Noma: Surrender your expectations

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – Should you secure a table at Noma -- considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world – be sure to surrender at the door all your traditional thoughts about what a restaurant should be. Expect to eat foods you never ate before, or thought you would, such as ants. Plan to marvel at how chef/owner René Redzepi came up with certain combinations, like flatbread and technicolor rose petals; pale green deep-fried reindeer moss dusted with cèpe mushroom powder; barbecued bone marrow for the diner to wrap in cabbage leaves with multicolored nasturtium flowers.

At first glance, these dishes might get not get your vote for “best in the world.” But trust me, a meal at Noma is worth the journey and is truly a superior, unique, gastronomic experience. As a critic, a diner, a cook, I am always on the lookout for new stimulation, foods that surprise me, make me want to rush into the kitchen to repeat the pleasures of a dish. Noma offers all that stimulation, gratification, and more. It wakes up one’s palate, and questions our preconceived idea of what great food should taste like and be.

Redzepi is committed to sourcing and serving only local ingredients, so his chemistry-lab-like kitchens need to produce flavors that are not easily found in the north. There is no citrus for the acid balance that helps make food taste delicious, so to add that element they have their own fermentation lab, creating everything from fish sauce to miso.

And herein lies Redzepi’s challenge: So much of the pleasure of food is a result of our taste memory. My Italian mom’s spaghetti and meatballs, my favorite birthday cake (poppyseed), Joel Robuchon’s potato purée, my last perfect pizza. How much of that is real pleasure and what percentage just memory of past, favored tastes?

And yet at Noma, the pleasure is all there, within these incredibly unsual flavors. Redzepi's kitchen presents you with an amazing array of roots, leaves, pits, and flowers; they roast, grill, infuse, smoke and ferment the ingredients, but never is a flavor distorted. There is always that search for the true and honest soul of an element. And nothing appears pretentious or precious, narcissistic, or self-involved. A genuine aim to please is present everywhere, on the faces of the staff, in the precise presentation, in the final results.

A bit of background: Redzepi, now 36, is a Copenhagen native who attended cooking school there, worked in France with the Pourcel twins at Le Jardin des Sens, in Spain with revolutionary chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli, and in California with landmark chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Back home in 2003, he founded Noma, based on reinterpreting Nordic Cuisine, exploring every single edible ingredient that this northern region of the world might offer. The restaurant’s name is a taken from the two Danish words “NOrdisk” (Nordic) and “MAad” (food) and the rest is history.

First impressions: We are six for lunch, greeted heartily at the door by the manager. The second we crossed the threshold, the entire staff gathered to greet us at the door. All of them smiling, earnestly happy to see us. And then the 19-course fireworks began. Here are some of the best bites:

My favorite taste of the day was perhaps one of the simplest: A single Smoked and Pickled Quail Egg, elegantly presented on a bed of fresh straw, encased in a ceramic speckled egg. “Eat with just a single bite, it’s still runny inside,” suggested one waiter, Juan. Visually appealing, soft, earthy, delicately smoky, faintly pickled, the egg shows how much pleasure can be delivered in a single mouthful.

Smoked and pickled quail eggs

Smoked and pickled quail eggs

One gauge of a great chef is someone who first aims for, then masters the art of combining color, textures, crunch, bitterness, sweetness, acid, all in perfect balance. Redzepi and his staff strive for this, and generally achieve it.

The fried green moss dipped in a dollop of alabaster crème fraîche achieved it. The crispy, almost paper-thin toasted whole grain flatbread showered with colorful, crunchy, smoky, charred rose petals did too. The pungent apple paste teamed up with cèpe oil, lemon verbena, and lemon thyme did it as well.  This dish, served on a bed of ice piled high and shaped like a tajine, came off as a pungent, green on green mélange nestled in a small wooden bowl on ice, to be eaten with a smooth and silken wooden spoon.

Flatbread and rose petals

Squid and broccoli

Bone marrow and nasturium flowers

Pumpkin kelp and beech nuts

I can’t forget the colorful, crunchy pencil-thin cucumber (not your basic cornichon) the size of a French green bean, delicately pickled, dipped in a pungent “fudge” made of sea scallops and decorated with pickled parsley flowers. Or the pickled rose hips paired with fresh walnuts, lavender and marigold leaves, a dish that shook hands with Cédric Bouchard’s lively, bubbly Champagne, rich, complex and almost weightless.  

We were expecting the ants, and they came (but not alive, thank you) sprinkled generously on top of Noma’s beef tartare. Danish ribeye steak, aged a full three weeks, is cut into thin strips and seasoned with a vegetal, pungent celery oil and showered with the big black ants, added for their crunch, touch of acidity, and stunningly citrus zing. But not my favorite dish.

Beef tartare, celery oil and black ants

Beef tartare, celery oil and black ants

To me, the desserts were imperfections in an otherwise dazzling meal, with a forgettable mushroom ice cream, and a pairing of potato and plum (I don’t care about seeing vegetables on my plate at the end of a four-hour meal). This was one dish that didn’t make much sense to me, either in creation or execution.

 The wine list bothers me a good deal. As a dedicated Rhône fan and friend of many quality winemakers there, I was shocked to see just a single worthy wine on the list from both the north and the south, Domaine Gramenon’s pure and smoky Grenache-based Côtes-du-Rhône Poigneé de Raisins. But the sommelier said it was out of stock. So we settled, quite happily for a Beaujolais I love, Jean Foillard’s Morgon Côte de Py, supple, well-balanced, and ready to pair beautifully with Noma’s genuine, intense, straight-from-the-earth flavors.

With a staff of 40 for 40 diners, this destination restaurant is lodged in a converted stone warehouse in the Christianshaven neighborhood along a winding canal, and within walking distance of the center of Copenhagen. The décor reflects the earthy, rustic food that reveals a wealth of sophistication, enveloping the diner in a spacious room that is warm and comforting, all earth tones and wood. I can’t wait to go back.

Noma   |   Strandgade 93, DK-1401 Copenhagen   |   Tel +45 3296 3297   |   Open lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, closed Sunday   |   Menus at 1600 DK ($272), with wine pairings for an additional 1,000 DK ($170), or juice pairings for 600DK ($102)   |    Reservations difficult to come by, can be made through their web site.

Note that the Copenhagen restaurant will be closed in January and February 2015, when the staff travels to Japan for a two-month stint at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, where the staff will focus on local Japanese ingredients, serving meals from January 9 to February 14.