Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Noma is, as people will occasionally tell you, the Best Restaurant In the World, a title that somehow means precisely nothing and also paradoxically carries with it a massive weight of expectation. Regardless of how much of a difference it makes to the bookings sheet (and I'm reliably informed the answer to this is a lot - all previous winners of the 50 best list have reported a vast jump in demand), it's never good for a restaurant to have guests arriving expecting nothing less than The Best Meal Of Their Lives. Excited and hopeful, yes, but not The Best. Because if you're expecting The Best, only The Best will do.
So as our small party of brave food adventurers slid and shivered through the harsh Copenhagen winter towards that famous grey-brick warehouse building in our completely inappropriate London clothes, we were trying very hard to keep our expectations in check. We knew, largely, what we were letting ourselves in for - experimental New Nordic cuisine, unusual foraged plants, perhaps a few insects here and there; we knew there was a very good chance we wouldn't enjoy everything we would be asked to eat. But we were determined to enjoy ourselves, we were up for the challenge and we were ready for anything. Well, at least we thought we were.
The greeting at Noma, from fully 30 or 40 front of house staff screaming "HELLO!" in unison as you step through the door, is at first intimidating. But the shock is almost immediately replaced with a kind of theatrical anticipation; staff seem genuinely excited for you, for what you're about to go through, and you soon feel that sense of being a part of something very special; that no matter what else happens your time here is going to be an experience. At some of the most notable restaurants I've been to, the welcome has been fairly low-key - at the Fat Duck someone just takes your coat; at Can Roca we were ignored by a useless waiter for a good 15 minutes. The only other time I've felt this level of electric expectancy was all the way back in 2009 at El Bulli, where the photo next to the Bull's head and handshake with Ferran Adria was all part of the curtains going up for Act 1.
And so, without further ado, house lights down, quiet please, let the show begin. A CD-sized disc of sugared fermented plums, topped with a layer of wild beach roses, and scattered with a collection of alien-looking buds, berries and powders. Visually arresting and clearly painstakingly constructed, after admiring it the only thing to do was eat it. Which we did. It tasted... of soggy, bitter rose petals on a crunchy base. Silence. Chewing. Then finally to my right, "I don't like it", slurred a mouth still full of a first bite of roses. The warm-up act had fallen on its face.
Ushered hurriedly off the stage, the first course was followed by "apple marinated in aquavit", pucks of compressed apple topped with more seasonal weeds and I think a little blob of miso. The flavours were, similar to the plums and roses, sour and sharp, though the miso (or whatever it was) added a vaguely pleasant umami note. I didn't like the texture of the apple though, which was a bit crumbly and potatoey.
After that, "beet tartare", slivers of roast beets carefully layered according to texture so that the base layer is slightly chewier and firm than the softer top layers. This was topped with roasted ants (well of course), and a few more pieces of soggy vegetation. The ants were interesting in of themselves, citrussy and intense, but there wasn't enough of interest elsewhere. Soft beets and weeds (not to mention the creatures often to be found living amongst them) do not make a particularly inspiring combination.
At this point the bread arrived, and we set upon it in the manner of a group of people fearing that this may be the only recognisably terrestrian morsel of food served that day. It was absolutely gorgeous, up there with the very best restaurant bread with a perfect thin flaky crust and a moist crumb, but had it been a pack of Jacob's Water Biscuits we still would have demolished it all and asked for seconds. We asked for seconds.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, the next course, whilst not quite worthy of a standing ovation, was at least enjoyable. A single large leaf of crunchy cabbage, on top of another grilled bit of greenery, in a bowl decorated I think he said with "parsley paint". Over all this was poured a delicate vegetable consommé of some kind, perhaps the mentioned "white currants" I have printed on my menu here. It was a pretty, and comforting dish, which went some way to settling our nerves.
This was also fun - foraged seasonal shoots, some raw, some char-grilled to a slight crunch, on a plate painted with "scallop marinade", explained as the sweet, fudgey crust that develops on scallop flesh when it's seared. I don't know whether it was the (largely natural, needless to say) wine doing its work or the relative safety of the last couple of courses, but by this point we slowly began to accept that the most challenging stuff may have been behind us. Little did we know.
