that was unusual. I couldn’t decide if I truly loved it, but the dish did start to make me think, the whole table was engaged in conversation and I could tell that the dish divided opinions at the table, this was going to be a fun meal.
A little tartlet with radishes appears, “Radish pie”, a dish that looks like it would terrify anyone with trypophobia. Ground seaweed powder is folded into a tart dough and rolled ever so thinly before being baked, the same tart used in their Tokyo popup with Uni. This time it is served with rolled radishes and an emulsion of vegetable jus and butter, a contrast of deep earthiness, and an umami laden base to bind it all together, Surf and turf with no meat, delicious. Flavors that individually you already have stored in your memory palate, yet your mind is twisted into a knot and tied together because the flavors are being combined in ways that you have never experienced.
The last vegetable course before meat started to appear on the menu is my favorite dish of the whole meal and one of the best dishes I have ever had. White asparagus, simply steamed and pan roasted, is finished with a barley butter sauce with greens and elderflower. The combination is astounding, everything is executed to perfection, the doneness of the asparagus, cooked until it retains just the perfect amount of crunch, and the barley butter sauce, a sauce with so many layers of flavors that you constantly keep spooning more into your mouth to make sure that this is real. Natural sweetness from the barley, richness from the butter, and acidity from a double fermentation process that we will talk about later. Superb
Whatever notions and criticisms of the food being bland were not present in my meal. A seemingly simple dish of rampson leaves, brushed with a smoked butter, then charred on the grill, afterwards brushed with a paste made of roasted scallops, was both ingenious and chock full of flavor- intense umami and sweetnessfrom the scallops, bitterness from the charred bits, and a hint of garlic from the leaves.
Another flavored packed dish was a small bowl filled with king crab legs, thickened with a rich egg yolk sauce, and seasoned with beef garum. That’s exactly what it sounds like, the same technique used to make fish sauce is applied to beef. Minced beef is salted and left to try out, the liquid that is realised is used to season the dish.. It is a huge trick on the mind because you taste the intense saltiness, and your brain is searching for that familiar fishy flavor, yet what you taste is unmistakably beefy, and that flavor in itself is so contrasting to the sweet flavor of the crab. This is one of the many dishes where your palate goes haywire because it defies everything in your flavor memories, and just in case I wasn’t clear, I loved this dish.
That being said, the meal was far from perfect. A few little details kind of showed why Noma is still a 2 star restaurant, a small piece of crab shell embedded within the crab meat, some sand that was not cleaned out from the sea greens were seemingly small issues, but these little things really separate a 2 star from a 3 star restaurant based on my experiences.
Some dishes I didn’t quite understand, a dish of lobster served with rose oil, charred onions and lavender was a bit of a floral overkill for me. The lobster itself was perfectly cooked, steamed till it had just the right amount of bite and impeccably sweet, yet none of the accompanying ingredients served to elevate the flavor of the lobster for me.
Others were on the verge of perfection but felt a little too smart for their own good. A ‘tart’ made of plum puree that had been lacto-fermentated, then dehydrated into a thin disc, sandwiching a thin layer of rose petals served as a base for the freshest and most beautiful baby Danish peas, painstakingly peeled by hand and tossed in blackcurrant wood oil and thyme flowers. Some of the best peas I have ever tasted, yet the overwhelming acidity of the plum tart really took away from those peas, I wonder what they would have tasted like without being fermented.
One simply cannot go to Noma without considering the juice or wine pairing. Noma after all, is the restaurant that made the juice pairing popular, and being a light drinker, this was right up my alley. An infused oil of blackcurrant wood floating on a juice of green strawberry gave the juice an added layer of aroma, coating the tongue for a longer flavor release, aroma for days. Yet the actual pairing of the juices with the food didn’t seem to compliment each other as much as I would have liked, there seemed to be a disconnect in flavor for some pairings. For what it’s worth, I thought that the non-alcoholic pairing(Not juice because there were infused teas) at Brae in Australia was much better, and the wines I sipped from friends pairing seemed to suit the dishes a little better.
Desserts felt like it ended a little prematurely simply because there were only 2 courses in comparison to the multiple savories that we had, the final course being a delicious snack of moss(I believe reindeer moss), deep fried and sprayed in a chocolate ganache, meant to be dipped into creme fraiche and a seaweed reduction. This is a dish that is hard to describe accurately in words simply because the combination of flavors are so mind blowing. Your tongue first gets hit by the sweetness of the chocolate, then as you bite, you first get the crispness of the fried moss, but it eventually turns into a chewy texture, and each time you chew into it, that natural briny flavor is released. It sounds crazy, but is the template no more crazy than the combination of say, a salted caramel? Sweet and salty, but this time with umami. Absolutely delicious.
