"Eating with the terroir," "earth to plate," "fiercely local;" these lofty phrases which at one point had meaning are now often hollow tag lines used to pepper conversations. Frankly, I'm guilty too. It's not easy to describe the appreciation invested in a food's source. But at the same time, an ingredient's source should never supersede flavor. Just because hand-picked moss comes from the high hills of northern Hokkaido, or if tomatoes come picked this morning from a farm nearby, doesn't mean they will necessarily taste good.
Unfortunately, there are few restaurants that combine an ingredient's unique naturalness with an inventive cuisine that doesn't take the spotlight away from nature. It's usually a tradeoff. Noma has both. The unique flora and fauna found in Scandinavia provides a full spectrum of ingredients with which René Redzepi, chef of Noma Copenhagen, can paint into sophisticated flavor.
Noma, a play on the words "nordic" and "food" in Danish, is located seaside in a 250 year old industrial complex now converted into lofts and large open spaces. The decor is minimalist nordic warmed by exposed wooden beams. Though open and uncluttered, the small windows can at times make the lighting dim if not seated directly next to a window.
Service was exceptional from the very beginning, when I was greeted by name as being the last member of a party of four to arrive. It could be because I was eating with a well-known Parisian restaurateur and two established food bloggers; though, glancing around the room revealed the restaurant's unique ability to feel as if each table is the only table in the restaurant. The staff in general was extremely proud of the food it served and genuinely wanted guests to feel at home and to enjoy the experience. This was one of the warmest and most genuine lunch services I've ever experienced. I felt at home throughout the entire meal.
Amuse bouche - savoury cookie; speck, blackcurrant. These were crispy and salty with a hint of sweetness. It was a nice accompiament to a glass of champagne. These bite-sized portions served in a tin can.
Amuse bouche - rye bread, fava beans, chicken skin and smoked cheese. This was also salty with hints of chicken stock and no detectable fat whatsoever. Beans were added texture to the paste, like potato skin in pommes purées. Smoked cheese gave depth and emphasized the saltiness.
Amuse bouche - smoked quail egg. For me this was more about the texture than flavor. It was a lot of fun to eat. The warm egg bursted in my mouth like a little explosion. There was a stark contrast from white to yolk, this was cooked just enough to solidify the shell while keeping the inside fluid. The flavor was rich and creamy, like an intensified egg yolk.
Amuse bouche - radish and turnip, soil and herbs. Cool concept. A radish was buried in a ceramic pot full of edible "dirt." It literally felt like I was literally eating dirt as some parts of the soil were even hard to chew, like they contained little pebbles. The imagery of this dish was very powerful, like stopping for a quick snack in a friend's greenhouse. The flavor was light and clean with a hint of burn as found in very fresh radishes.
Amuse bouche - toast, herbs, beurre noisette and vinegar. Gorgeous presentation; a lot like fresh snow fallen on a pile of greens. There was a slight acidity on the vegetables from the vinegar as frequently seen in Nordic cuisine. For me this was prettier than it tasted, but it did feel like talking a hungry walk through an herb garden.
Squid and white currant; cream and dill. This was absolutely breathtaking both in flavor and presentation. The highlight of the meal. The squid was chewy but nothing like the pencil eraser texture some varieties of squid can develop. This was a different type, translucent and snippy. I've had similar squid before in Kozue (こずえ） and Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばしじろ) where it was referred to as Monga-ika (もんがいか). I'm not sure what that's called outside of Japan; but I'd like to hunt it down and buy some. The chewy squid complemented very nicely with the pristine white currant.
Apple, walnut, walnut milk, marjoram. This had a very subtle flavor and the thin slices of walnut and apple did not help in tasting the ingredients. This dish was more about the texture than the taste, which was crispy and cold.
Shrimp and seaweed; rhubarb and herbs. The pickled rhubarb was astringent and gave a tannic-sensation when combined with the raw shrimp, highlighting its sweetness and milky texture. The fresh sea lettuce added a hint of bitterness resulting in an overall balanced and fresh dish. I really liked this as it felt clean yet unconventional.
Sea urchin and grilled cucumber; Dill and cream. To say that I enjoyed this dish is an understatement. Big chunks of firm and cold sea urchin jumping out of of a frozen grilled cucumber granité. The granité not only amplified the urchin's sweet taste of the sea; but served functionally to keep the texture solid and dense. The dill brought the whole dish closer to shore by adding a hint of the garden.
Tartar and wood sorrel; rromatic juniper and tarragon. When I first saw this plate, I was immediately struck by the ordered chaos throughout the dish. While the wood sorrel was disordered and densely packed, like a wild meadow, it still remained confined to a rigid square. The sorrel leaves sat atop a coarsely ground square of Danish beef tartar. The clover-shaped leaves were large enough to serve as utensils for bite-sized portions of beef, so forks and knives were neither necessary nor given. The sensation of eating this simple and pure dish with your fingers added another sense to the dish: touch. This immersive experience powerfully evoked imagery of cows grazing on an open field. The flavors of the dish were simple and unalloyed. I wouldn't call this the best tasting dish of the meal; but I would certainly call it the most interesting.
