DK-1401 Copenhagen K
T: +45 3296 3297
2 Michelin stars since 2008
5th – World’s 50 Best Restaurants
9th – Opinionated about Dining (Europe)
1st Visit: Lunch Saturday 4th February 2017
An extraordinary restaurant slightly overwhelmed by its own even more extraordinary reputation. (19/20 with at least 2 points just for being Noma).
More of a pilgrimage at this point than a restaurant visit per se, we jumped at a rare opportunity to finally attend one of the most celebrated restaurants in modern history, just two weeks before it will close doors in its current format forever. Of course any visit to Copenhagen offers up an array of world-class eating experiences, and it’s super easy to get to from Amsterdam, so we had already half hedged ourselves against any disappointment. And I talk immediately about disappointment because avoiding it had largely been the reason we never tried to go before, despite numerous foodie trips to Denmark. Such was the almost religious fervour surrounding this particular restaurant and its chef patron Rene Redzepi, that one could only feel it was pretty much impossible for a meal there to live up to its billing. More so since we had recently visited some of the other rightly exalted places which have sprung up in Noma’s wake, picking up the baton of modern Scandinavian fare, and sprinting well into the distance. Amass, and the mind-bogglingly good Kadeau, are such leaders of the new school, and we adore them both. So how could Noma ever live up to the hype, and moreover how could it keep up with the new contenders?
Well fear not, it does; But only just to my mind.
Arriving at Noma in the fog-bathed docks of Copenhagen harbour is a slightly surreal experience. How many photos gleefully posed outside the now legendarily main sign have we seen from those lucky enough to get a table? How many documentaries, interviews on-screen and in print of the charismatic Rene’s philosophy have we been subjected to over the years? See how I feel it appropriate to use the man’s first name as if I know him in real life (I don’t), such is the sense of celebrity-like familiarity created by the enormous level of exposure given to his cooking. And I must admit even to us restaurant-weary travellers, it was also with some palpable sense of awe that we arrived at these doors. Nadya in particular, who is substantially less interested than me when it comes to restaurant folklore, was legitimately excited. I can’t say I’ve seen that before, despite, as I so often say, our blessings to have been able to visit some of the greatest restaurants on the planet.
The first thing that strikes you as the make the first step in is the staff. Clearly that’s usually the case in restaurants, but here they do the thing (also at Kadeau) where a whole bunch of the kitchen drop what they are doing and line up to say hello. And just like Kadeau, there is nothing forced about this, you really get the impression that they are glad to see you. How delightfully different from that tired old Parisian habit of waiters at the 3 star joints looking at you as if you were something they’d just found on the sole of their shoe. Of course we know this about the restaurant already, we know anti-Michelin fuss and attitude is a central tenet of the philosophy, but to experience it in person being delivered with such apparent sincerity was a delight.
This is a very clever, and deeply international crew. And it’s serving a fully international audience; There were Danish, Spanish, English, French and Chinese patrons within hearing distance of our tables, almost all as far as I could tell being attended to by native speakers of their own language. For us they offered a choice of any of the three languages we live our lives in. We opted for English with a little Dutch thrown in for Sophia from the trilingual Belgian waiter. But let’s not beat around the bush, it’s a quite cramped dining room and on the day we visited it was uncomfortably loud. It’s interesting to be able to hear where all your fellow diners are from, but that’s not high up on my wish list for when I want to actually enjoy a meal. Or when trying to follow 15 complex meal descriptions from the staff, let alone to be able to speak to my family without bellowing at them or straining to hear their replies in the din. I really wasn’t expecting this, perhaps we were just unlucky, but it took a lot of the shine off for me.
Having said that it still has a lovely, relaxed vibe. It’s truly one of the seemingly happiest, friendliest restaurants we’ve ever been to, and increasingly I find that this is an important part of the dining experience for us. After we had finished we were given a 20 minute tour of the multiple kitchens and the upstairs development/ family-meal space. To take that much time out still in mid-service from a senior chef I found to be something verging on shocking. We just stood taking photos and videos in the middle of one the great kitchens in the world. And surrounding were us surely intensely busy professionals, but almost had a welcoming smile on their face for their interrupting patrons. That part of the experience will stick with me, and I’m very grateful to the whole Noma team for their graciousness and generosity in letting us see a little bit behind the scenes of what is already a restaurant with its place in history.
And so to the food. All this background is fascinating to you I’m sure, but, what about the food?! Yes it’s clever, yes it’s local, yes it’s very, very, complex and wonderfully thoughtful. It’s full of umami from multiple time-consuming processes of fermentation and preservation otherwise. Delicious? Surely. Well paced, well portioned, well explained? Definitely. Satisfying? Sometimes, but not always. An extraordinary dining experience? Yes. The best meal we’ve ever eaten? No.