And that was my experience with Noma, a great meal, but not without its own criticisms. I wish I had more Noma experiences to compare against, but this was my virgin trip, and on a visit to 1-michelin starred Sollerod Kro, I spoke to the chef who has been to Noma 57 times. He mentioned that his last Noma visit, 2 months prior to mine, was the best he has experienced, and it’s not hard for me to believe. I haven’t had first hand experience with what Noma’s food used to be, but from the articles that I’ve read, from the youtube videos that I’ve watched on Noma, my meal seems to be much more…. mature. The shock factor is secondary, and flavor is prioritized- dishes that used to consist of whole ants shocked diners into their perception of what should be eaten at a fine dining restaurants, but in this meal the ants were ground into a paste and spread onto grilled vegetables. The form of the ants is not important, the flavor of the ants are.
But the meal is not where the experience ends, once the bill has been settled, we were given a kitchen tour, and I (personally) believe the kitchen tour is just as important as the meal itself. The dishes throughout the meal truly set your mind ablaze- how is this dish made? Why was it done this way? Even with the dishes I did not enjoy, I had questions, and the kitchen tour is where those questions get answered.
The first thing you realise walking into the kitchen is that it is not set up like a regular kitchen, it has 4 passes, not common by any means, but think about it for a moment and it makes so much sense, having multiple passes ensures that food does not ever get bottlenecked at one location, so even with heavily staggered reservation timings, service can go incredibly smoothly(as it did).
Then you are guided to the back of the restaurant where a small grill has been set up. There was a time a few years ago where I said that I did not care if things were sous vide, as long as they tasted good, I have to admit that my sentiment is not the same now. Perhaps it is my own personal interest with cooking over fire and wood, but I do find that having ingredients cooked over charcoal does give it more personality than the monotony of edge to edge perfection; perhaps I am romanticizing this, but noone can argue with the smokiness that cooking over fire provides, and it is nice to know that noma uses fire as flavor.
Walk to the 2nd floor where they are busting out mise en place, see them punching out little radishes and rolling them into cones. Walk down back to their ‘fermentation lab’ and they explain how they are able to preserve produce for the harsh winters where vegetables are scarce. And you start thinking about what you had during your meal. That perfect barley butter sauce, it had a tinge of acidity that really gave the dish life, but neither barley nor butter have much inherent acidity. Then you learn that the barley goes through a double fermentation process, first it is a process similar to how koji is made, but with barley instead of rice, then salt is added for another lacto-fermentation.
And perhaps this exemplifies the beauty of the meal at noma, the food is just one portion of the experience, the education and inspiration from the techniques being used, the way the kitchen is run, the ideaology behind the dishes,those are just as important as what you have eaten as well. To say that everyone who enjoys eating has to have this interest would be pompous, some just simply eating food that is delicious and nothing more, but if you’re willing to look a little deeper, I have no doubt that you will have a great time at Noma
The rest of the dishes:
Sourdough and goats milk butter (Starter has been around since Noma first opened in 2003)
A Vegetable platter: Flatbread and creme fraiche with herbs, pickled and smoked quails egg, a black currant berry. Wasn’t a fan of the faux berrybut the other two, especially the egg, were both tasty
Fresh milk curds and young garlic shoots. That striped pattern is konbu cooked till translucent, and I believe there were grasshoppers in the ramp paste
Turbot grilled on the bone with sweet shrimp. This was the first in a 2 part final savory course, the Fjord shrimps are left raw, diced to a tartare and wrapped in spinach leaves like a ravioli, and the broth is made from hen of the wood mushrooms. Hard to fault the dish, execution was flawless, it just felt that apart from the raviolis, this was a dish that was not as interesting as the other dishes in the meal.
Turbot ‘ribs’, its not often that an entire table of 7 diners are having so much fun munching on a dish that not a single word is muttered, but thats what this dish did. Ribs are glazed with a turbot reduction(I think) and barbecued, the tiny sliver in the center is made from turbot roe that has been aged for a year. There’s barely any meat on the bones, but they are so much fun to nibble on, and you’d often find yourself sticking on the nooks and crannies trying to get out as much of the collagen as possible. This is such a silly but great dish.
“Gammel Dansk” bitters ice cream, milk crisps, sorrel juice. Enjoyed the use of sorrel in the dish, a perfect balance of sweet and acid, and the herbaceous notes complimenting the gammel dansk perfectly