EAT - DRINK - BE MERRY
I always used to think that the best way to make fine food was to take really high quality ingredients and muck about with them as little as possible so that the food can express itself. Having dined at Noma I now realise that this idea may need some revision. The chefs here take exceptionally high quality ingredients, all sourced locally and add thought, sensitivity, imagination and skill. In short they muck about with it a great deal.
The day before I went to Copenhagen’s most famous eatery it was named, for the second year running, The Best Restaurant in the World in the San Pellegrino Top 50 (<http://www.theworlds50best.com/>). This is a hell of a title to live up to so my expectations were extremely high.
Set in renovated dockside warehouse overlooking Copenhagen Harbour the dining room is elegant in its simplicity, the epitome of cool Nordic design. Entering the building I said I had a reservation and the guy on the desk cried “Ah! The Drinker!” - which confused me as I always book tables with an anonymous email address and never with my @thedrinker.co.uk address. I was slightly thrown by this- do they research all their customers? However I’m extremely gratified that Noma know thedrinker.
We were guided toward the full tasting menu rather than the lunch menu as I got the feeling that they wanted to show off their classic dishes. This entailed nine pre-meal amuse-bouche, twelve proper courses and eight accompanying wines. The philosophy is very much around local and seasonal but also innovative cooking. This very Nordic stance is hard to appreciate fully, if like me you’ve never eaten moss, twigs, petals or edible soil it’s difficult to find a frame of reference. I don’t know what good moss is supposed to taste like, all I can tell you is that the stuff I had was, well, interesting, aromatic, crunchy. Similarly, sea-buckthorn, here turned into a leather with rose-hips, bittersweet and fruity, again interesting. There was a good dose of fun too, a soft boiled, pickled and smoked quail’s egg, served on a nest of smouldering hay presented in a small wooden egg. Radishes served in a plant pot with edible soil. Malt flatbread formed into tiny twigs. Deep fried leek roots. These were all expertly presented by a succession of chefs and waiters, each with a description of foods I’ve never tasted and occasionally instructions on how to eat them.
The mains were similarly confounding. Little shards of leek with seaweed jelly. A raw razor clam, wrapped in a parsley gel with a horseradish snow - looked just like a sherbet fountain, but tasted of fresh sea, amazing. A single oyster, poached in cream and dill, served in a pot of steaming pebbles and shells which took me back to the rock pools of my childhood. The simplicity of onions cooked in a bouillon with cheese and tapioca, outstanding. You’ve heard of fondant potato, how about the brilliance of fondant celeriac with truffle? The Noma classic of pickled vegetables and bone marrow, tiny rings of carrot, beetroot and turnip, delicate, fresh, beautiful. The sweetness of late season chestnuts with lojrom - the finest Scandinavian caviar, I could have wept.
I had issues with a couple of the dishes however. The reindeer tongue seemed slightly out of balance with its beautiful apple and browned butter accompaniment, mainly in terms of its size and density. There was also a dish of dried, wafer thin sliced scallops with a watercress and grain sauce, which seemed to me a triumph of technique over taste. The grains were too chewy, as were the scallops, the drying brought nothing to them and together with the grassy watercress sauce it felt like there were three really interesting things not working in harmony.
There were three sweeter dishes, but to call them deserts would be stretching it, this kind of cooking blurs the boundary between sweet and savoury. The first a frozen disk of Gammel Dansk (Danish bitters) with sorrel, cold and bitter with a hint of sweet green apple and cream. The second, carrots with more sea buckthorn, another frozen number, this time a kind of frozen carrot soufflé, the only perceptible sweetness coming from the veg itself. The last was brown cheese and beetroot, again more vegetal sweetness and a sweet cheese.
There was coffee and petit fours, a succession of Grandma’s sweetie tins, a piece of bone marrow filled with caramel wrapped in brown paper with string.
After this sous chef Sam Miller showed us around the kitchens and food prep areas, letting us into the secrets behind the smoked, pickled, soft boiled egg among others. Such generosity of time and attention is partly why Noma is top of the tree - but mainly it’s the food. I have never come across such precision in taste and presentation, such imagination in ingredients and such passion in the delivery. Really everything about this place is outstanding.