When my friend told me he'd secured a 4-top table at Noma, in Copenhagen - you know, only the Most Famous Restaurant In The World Because It Might Be The Best Ever - and would I like to come, I immediately said yes. I immediately booked myself on some cheapo flights over to the Danish capital, for what would be certainly the meal of a lifetime. Anticipation built up, and I had to keep reminding myself not to go in with too high an expectation. It must be difficult to be a chef at what has been, for several years, lauded as the number one restaurant in the whole world. People traverse countries, seas, continents to dine there. It's difficult enough catering for people with all sorts of tastes, associations, preferences, but even more so with the added weight of expectation.
It's been a long time coming, this post. Indeed, my companions have already written their (wildly differing) take on it. As can only be expected for such a well-regarded restaurant, the menu was long, the bill high. Upon reflection, I actively enjoyed 10 of 20 courses. That's not a high hit rate. But I don't regret any of it, not even the £308.12 bill. Let's delve deeper. This will take some time. Bear with me.
|Fermented plums and wild beach roses|
As we approached for our 12pm reservation (12pm! How positively American of us) we barely got through the door before a chorus of chefs and front of house staff bellowed welcomes at us, relieving us of coats, guiding us gently to our table and placing a glass of fizz before us. It's a slick operation; receive, seat, get the booze in quick. We looked like rabbits in the headlights. Of course we will have the wine pairing, nice man! Get that 'juice pairing' out of my sight.
We soon realised that every course is presented to you by a chef from the kitchen. They are mostly men. They are all incredibly handsome. As I contemplated the first course I wondered if I would be dumbstruck like a blushing schoolgirl for the wrong reasons throughout the meal. (Yes, is the answer.) Anyway, the pink disc placed before us was horrible. I took an eager bite, and my mouth was awash with astringency, floral pickledness and I bloody love pickles, let me tell you. I took another bite just in case, but no. There was something medicinal about it. I struggled to finish it. One of the staff glanced over with concern, eyebrows furrowed. My companions loved it.
Never mind, moving on. Beetroot tartar consisted of roasted beets shaved very thinly, topped with ants - ANTS! Dead ants! - which are supposed to have an intense citrus flavour. I tasted bitter, astringent pickled herb. I felt like I'd fallen face first into a mound of soil. I pushed it around for a bit, listened attentively to the lovely Rene Redzepi telling us about... something. He looked at my unfinished course. I looked at it. Then I looked at my hands.
|Apple marinated in aquavit|
Sweet joy and relief was this disc of pressed apple, marinated in Scandinavia's favourite booze and topped with pine and something miso-like. Sweet, boozy, savoury, pine tree frozen delight! I gobbled it down with relief.
Delicious was the warm spongy wheaty bread with butter I could have slathered on anything to get more of it in me. Phew. Things were picking up.
|Oland wheat and virgin butter|
|Cabbage leaves and white currants|
Isn't this dish a beauty? It was a sight to behold, almost too beautiful to destroy. The bowl had been painted green with parsley, with a steamed cabbage leaf balanced in the middle. A fragrant, cleansing white currant broth melded all the flavours together without an astringent-pickled-herb in sight.
|Green shoots of the season with scallop marinade|
The most beautiful man in the world (probably - there were so many they now meld into one) brought the next dish over, and explained to us that a scallop 'fudge' had been smeared over the plate, upon which a variety of vegetables lay. Some were raw, some were roasted to crunchiness, some simply steamed. I loved this; I gathered up the contrasting vegetables onto my fork and swooped it through the caramel of the seafood. I can't name a single one of those vegetables I'm afraid.
Not just a grilled onion. Positively blackened, so that the skin was tar-black. Thyme leaves nestled inside to make the onion taste a bit like gravy. It was sweet and oniony. That's all I've got for you. I probably shouldn't go to Hedone anytime soon.
|Sea urchin and walnuts|
Do you know where the Faroe Islands are? No, me neither. I thought they sounded quite Caribbean when Rene was telling us that this is where the sea urchin, reportedly the best and the sweetest, is sourced. So I spent the rest of his time explaining to dish to us wondering whether we'd get some sort of pineapple dessert too. The walnuts were like I've never tasted before; none of that dusty bitter staleness, they were fresh and juicy, crunchy yet slightly bouncy. And the sea urchin was the sweetest I've tried, mixing into a creamy sauce. I thought it wonderful. The Faroe Islands are off the coast of Norway. (You knew that, didn't you?)
|Sliced raw squid and kelp|
I love raw squid. I love the sliminess in the mouth, I love the bouncy resistance against your teeth as you eat it. I loved this. The creamy sauce with the squid and kelp came together to create an almost caramel flavour, likened universally by the table to Caramac.
I also love clams. When this was brought to us, our chef proclaimed proudly "mahogany clams can live for hundreds of years - this could have been around when Queen Elizabeth I was alive!" All I could think was dear god why are we eating this poor creature. It wasn't up to much. A bit fishy, and really chewy - as you might imagine from an ancient clam. The samphire powder didn't taste of much that I could discern. I felt a bit glum about this one.