The dishes came fast for us, and without us asking. Perhaps they sensed that’s the way we like to eat, maybe the wriggling 4-year-old helped give them a clue, but we didn’t ask them to go quick, they just sensed what we wanted and did it. Knowing what your customers want without asking or waiting to be asked, is the bedrock of a class act in the dining room. It’s quite rare. Also remarkable was how sensible they were about Sophia… ‘maybe some bread and a plate of fruit?’ Erm yes, that’s exactly what she’ll eat…thanks for being so normal. I must admit I was half expecting to be charged a full menu for her given the slightly stupid telephone conversation I had had some months back with the bookings person. But inside the dining room, again, top marks for hospitality and common sense.
First up was a selection of light, fresh and bright dishes screaming of autumn/winter. A broth of cloudberries with a bouquet including crushed pine; The delicious, clean, palate cleansing hollowed out apple, which was the epitome of appleness; A plate of leaves amongst which a number had been painstakingly processed, one taking on the flavour of a blackcurrant wine gum; and at the back, the ants now synonymous with Noma still standing on their twig. These were interesting dishes which served the purpose of waking the diner up to seasonality and location. Satisfying, not so much, but fascinating surely.
It was when the fish started to appear that for me the menu truly took off. A deceptively simple open scallop chilled on ice had been brushed with melted butter flavoured with kelp. The butter now a solid mass on the cool mussel, melted softly in the mouth releasing its umami time bomb just as the sweetness of the flesh had subsided. A wonderfully rich serving of king crab, with a preserved egg yolk sauce; A cabbage leaf filled with the powerful sea urchin and brushed with parsley to bring some much-needed freshness to offset the buttery filling.
Langoustines were served simply (exactly how they must be served) with sweet onion and lavender, and a huge slightly poached oyster was complimented wonderfully by a covering of thin scales of broccoli stem.
Nadya meanwhile was enjoying all sorts of fascinating vegetarian dishes, some with compliments from the main menu such as a shared sauce between the crab and the burnt leek, and some adapted for non-fish eaters such as the deliciously meaty charred veg with scallop paste (eaten with a steak knife for full effect), which was reinvented with a yeast reduction for the vegetarian menu. Her final report was that it was delicious, interesting food, but that she preferred Kadeau. At this point I have to admit the same.
There is extensive use of charring and barbecue in the menu so it was no shock on the tour to see a bunch of chefs shivering outside burning various things over a tiny charcoal pit. What was more amazing to me was to hear that’s the only way they cook things in the whole restaurant. No gas is allowed in the listed building and they believe induction cookers take something away from the essence of the food. Amen to that. I must admit with all this delicious charcoal cookery I was somewhat disappointed not to receive any meat during the whole lunch; The main course was the perfectly delicious, and generous, serving of bone marrow which was hollowed out and rolled up like a Vietnamese roll in a cabbage leaf with fresh walnuts and various pickles. Really good. But that was it.
Maybe this says more about my expectations as a diner than anything objective about the restaurant, and maybe the philosophy of a new style of eating which is expounded by Redzepi clashed a little with my inner caveman. I don’t know. I would love to say I didn’t miss a meat course, but I did.
Indeed the sense that something was lacking, that this wasn’t quite extraordinary enough, was palpable throughout the whole experience. It was fantastic food, with a deep sense of time and place. Often it felt a little bit like a lesson, albeit delivered with such sincere joy and generosity that one could hardly regret the feeling of being a little bit patronised.
Desert for me was delicious, albeit my sense of being underwhelmed without any meat on the menu was then echoed by the girls who failed to get anything sweet enough to satisfy their end of meal sugar cravings. I liked the desert of potato, plum and cream. For me it was just the right balance of rich and sweet, and the potato puree was a very clever twist. It apparently was not an opinion shared by my dining companion who left 90% of it and politely tried to cover up the remnants on the plate with her spoon. Thankfully for the chocolate craving ladies a final flourish with coffee provided some truly magnificent fried moss which had been dipped in sweet white chocolate (the painstaking cleaning of which we were to later see during the tour).
So something was indeed missing. It might be that we were right to prepare ourselves for a feeling of disappointment given a reputation that no restaurant can possibly live up to, especially when we’ve already been so spoilt at so many other great kitchens, and even more so when the movement Noma started and is so rightly honoured for, has already got up and run off in all sorts of interesting new directions. Perhaps it is only fitting that this was one of the last meals they would serve at the current location, and that the impending closing was also somewhat an admission that it was getting slightly stale. Or if not yet quite stale, that it just needed to reinvent itself yet again to get back into the lead. They have shown a remarkable resilience over the years to do just that, losing and regaining the title of world’s best restaurant, and bouncing back from a particularly nasty food poisoning incident a few years back. This is a rightly legendary restaurant, we are very glad we finally visited, and are very excited to return when they reopen at their new location on the outskirts of the city in December.