“Is it really the best?”
That’s the question that has been invoked the most in the wake of our visit to the place nominated as the best restaurant the world over the last two years.
For some people ‘The Best’ is about service.
For others it requires some ticking off from a shopping list of luxury ingredients (foie gras, oysters, truffles et.al).
As poncey as it might sound to say, for The Hungry One and I meals like these double as a dose of art. We don’t get to the theatre as much these days and I’m too grumpy to stand about at concerts.
So instead, we eat.
To me, the best is when there’s creativity on the plate. When there’s food in front of you that forces you stop, look twice, cock your head and ponder- not just how, but why.
It’s food that means it’s hard to think about anything else while you’re there.
And when it comes to creativity, I think Ferran Adria summed it up best when he said; ‘creativity means not copying’.
That’s an ethos that lives strong in his successor for the top spot.
There is so much that is brave and original about René Redzepi’s restaurant and food. And because of that, there’s even more to adore.
What follows is just the beginning of the adventure.
The Hungry One and I arrive at the old warehouse by the water in central Copenhagen after a relaxed stroll along the harbour. It’s 12.25 pm and the sun is shining. We’re in a good place.
I’d like to say I didn’t do a little skip with excitement as we made our way towards the door, but that would be lying. I’d also like to say that I didn’t mawkishly pose for a photo infront of the entrance, but that would mean I couldn’t mention how charming the staff were; popping their heads out, guessing I was ‘Victoria’ and offering to take a photo of both of us.
Our coats are taken and we’re shown to our table in the centre of the dining room. There is heathery light streaming through the open windows. There are dark grey drapes framing the room and a solid wood panelled floor. The tables are theatrically large and round, set with large earthenware plates and a stout little vase filled with wildflowers and twigs. The chairs are squat – a comfortable combination of form and style. Draped intermittendly over the back of some are fluffy rugs.
There are two choices of menu. There’s the seven course seasonal menu. And then there’s a 12 course ‘Noma Classic’ menu. We can’t help ourselves. We go for the whole hog.
We don’t have to wait long for it to begin.
It turns out that our first dish is already at the table.
It’s a game of hide and seek. The first ‘snack’ is what’s hiding- in the flowers. There, twisted around some gentle white blossoms are spindly malt breads with seeds, doing an impressive impersonation of twigs. Their first destination is some organic crème fraiche. The second, is our mouths. We’re eating the decorations.
And from there the chaos really begins. We thought we were signing up for 12 courses. It seems that doesn’t take into account the preliminary series of snacks. These are amouse bouches which have been amped on steroids.
There are petrified kitchen sponges on moss- which actually turns out to be fried Reindeer moss. They have a texture that shatters like brik pastry and a bland taste like oat cakes. They’re dusted with mushroom powder and play happily when dipped in the puddle of creme fraiche.
Next to them is a clatter of mussels. The flesh is sweet and pink. We’re looking suspiciously at the shell it comes resting on. “Use your instinct” we’re told. So we do. And we bite clean through it. It’s fashioned out of dried squid ink.
Next there are wafting petals of orange and pink, like tents made from summer lipgloss shades. I pick at it with a scrape and a pinch off a circle of soft felt. It’s like the fruit leathers from childhood lunch boxes, except this one is made from Scandinavian hawthorn berry, carrot and pickled rosehip.
Next to it are two long and proud leeks. They’ve been caramellised and the ends have been crisped. Inside the soft bits there’s some sweet garlic purée . There’s a certain satisfaction of being able to pick it up with your hands and munching straight onto the end of a vegetable. “Don’t eat the whole thing” we’re told. We stop about a quarter of the way up. So far we’ve eaten the table decorations and the shells of mussels. You can hardly blame us for trying.
Next a metallic tin of cookies is delivered to the table.
It’s the sort of box of cookies that was always wrapped as the ‘emergency’ Christmas present and put under the tree. Just in case a family friend dropped in with a present, there’d be a generic gift there to smooth over any social awkwardness.
Inside there are two- enough for each of us to have one. There’s the faint pucker of blackberries and a verdant sprig of spruce leaf planking over the top.
