Sometimes the adage of ‘fresh, seasonal and local’ can get overworked to the point of senselessness- a notion that’s been chewed over and spat out more than a tough piece of steak.
Then there are places where the philosophy chimes as clear as an alarm marking the way out of sleep. That’s what we found that at Chez Panisse.
And that’s what we found at Noma.
Suddenly, these aren’t just buzzwords. They’re how you properly understand the when and the why of your visit. They put it in context. They tell the story.
For all the initial wizardry what tolled loudest at Noma was the sense of time and place evoked by the food.
It would be hard to imagine you were anywhere else except for Scandinavia in spring when eating a Norwegian razor clam, blanketed in a parsley gel next to a stripe of horseradish snow.
Whereas a Catalan restaurant may have grilled the mollusc with garlic, causing the outside to pucker and shrink into itself, here its as fresh and limpid as a lolling kiss.
The texture of the raw clam is fascinating. So is the sauce that puddles at the base. It’s a melding of mussel juice with dill oil. It looks like a plant stem on high resolution in a microscope. And its taste is an equal balance of plant and sea.
The razor clam with parsley gel was the first ‘proper’ course that we ate at Noma. It was one that made us sit up a little straighter, and pay attention not just to what was on the plate, but what was going on outside the window. Some people practice mindfulness while walking. Others while sitting. I’m now going to try and do it while eating.
Copenhagen’s harbour- which is clean enough to swim in- is blurbling outside. This is a city of canals, islands and bridges. The nearby beaches are where the chefs forage.
This is what is near. This is what finds its way to the plate.
The seafood theme continues with a plate of crisps, standing tall like scraped fish scales. It’s a salad of toasted grains with squid ink and a watercress puree.
Again there’s a touch of horseradish as a strident top note. As for the crisps, they’re dehydrated scallops. But of course. It’s a dish that plays more with textures than tastes, coming together as a combination of chew, squish and snap.
There is a satisfying lack of fuss and pretension at Noma. There are no starched tablecloths to worry about soiling. You’re never going to be scolded for taking off your jacket here (French Laundry, I’m looking at you). The waitstaff are so friendly that you may even find yourself in banter that results in you trying on each other’s sunglasses.
The relaxed tone also filters through to how you eat the dishes. I lost count of how many were served without cutlery. Using your fingers to get in there, lick and swipe seems to be part of the experience. So when a beef tartare, garnished with wood sorrel comes next to a painterly smear of tarragon cream (and without cutlery) there’s little to stop me getting my hands into it.
It’s as clean as a tataki, with a faint remembrance of gin that comes from the juniper powder scattered by the side. Eating it and getting hold of enough of the cream to gild the meat requires the same kind of enthusiasm as fashioning swirls and circles with your index fingers on an easel- as a four year old.
The hands on nature of the meal continues when a small boulder is delivered to the table. It’s warm. Splayed across it is a langoustine. The outside is crusted, the inside is pinkly raw. Beneath it is a gentle dust of dried Icelandic seaweed and flanking it is a creamy emulsion made from oysters and parsley.
It’s an extraordinary melding of the sweetness of the shellfish and the saltiness of the seaweed and oysters. It’s the kind of dish that doesn’t just make you want to use your fingers, but lick the rock, just to make sure you got every last skerrick of it.
Our time with the sea continues with a sizable blue Le Crueset cast iron pot. The inside is stacked with stones and shells. Balancing ontop of that is an oyster that’s been poached until it gleams opaque. There’s a tickle of vinegar and some pop from seaweed and tapioca.
This is localism taken one step further. It’s not just about serving foods local to the restaurant. It’s about foods that are local and related to each other. The seaweed was foraged from the same area as the oyster. They belong together, both in taste, and place. There’s beauty to the simplicity of the logic.
It’s the seasonal focus of the restaurant that really shines through in the vegetable dishes.
René Redzepi’s commitment to seasonal produce is such that during a stern winter- when there’s little fresh available in the vicinity of the restaurant, he will toil to make the ‘shitty forgotten potatoes’ dwelling in the fields taste good. By bathing them lovingly in butter and slow cooking for hours, he can turn them into something extraordinary.
Our visit is during spring. Spanking seafood, greens and berries abound. But he’s used a similar principle on two ingredients to remind you of the frost that still pricks the air at 6 am.
He’s made a hero of onions, slowly cooking them in butter. Others are lightly pickled. There’s a bouillon flecked with thyme oil, tangles of chickweed and a puddle of melted Swedish ‘Priest’ cheese. Slow cooking the onions brings out their lolly sweetness and leaves them with a texture like ruined pasta. It’s as soothing to eat as it is to look at.