Langoustine and seawater; parsley and rye. A plump langoustine sat atop a warm basalt stone taken from a local field, not unlike a cold-blooded reptile basking in the sun. The texture of the langoustine was firm and stringy, the flavors unaided by spicing. This dish was also eaten without a fork and knife. I liked the langoustine; but, would have preferred it to be slightly undercooked.
Steamed spinach and tea; swedish cheese, elderberries and pickled rose hip. This dish was prettier than it was flavorful. The melange of ingredients didn't seem to have much coherency and the flavors were unfocused. Most distracting was the strong taste of earl grey. The tea foam made the greens a bit soggy, like a salad that had been sitting around for awhile.
Local, wild mushroom (pied de boeuf/amador); skate sauce, nasturtium, elderberry capers. Our waiter brought this dish out from the kitchen to get a glance at the sheer size of the mushroom before being plated. One of the biggest I'd seen. He brought this out in part to prevent the mushroom from dying out, but also for a small show, as the mushroom was continuously sauced in front of us. The mushroom was full of water which diluted the flavor, leaving behind the strong sour and acidic taste of the elderberry capers.
Onions from Læsø; chick weed and onion bouillon. This was a beautifully presented dish with a well thought out mix of playful textures. Contrasting against the crispy sweet onions were gummy beads of tapioca. The flavor was dominated by the light onion broth; but remained overall soft on the palate. The pearl beads were really entertaining to chew, and broke up the monotony of what would be a normally crispy salad.
Salsify and milk skin; truffle from Gotland. Another beautifully presented dish containing black truffles from northern Sweden. The truffles were mild and really required my nose to get close to the plate to smell them. The flowers were pretty; but didn't taste very good. I brushed them to the side of the plate. The milk skin had a texture and flavor identical to yuba which was creamy and pliable but dull. The truffles in theory should have carried this dish; but since they were not the most fragrant, the overall effect was of warm milk. Not my favorite dish of the afternoon.
Pickled vegetables and bone marrow; herbs and bouillon. Very attractive presentation; a collection of greens and marrow sprouting out of the plate. The pickled vegetables, however, were to strong and overpowering, adding an overall sour taste to the dish. I also did not like eating lukewarm marrow with colder vegetables as there was too much of a contrast. However, this light salad did manage to make the fatty marrow taste clean and delicate.
Sweetbread and bleek roe; Söl and sea salt. This was outstanding. Milky and sweet sweetbread resting in a briny and salty bleek roe broth. The oceanic taste cut through the fattiness of the sweetbread which, aside from the texture, made it taste like something in-between meat and fish. The roe, and what seemed like a hint of lemon, added a touch of acidity to an otherwise flat dish.
Lamb and horseradish; fresh salad and pickled ramson onion. Another exceptional presentation screaming garden fresh. The lamb however was quite firm surrounded by a very thick shell of fat which I separated from the meat before eating.
Carrots; buttermilk and anis. This might have been the first time I've seen carrots used as the dominant flavor in a dessert. It worked nicely, with the exception of the frozen buttermilk in the middle which was very cold without an easily detectible flavor. I think that was the point as to let the carrots dominate; but something a bit stronger and more complimentary would have carried this dish further.
The snowman from Jukkasjärvi; cloudberries and wild thyme. I didn't particularly like this dessert. It tasted like a snow cone of powder, just without the syrup. The dish had the strong scent of thyme which was too intensely vegetal at this point in the meal.
Walnut powder and ice cream; Dried cream and dried berries. This dessert was outstanding. So much so, in fact, that the table unanimously asked for a second serving. Our waiter laughed; then realized we were serious, happily returning with a repeat round. Conceptually unique, this dessert had a mix of textures that gave me chills: crunchy, squeaky, slimy, creamy, and brittle. The dried berries added a touch of astringency which complimented the walnut powder and ice cream. Wow.
I left this lunch with a deep and sincere appreciation for the sheer number of new vegetables and mushrooms I'd tried, as well as how chef Redzepi took a step back to let their natural flavors come through. Most of the ingredients just aren't accessible anywhere else. The staff was full of smiles the entire meal, proud and extremely knowledgable of every ingredient on every plate. A handful of dishes were phenomenal, the rest require a bit more refinment to compete with the all-stars. I would definitely go back, in fact I can't wait to return; but, I think the restaurant needs a little more time to experiment and polish its massive ingredients list to better identify what works and what does not.
Noma humbly accedes to the need to continue research and experimentation. After the meal, Chef Redzepi was kind enough to give us a tour of the research facility next door, the Nordic Food Lab, whose purpose is to document and catalog the flavors found in new Nordic ingredients they encounter for which there is not much information. The food lab floats on a converted house boat with a full kitchen and a hotel-like setup designed to host foreign chefs so they can share their culinary experiences with Noma.
Noma is incredibly innovative and brave enough to experiment and take risks. With time and patience, I have no doubt Noma can only perfect itself.