At this point there are five dishes on the table. There are four waitstaff milling around the table, coming and going. In the middle of all of this we’ve negotiated beverages- which proves an interesting point of departure from other meals of this ilk. I’ve heard interesting things about the juices on offer at Noma. With a sommelier’s care, freshly made and intriguing juice combinations are paired throughout the meal. I’ve opted for a voyage of drinks that’s half booze, half juice (no, not in the same glass). To start there’s a glass of biodynamic apple juice, which has the most amplified and true taste of fresh apple I’ve encountered in a glass. It takes a moment to really register. All other apple juices now seem insipid in comparison. The Hungry One meanwhile has had his ears pricked by the prospect of a beer pairing. Boutique beers, matched to his food. It’s like he died a little and went to heaven.
But we’re lagging a little. We’ve been chatting and marvelling. We’re not eating fast enough. We’re due out by 4pm so they can reset the table for dinner service. When the extended Chinese American family behind us, still adjusting their SLR’s and taking photos of their plate settings are told in a firm but fair tone ‘If you don’t start eating you won’t have time to finish in time’- we know it’s time to get our skates on.
So we do. Next is Noma’s version of a traditional Danish sandwich.
It’s business card thin with a well meaning layer of rye and seeds. Combined with crisp chicken skin it’s the same combination of naughty and nice as an eco shopping bag chocked full of racy undergarments.
Then out comes The Hungry One’s favourite. It’s a dinosaur sized egg, which opens to reveal a small stack of hay and a plume of barnyard scented smoke which snakes upwards. Innocently perched inside are two pickled quail eggs.
It’s best to eat it in one go, lest the molten yolk dribble its way all down your chin. Luckily, mine only made it half way there.
Things get more outrageous from here. Soon there’s a pot plant on the table. There are shoots of green coming from a dense pile of dirt.
Plucking out the shoots we find a baby radish. The radish itself is criminally sweet, crisp and tart. But clinging to the radish is where the real fun is found. At the base of the pot is a pistachio hued cream made of sheep yogurt and fresh green herbs. The dirt is a soil that’s crumbly and sweet with the flavours of malt and the earthiness of hazelnuts.
It’s as escapist as it is delicious.
Joining it on the table is another pair of sandwiches, this time a herb toast, made with creamed cod roe and crisped duck skin. It’s feather and fin, made heavenly light and cracking and splintering in your fingers like flame crisped paper.
The last of the snacks makes me laugh just from the absurdity of the sight.
It’s two small Scandinavian fish; Muikku, that are trapped in spheres of dough. It’s a twist on the Danish treat aebleskiver- a fluffy ball of pancake. Here they’re filled with pickled cucumber and dusted with vinegar powder.
The taste is both savoury and sweet. But it’s the sight gag that gets me. The fish look like they’ve been frozen, Han Solo style in ill fitting sumo suits. It’s not the most dignified way for them to leave this mortal coil. But it’s a curious and thought provoking snack.
We’ve had ten courses in around half an hour. It’s been a flurry of consumption and entertainment.
By the end my mouth is beyond amused. It’s like a child who has spent all day at a carnival and isn’t quite sure where to look next.
We’re looking at each other, half laughing, half dazed. We’re not sure if this is a pace we can sustain.
I’ve never really understood what parents talk about when they say their children have been overstimulated. I can cook a risotto, drink wine, counsel a friend, listen to the television and update twitter simultaneously without raising a breath. But in the midst of this, the coming and going of charming staff, the sheer pace of the excitement; I’m floored.
Luckily a more calming port arrives in the form of a loaf of bread. It’s carefully cosseted in a custom made felt snuggie.
It’s been baked just a few hours before. It’s still warm.
Here there’s no exhaustion of 25 different breads to make selections from; olive, rye, onion, tomato, fennel studded, baguette, sourdough- all the while internally monitoring yourself to make sure you’re not coming across as too greedy. There’s just a calming, solid and beautifully made loaf.
We take a breath. Things are starting to make more sense. The crust is firm, the inside smooth. We go for butter. We dip into the pot next to it. There’s some crunchy crumble over the top. We persist.
Thirty seconds into chewing we realise. It’s not butter. It’s pork fat with crackling that we’ve just spread on our bread.
It’s then that we realise there’s every chance we haven’t seen anything yet.
Part two here
For more of the meals in our Quest for the Best; including El Bulli, Alinea, Osteria Francescana and Fat Duck, see here.