The next vegetable course is a hunk of celeriac that’s been cooked for an hour and a half in goat’s butter, and charred on the outside. Over the top is a Jack and the Beanstalk arrangement of watercress and two types of sorrel. Against the soothing combination of white and green is a swamp of Swedish summer truffles.
It’s simple and complex, all at the same time. “I never knew celeriac could taste so good” says The Hungry One.
It’s at this point of the meal that the interactivity of Noma reaches new heights.
“The chefs are tired”, we’re told. “It’s time for you to do some cooking”.
Out come smoking hot ceramic plates, and a bundle of hay. Next to them is an egg.
Next there’s a plate of artfully arranged greenery and a lump of seasoned goat’s butter.
We’re to cook our own eggs. There’s a squirt of hay oil and an egg timer set. We crack the egg and cook the egg for 90 seconds exactly.
At that point in go the wild garlic, herbs and lump of butter.
We watch over our plates with care and concern. Soon there’s a squirt of wild garlic sauce. We’re allowed to now add in the final pile of delicate herbs and flowers. And to check the seasoning.
If ever you wanted to be introduced to how to make food taste like it does in a restaurant, this is a good way to do it. In order to turn the volume of the seasoning up to a level in tune with what we’ve just eaten we’re having to back and back to the salt. There’s already been a good lump of butter and oil in the dish. We puncture the luminous orange yolk and adorn the plate with a twirl of crisped potato.
Now it tastes in tune. It’s a very, very good egg.
There’s a crumble of milk throughout the base it which brings a gentle lactic caramel, but otherwise it’s a light palette cleanser. A perfect combination between a pot of yogurt, Splice ice cream and a few Maltesers.
Next is a yogurt mousse, which is as refreshing as a jaunt to a health farm. There’s a pale sunset streaked mousse that’s been frozen like a siezed bath sponge. It’s flavoured with the pricking acidity of sea buckthorn- a ponzu-like native berry. Dotted around the perimeter are carrots, both semi dried and fresh.
There’s no chocolate or vanilla, coffee or toffee. There are no mounds of pudding, or wads of pastry. The final chapter brings another episode of sweet and cooling vegetables. This time it’s a beetroot granita, topped with logs of Norwegian ‘brown cheese’; which are like lightly sweetened pana cottas.
Some locals blanch when they are told of the brown cheese, scarred by childhood experiences with it. We approach it with intrigue. There’s a muted toffee flavour that comes from caramelised milk curds. But the real hero of the dish are the freeze dried black currants which shatter and dissolve as soon as you crunch through them.
Then that’s the end. It’s 4.15 pm when we adjourn from our table into the bar for coffee and petit fours. We pass the kitchen and smile at the chefs who are wiping down their stations, preparing for a brief intermission before it all starts again this evening. One or two of them wave back.
This familiarity with the chefs is one of the most remarkable aspects of Noma. It’s also one of the aspects which takes the experience away from a mere meal. While the waitstaff are on hand to assist with drinks, plates and clearing, the dishes themselves are brought to the table and explained by the chefs that created them. Each dish is connected to the tired face that worked to make it. There is pride in the presentation. There is banter and a brief moment of connection. And there is gratitude.
The meal comes to its final conclusion with French press coffee and some presents.
In a large decorated biscuit tin there are chocolate waves, crusted with fennel seeds. They are potato crisps.
In another parcel that we unwrap there are caramels, set inside bone marrow. They’re made from smoked marrow. It’s as intriguing to eat as it sounds.
And lastly there are chocolate dipped flødebolle, Danish marshmallow treats.
It’s 4.40pm when we walk outside into the slanting sunshine.
I remember how I sat on the phone for two and a half hours, pressing ‘redial’ to get a booking. That we’ve paid a good chunk of coin on flights and a hotel. And how the Hungry One had to explain to his boss that he had to leave a last minute workshop in New York a day early. “Really?” they asked. “Well, you see, there’s a very special restaurant booking we have in Copenhagen on Saturday…”
It was all worth it.
We know that our lunch at Noma will be a meal that lives long in the memory.
It’s where we ate out of flower pots and contemplated licking rocks. The place where we got a proper glimpse into the complexities and simplicity of Nordic cuisine. It’s when we discovered how much we like frozen black currants. And learned how special it is to have a chef present to you the fruits of their labour.
A meal at Noma will mean different things to different people.
But never fear, for us it meant a whole lot.
Read part one here
For more of the meals in our Quest for the Best; including El Bulli, Alinea, Osteria Francescana and Fat Duck, see here.