June 20, 2016 / Leave a Comment
Let’s be honest – visiting Noma is somewhat of a rite of passage for hardcore foodies. Having topped The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times, it’s a name synonymous with innovative, modern cuisine that showcases the essence and ethos of the Nordic wave of chefs leaving their mark on gastronomy as we know it today.
On this occasion I’m making the pilgrimage to the quaint ex-warehouse set upon picturesque Danish shores with seven other mad foodies who have journeyed from around the world. We’re all here to partake in a long weekend of multi starred madness in celebration of the OAD Top 100 European Restaurants announcement, so there’s some serious dining cred behind each guest. For me, this is my first visit to Noma, but many at our table had made prior journeys to sample René Redzepi’s handiwork, some multiple times. All rather excited about what’s to come, we take the requisite selfies outside the restaurant in the blustery weather while excitedly waiting for 7pm to tick over.
At 7pm the doors to this foodie Mecca swing open and as we enter we are welcomed by a sea of Noma staff clad in their stylish grey uniforms. I’ll admit I was not expecting to be met by a good thirty or so people when descending the steps into the foyer, so it caught me a little off guard – it’s not particularly obvious how one exactly exits the throng of people to enter the dining room either. Eventually I discover the way through is to exit stage left, and am immediately impressed at the beautifully rustic and unmistakably Nordic dining room we have been welcomed into. Though we are set slightly below street level, sun streams in through the large windows and we are bathed in warm light for much of our dinner, the days stretching long into the evenings during the early spring season.
We are soon seated and all eager for the journey to commence. I’ve opted to go for the wine pairing option, while my dining companion decides to try out the juice pairing. I’m rather surprised however when I’m informed that the (rather pricey) wine pairing won’t actually commence until after course three or so, and they recommend we order a glass of rosé champagne to kick off proceedings. I accept, figuring well, when in Rome…and wondering what the bill will read later. It’s a little perplexing to me that the wine pairing wouldn’t commence with the start of the meal as per usual.
Our first two courses definitely deliver on what one expects when dining at Noma, and get things off to a rather pretty start. First up, a beautiful rhubarb rose with seaweed (I’m not a fan of food roses, but being Noma, I’ll tolerate this elevated version), followed by a moss laid bowl containing three delicate bites: pickled quails egg, black currant berry and a twig like flat bread with ant paste. The quail egg was my favourite, the black currant tasty, but of course the ant paste is the most memorable. If you haven’t eaten ants before (and to be honest, why would you have), they taste like bitter lemon, causing the back of your palate to involuntarily water and twinge. Can’t say I’ll be foraging for ants to add to my dinner any time soon (funnily enough they’re not stocked at Waitrose), but now I can say I’ve been there, eaten that.
Next came my favourite dish of the meal, and contender for most beautiful course also – a radish tart on a seaweed base with vegetable fudge and horseradish oil. The vegetable fudge gave a great umami like quality to this dish and while I felt terrible devouring the intricately created work of art, my stomach was happy to have done so. Whoever painstakingly arranged these thin slices of radish, I salute you.
Noma’s take on crudités is up next, with a selection of leaves and ant paste slathered asparagus that one is to dip into a horseradish cream accompaniment. I found it a little on the flat side with just bitter/sharp notes present in the dish, and similar to flavours we had only just earlier experienced (I’m learning dead ants seem to have a habit of really dominating a dish).
Our next dish was clearly intricately constructed but not as ‘pretty’ as those that had preceded it – milk curds, kelp in mushroom broth, garlic shoots and roasted yeast. Subtle in flavour, this dish was nice but didn’t excite the palate. An asparagus and bitter leaves combination continued to confound me with a lack of new taste dimensions – we were back to bitter and sour again. The roasted cabbage leaves, salsify and flowers that came next repeated those same notes, with the sour cabbage leaves tasting like sauerkraut and the salsify inside bitter, slightly chalky and oh so ‘green’ tasting, I felt like I was eating a garden…or perhaps the contents of a lawn mower catcher. It was so grassy I didn’t manage to finish this one, though still faring better than on the next course, where I couldn’t manage more than one bite. The Æbleskiver (pancake puff with rose petals) looked deceptively pretty with it’s dainty petal facade, but tasted overwhelmingly like almond paste. I order my Christmas cakes specifically without the marzipan layer so that might hint at just how much this was not my cup of tea.