We were several (very nice) wines in so I had to pee (sorry) but as I got up to go I was surrounded, with pleas for me to sit back down again. I obeyed and it soon became clear, for our next course was monkfish liver, frozen and shaved incredibly thinly atop a delicate cracker. It looks like jamon, doesn't it? No. It's a clever dish, as each wafer is so cold there's almost no smell to it, but thin enough so that as soon as it hits the tongue it starts to melt and release its flavour. There's a reason monkfish liver is often called the foie gras of the sea; it's rich and creamy, luxurious. Another one I enjoyed a lot, once I could get my head around eating frozen fish offal.
|Pumpkin, caviar and barley|
This pumpkin disc was compressed so that the purest sweetness of the vegetable shone through. I used to be a pumpkin avoider and I'm still suspicious of its pulpy sweetness, but this was very enjoyable, mostly I suspect down the the walloping great big quenelle of caviar. The barley cream had a toasted flavour and balanced out the sweetness of the squash.
|Egg yolk, potatoes, nasturtium|
This was one of my favourite dishes. Fudgy egg yolk, pouring into the vaguely green-tasting sauce, with discs of waxy potato to soak it all up. Probably one of the most straight-forward in flavour.
By this point, after so many pleasing dishes under my belt, I had been lulled into a false sense of tastebud-tingling security, which made the betrayal of the vegetable flower all the more poignant. It was beautiful, with a shiny surface, dotted with ...bits of stuff. I took a relaxed bite and every part of my brain screamed at me to spit it out again. It tasted of carbon and petrol, harshness and garlic, acetic and hateful. I had to gulp wine to get it down, out of my teeth. I don't know who sent the alien replacements to this Earth to dine with me but they all loved theirs. My face was crumpled.
Of course the best bits are often the darker meat, probably tougher but with loads more flavour. Leggy lollipops and whatever else we'd left behind came back to us portioned nicely, with a berry-like sauce for dipping. We stripped those bones.
Are you the kind of person who prefers meat off the bone, prawns peeled, fish filleted? Noma might not be for you. A whole wild duck was presented, head and all, with its sides carved into neat slices that you could just pluck and place into a dark cabbage leaf. Oh, yes, we are back. This is much more my thing. I wondered if they had any hoisin sauce hanging around (SO ASIAN) but actually the flavour of the duck was incredible; deep, rich and gamey, the skin sweet. The head was split open and we were encouraged to eat the brains, which my zombie alien companions relished in. I generously waived my portion. Ducks have small brains, okay?
Ooh look, little doughnuts in a cute pan! They reminded me of takoyaki, those batter balls filled with delicious octopus. And these ones were right posh, being all topped with truffle and that. They were filled with The Herb of Doom - lovage. Awful stuff, lovage. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has said it tastes "intriguing" and I would agree, I am intrigued as to why on earth anyone thinks it is edible.
|Berries and greens soaked in vinegar for one year|
This was every flavour I disliked - nay, found actively repellant - in the opening courses, distilled into one mouthful.
Gammel Dansk is a Danish bitter liquer, likened to Jaegermeister. I can't say I made this association as I found the hazelnut oil mixing with the foaminess of the rectangle puff very unpleasant. I appreciated the light, aerated texture, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, but once the oil got involved, my tongue repelled it. Once again, the alien doppelgangers relished it. (Maybe I am the alien?)
I ate the mushroom-shaped thing which tasted, ye gods, of chocolate mushroom. I nibbled the bushy chocolate thing at the front, admittedly I had to screw my eyes shut. I threw the towel in and admitted defeat. Instead, I slurped on a whiskey digestif, thoroughly nonplussed about the meal that had just taken place.
|Roasted kelp ice cream and lemon thyme|
I can't remember whether I had any strong feelings about this dish, which is peculiar since I didn't do much fence-sitting for the rest of it. All I can say is that it was a dessert, with no pineapple. Because the Faroe Islands are in Norway.
|A dessert of 'Gammel Dansk' and hazelnut oil|
|Forest flavours, chocolate and egg liqueur|
We were offered a tour of the kitchens, which given the level of attractiveness of just the chefs who served us - who knows what other hotty prep chefs they were hiding back there! - it would be foolish to turn down. It's an amazing place; giant prep kitchens, tiny cupboards where all sorts of fermenting take place, and a bitterly freezing outside area where we found other chefs painstakingly plucking the feathers out of wild ducks, huddled together with big hats on to stay warm. Everyone we met was incredibly good-looking sorry, friendly and warm, inviting us to see what they had been working on, and patiently talking us through techniques and methods they use. I was even sent off with a vacuum-packed sachet of home-fermented barley koji to experiment with.
Back in the prep kitchen, Rene whipped out a map of Copenhagen to doodle on and talked us through all the spots he thought we must visit, taking his time to talk us through why each of them were worth our time. "You must go to this taco place. The food's probably better than here!" he said, with a chuckle. He was just the loveliest.
So, I didn't like a lot of the food. I still left feeling that I'd had a meal of a lifetime though, and one I will never forget. We were treated incredibly well; Noma and their staff are the masters, the very epitome of what great hospitality is all about. In two and a half hours our 20 course meal was over, and not once did I feel that anything was rushed, nor was there a beat missed. Even right at the very end, with a fresh looming service ahead of them, it was suggested that we might stay a little longer to chat and enjoy a glass of wine in the lounge before heading out into the driving snow - perhaps they glanced at my party's footwear and thought we needed bolstering. They were correct.
I was presented with a huge number of things I'd never eaten before, a lot of flavours that my palate has never experienced (nor, perhaps, would like to again), but I know I may be the anomaly, as I over-heard another guest exclaiming that it was his third visit. Was November, almost the dead of winter, the wrong time to go for me? Would I have enjoyed it more with the fresh, abundant produce of Spring? Between four of us I haven't ever experienced a meal that has divided opinion so much - and we aren't contrarians really - ranging from Jassy who loved the meal, filtering down through Chris and Helen, to me, who was probably the only one who might consider turning fugitive if presented with that 'vegetable flower' again.
Still, as you can see from our faces, we left really happy - and for me, that's what eating out is all about.
Don't ever make me eat pickled rose petals again, though.
Strandgade 93, 1401 København K, Denmark
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