"Grilled onion" was pretty much exactly that. Nice, but... a grilled onion, with a few herbs rolling around inside. I like a grilled onion as much as anyone, don't get me wrong, but it would have been even better eaten with, I don't know, a sausage or something. And even a bit of gravy.
The big man himself René Redzepi came out to introduce the next course. It was sea urchin and walnuts, which if you're thinking is an odd combination then, well, yes you're not wrong. The sea urchin had an oddly muted flavour and colour, certainly next to the powerfully salty and deep orange examples I've tried in Spain and California, and its weird creamy texture and faint seafood tang sat uncomfortably - at first - next to the sliced walnuts. And yet, somehow, as the flavours settled in the mouth, something kind of worked. The balancing act of matching just the right amount of sea urchin with the soft snap of fresh walnuts was obviously a tricky one, but I was still thinking about this dish even as many others after it had come and gone.
Much the same can be said about the "sliced raw squid and kelp" as for the sea urchin dish. At first, all you notice is cold, slimy seafood and cream. But after a few moments the delicate balance comes through and you get a feel for the fresh seaweed notes and the surprisingly rich and complex white sauce it all rested in. It goes without saying that cooked squid would have been better than raw (I'm not taking any argument on this; think about it, you know it to be true) but I still found the overall effect to be oddly satisfying. Subtle, but comforting.
"Mahogany clam" split our table down the middle. Not literally (any personal anguish was by this stage still internal), but insofar as two of us hated it, and two (myself included) enjoyed the fresh meaty flavour of the clam and the delicate grains and dressing in the shell. I think it was a samphire powder that was dusted on the rim, but it didn't taste of a great deal - this was all about the Arctica islandica which we were told could live for hundreds of years. The clams we ate could conceivably have been around when Elizabeth I was on the throne, and had they not been harvested could even have lasted until I paid off my Noma lunch bill. Makes you think.
Monkfish liver also divided opinion. Being a huge fan of foie gras myself, I was very much taken by this dish which bore a striking resemblance (at least in the mouth) to "real" duck liver. But I can't deny there were others on the table who - understandably perhaps - weren't completely happy eating frozen slices of fish offal. All the more for me!
I wasn't a huge fan of "pumpkin, caviar and barley" mainly because I've never knowingly enjoyed pumpkin. There's something about the strange bland flavour and tapioca-like texture that gets to me. But I think everyone else happily ate theirs. Another one of those nice creamy sauces too.
"Egg yolk, potatoes and nasturtium" was excellent, one of the highlights of the meal for me, and I didn't hear much grumbling from anyone else. Around a high-quality, deep-orange slow-cooked yolk was arranged a fan of teeny sweet slices of potato, and a lovely light nasturtium sauce, studded with drops of green oil, was draped on top. Nothing bitter or blobby or raw here, just some nicely seasoned egg and potato in a vegetable sauce.
I really liked these "vegetable flowers", apparently made from black garlic. The appearance, and indeed texture, was of soft liquorish, but the taste was pleasantly vegetal - sweetish, but with an interesting savoury taste alongside. I should point out that one of our party thought these were the most disgusting things she'd ever eaten, which just goes to show how deeply personal each of our reactions had been to all the dishes. There was barely a single course that passed with either universal approval or universal disapproval, which combined with the very generous measures of matching wines had created a slightly hysterical atmosphere.
A whole roasted wild duck was by far the most "normal" thing we'd seen all day, and was perhaps not surprisingly the most universally enjoyed. With a beautiful smoky chargrilled skin (lovely seasoning too), and expertly roasted to just-pink inside, this was a masterclass in game, and the way they'd pre-carved the slices of duck breast into the carcass of the bird was a fantastic presentational flair. It was eaten - with an enthusiasm bordering on frantic - in seconds.
As the carcass was taken away to be jointed, we were given something called "aebleskiver", traditional Danish pastries best described as miniature spherical pancakes. Usually these are filled with jam, which I would have been quite happy with, but this being Noma they were in fact stuffed with clumps of metallic lovage and parsley and topped with truffle. I do not like lovage.