My next two courses were some of the most successful of the night, a charred leek, opening to reveal beautifully cooked leek sections inside, and grilled garlic shoots with yeast paste. The latter had a meat like flavour and somewhat teasingly we were even given steak knives to eat it with, rather cruel for the meat lovers at the table (myself included) who were all very disappointed to see not a skerrick of meat on the menu. Some seafood did feature for those who can have it (I’m not one of them) but reports were that these dishes had varying levels of success, much like my vegetable replacements. The consensus on the least successful of these was the turbot bones, one I wasn’t too unhappy to have missed out on, going by reactions around the table. This was the one course where they provided no vegetarian alternative at all disappointingly, leaving my plate empty but eventually delivering a slice of bread (after overhearing comments from the table we believed).
On to desserts we marched (interestingly no palate cleanser on the menu here) and first to arrive was a very artistic interpretation of the local spirit ‘Gammel Dansk’, a herbal concoction that brings to mind comparisons with Jagermeister. Green, white and magenta surely were the colours of the evening and it was nice to see these visual threads woven through the evening’s dishes.
We return to the moss bowl to bring the night to a close, with chocolate dipped forest treats – mushroom leather and fried moss with dipping cream, accompanied by cute little bottles of an eggnog style drink. I did quite like the mushroom leather. Surprisingly no petit fours on offer here, so all three small (and common) additions to a tasting menu that I really enjoy and find rather interesting – amuse bouche, palate cleanser and petit fours – were notably absent from the experience. I was rather looking forward to how Noma would have put its stamp on those elements so that was a shame, but each to their own.
The wine match experience I have to sadly admit was not an enjoyable one for me, and though I understand that it seemed to reflect the wine preferences of the region, to my western wine sensibilities it was rather a shock to the system. I’ve enjoyed plenty of organic, biodynamic and unfiltered wines before, but the repetitive sour notes coming through in these wines made them impossible to get through, even for a mad oenophile like me. I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t want to drink these wines – those who know me would have been shocked to see the half full glasses piling up on the table around me. It felt like tasting juice out of the barrel before fermentation and maturation had finished – more juice-like than wine. My disappointment was further enhanced remembering the hefty price tag that came with the wine match addition – and then to be charged for the initial glass of bubbles, water, and coffee (that unfortunately didn’t live up to the hype) only served to add insult to wallet-based injury.
The service was great however I have to say, and Kat our Aussie server did an exemplary job of looking after us. I was continually impressed at the precision with which dishes were delivered to our 8-top by multiple servers. It was great to also see Chef Rene make an appearance, and after the meal we were given a full tour of the back of house. There is certainly a lot going on behind the scenes!
Reflecting on my meal, I feel that my Noma dining experience was a tad too linear for my liking, with a lot of repetition of bitter and sour flavours, no meat at all (though there was seafood available), and never really hitting that crescendo, that high point of the journey. I can’t say I’m walking away with any dishes that I’m dying to eat again, and that for me is a real measure of enjoyment. The company, atmosphere, techniques used and service were all great, but I really longed for a dish that made me go ‘mmmm’. Add to that wines that were really not my cup of tea, and the result was I was saddened that the Noma experience didn’t really live up to my expectations, given it’s long list of accolades over the years. For many, it’s the pinnacle of culinary exploration and I guess that’s the beauty of the place where food and art meet – everyone is going to feel something different, and on this instance we weren’t a perfect match. But that’s what comes with pushing the boundaries of cuisine – some will love it, some may not. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt – perhaps it was the season I visited in? It would certainly be interesting to visit again to try what Noma dishes up in hunting season. The question is, can I justify this kind of hefty spend again to roll the dice on a different season? I think now I’ve paid my respects to the haute cuisine shrine that is Noma, it might be onwards to climb the next mountain.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Noma – Visit website for reservation enquiries
Strandgade 93, DK-1401 Copenhagen K