Leaving the other half of my aebleskiver, I was able to distract myself with the rest of the duck, which had now arrived back neatly divided into leg, wing, and breast strips. Oh, and the head, from which we were brightly encouraged to scoop out the brains and tongue for extra zombie points. The brain had the texture that brain usually does - like cottage cheese - but tasted enough of the wonderful seasoning on the duck, and the smoke from the charcoal grill, that it was still worth the effort.
First of what I'll loosely describe as "desserts" was this, "roasted kelp ice cream and lemon thyme". Much like the very first rose petal and fermented plum dish it closely resembled (albeit in a different traffic light colour), it was more admirable than enjoyable, with metallic vegetal notes clashing with bitter acids and seeds. I quite liked the ice cream hiding underneath (kelp-flavoured, obviously) but not much else.
This thing, looking like a bar of soap drizzled with balsamic vinegar, was called "A dessert of Gammel Dansk [a bitter spirit a bit like Fernet Branca] and hazelnut oil". Most of the interest was down to the texture, a supremely light, aerated construction which dissolved in the mouth like candy floss. The flavour was muted but gently enjoyable, which to be quite frank we'd take over anything else at this point.
A bowl of "forest flavours" was a variety of surprising (I'm using the word with eyebrows raised to the ceiling) flavours teased into the shape of chocolate truffles. The mushroom shaped one was - you guessed it - mushroom flavoured, and the capsule on the left contained a shocking liquid inside that tasted of pickle juice. By this stage one of our party - who had struggled more than most with the emotional rollercoaster of the previous 20 courses - had taken to closing her eyes and throwing food down her neck without chewing, like a child told she could only go and play once she'd finished all her broccoli. An egg liqueur, looking like egg nog but tasting not really anything like egg nog, washed it all down. And all of a sudden, breathless, hysterical, and more than a little drunk, we were done.
I'm trying not to resort to one of those mealy-mouthed "it's not you, it's me" summary paragraphs, where I profess that, on this occasion, regrettably, and with a heavy heart, I didn't quite get what the vast and undoubtedly experienced kitchens at Noma were trying to do, and that while I greatly admire the effort and techniques that went in to everything we ate that day, perhaps New Nordic cuisine isn't for me. And indeed, the huge amount of talent Noma has at its disposal was very evident at every stage - nothing felt unfinished or work-in-progress. Nothing was underseasoned, overseasoned, overcooked, undercooked (at least not by accident), overwrought or clumsy. Nothing even was pretentious or showy, or either needlessly overcomplicated or lazily unadorned. Every single dish was the absolute best it could be.
The problem, I realised halfway through the meal as I came across yet another clump of lovage lurking in an otherwise harmless looking morsel of food, was that there's only so many pickled weeds I really want to eat. There will no doubt be a huge number of people for whom this is the zenith of restaurant culture, the natural end-point of the hyper-local and clean, light flavours that characterise New Nordic cuisine, and Noma will be - is - their temple. And I don't regret a moment of that lunch, which passed in a blur, accompanied by gales of laughter and ending with shots of aquavit and a tour of the kitchens. Kitchens, by the way, populated by people so enthusiastic and lovely (not to mention blindingly attractive) that we wanted to stay the night. Maybe help out with a bit of wild duck plucking, or have a go on the aeration machine.
But anyway, I've said my bit, and perhaps for a while, chastened and discombobulated, I'll stick to eating kebabs and steaks and burgers, and not worry that one of the most successful, influential and important restaurants of the last 100 years isn't quite to my taste. Because I'm sure as hell nobody else should be worrying about it. And maybe in a few years time when Noma's reach has spread even further and its ideas are even further integrated into modern restaurant culture, I'll go back to Copenhagen (assuming they'll have me), and realise I was completely wrong all along. It has happened. In the meantime, I'll just do what I normally do and reduce thousands of man-hours, one man's life work and the passion and creativity of hundreds of people down to one brutal mark out of ten. The show must go on.