Rene Redzepi. A man who can be described in a series of soundbites that are as truthful as they are extraordinary and hype-generating: the most influential chef in the world; a pioneer in sustainable methods of foraged cooking; one of the greatest cooks in the world, a man for whom legends like Ferran Adria draw inspiration; the master of Noma in Copenhagen, a restaurant that has won more accolades than any other on the face of this planet. Two Michelin stars, four-time best restaurant in the world, it’s probably somewhere you’ve wanted to go. It’s hard to believe that Redzepi managed to reach such a level of reverence at only the age of 37.
Now here’s the problem – Noma is in Copenhagen. It’s not easy to organise a trip halfway across the world just to eat at a restaurant (though I’ve certainly done that before), and with news of Noma’s closure at the end of 2016, I had to accept the fact that I would miss out on this golden nugget of culinary history.
At least, until I scored a reservation at Noma’s 10-week pop-up in Sydney’s Barangaroo. Let’s just say confetti was involved.
Date Last Visited: 28/1/16
Address: 23 Barangaroo Rd, New South Wales 2146
Redzepi is no stranger to pop-ups. He did a five-week stint at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo before targeting Sydney. It is truly humbling that Redzepi considers Australia to be “worth” the relocation. But then again, why shouldn’t we take pride in this? Heston Blumenthal did the same thing for The Fat Duck in Melbourne, and in fact, the venue is now a permanent Dinner By Heston outpost. Think about it: when talking about local and unique produce, Australia is positively abundant. For a forager like Redzepi, our continent-island is a veritable cornucopia.
Indeed, Rene spent months and months travelling all around the country to forage and unearth the best of the best, coming up with items that are sure to baffle even the most seasoned-Australian. Think crocodile fat, magpie goose, and green ants. Most of the ingredients at Noma Sydney are unique to Australia, and if that’s the way it could be, then that’s the way it should be.
Some numbers, even though you probably are already aware: the meal is $485 a head (excluding drinks), lasted 3 hours, and only 5,500 diners will be able to experience the Sydney experience over its 10-week residency. There is a wait list 27,000+ strong, and while you might have a higher chance of winning the lottery than to capitalise on a cancellation, you may as well sign up on the off-chance you get it. You gotta be in it, to win it?
In chatting to Redzepi after the meal (so glad for the opportunity!), he mentioned that the restaurant space itself is hugely important to the experience. Given that the food focus is highly Australian (or “Strayan”), it shouldn’t be too surprising to witness wallaby fur being draped on every second seat. Similar to what Vue De Monde does with kangaroo pelts, it’s these little touches that set the scene. Bonus points for the semi-transparent curtains offering a modicum of privacy, as well as respite from the sun.
The rest of the decor is standard fare, commensurate with modern dining trends – naked wood, no tablecloths, and comfortable, leather-padded seats. Hopefully the location will be efficiently utilised at the end of the pop-up period: another restaurant could seriously find itself at home here. Now, while I could go on and on about backstory, we really should get to the important stuff – the food!
As of now, the menu is 12-courses, heavily showcasing Australian vegetables, fruits and seafood. There is no red meat. I was a little apprehensive, but “it’s Noma”, so I decided to put my full faith in Redzepi’s vision of how Aussie ingredients could be used. Let’s dig in!
Right off the bat, Noma takes the path less (if ever) travelled with something familiar, yet done in a completely alien way. Slivers of unripe macadamia is served inside several spoonfuls of spanner crab broth, and presented equally as simply. Goodness, we have a macadamia tree right in our own very front yard, yet have never experienced macs like this before.
The difference is primarily textural. While ripe macadamias are rich and fatty, they exhibit a far more watery crunch in their unripe form. The taste is also a little more tart, and displays a floral touch, though perhaps that’s also the work of the spanner crab broth. As with most soups I experience in fine dining, I wish I had a few more spoonfuls. It’s refreshing, subtly sweet and umami; just oily enough not to be overly rich, imparting a subtle luster to the dish that would otherwise have tasted just a tad too flat.
While not my ideal way to enjoy macadamias, Noma and Redzepi have already imparted a fully nascent way of cooking right from the first dish.
The next course of wild seasonal berries w/gubinge had plating so dazzling, it sparked an urge within to go into the outback and take up foraging for myself. Of course, I wouldn’t last two minutes, so I have Noma to thank for providing me a sample of Australia’s berry flora right here on the plate.
There’s a lot going on here – muntries, riberries, lemon aspen and desert lime. The entire dish is dusted with kakadu plum (gubinge) powder, and is served within a bath of savoury seaweed oil. It’s a mouthful of ingredients, translating to a mouthful of flavour.
The most interesting slant here is the interplay between the savoury, ocean-like rawness of the seaweed oil mixed with the various bitter, sweet and sour flavours of the assorted berries. Upon my first bite I instantly decided I didn’t like it – yet, as I progressed through the dish, it grew on me with each and every mouthful. By the end, I was lamenting that it was coming to a close – somehow, the odd flavour combinations proved quite addictive. Every bite is at the same time sweet, acidic, astringent and savoury. Incredibly wholesome. The kakadu plum powder adds a final sour kick that’s a fair bit like sherbet, given its texture.
Speaking of texture, the dish is full of it – some of it resembled sultanas, some like sundried tomato, while others still almost like lychee. There’s so much going on, yet instead of the dish being “too busy” for its own good, it becomes a sum greater than its constituent parts. A really well-done “berry salad” that’s unexpected in so many ways.
When at a restaurant like Noma, you’re bound to get something that’s oh so very, very green. That dish comes in as a wattleseed porridge w/saltbush leaves. Usually restaurants use ground up wattleseed as powder, however Noma opts to use the entire seed – husk and all – turning it into a porridge. This concoction is then leavened between poached saltbush leaves, and topped w/anise myrtle and finger lime.
As far as all-green dishes go, it’s quite a pretty plate.
While I was expecting a “oh, tastes like plants” kind of flavour palate, I was pleasantly stunned as to how rich and complex the flavours were. Well, for plants anyway. It’s herby, acidic, but also creamy and rich. The wattleseed is tough and husky, adding a nice element of texture to crunch through, while the saltbush leaves imparts its own salinity just enough to keep each bite interesting.
Overall, it’s not a “mindblowing” dish per se, however this is probably as good as you’ll get while keeping things as green as they get. Salad, anyone?
One of my favourite dishes of the meal would have to be the seafood platter w/crocodile fat. To be fair, the term “seafood platter” itself is enough to send me running, however Noma isn’t just going to be content with what every other wharf restaurant is doing. Here, Redzepi shows off five of Australia’s best crustaceans. Starting from the bottom and working clockwise we have pippies, a mussel, a strawberry clam (first time!), a cockle and an oyster. Each is topped with a perfectly-cooked layer of near-translucent chicken skin and crocodile fat.
To save words, let’s just assume that all of the crustaceans are essentially perfect, and as good as you’ll ever get this side of the world. Particular kudos to the mussel and strawberry clam – the flesh from these two particular shells were remarkably savoury, wholesome and utterly delicious. Where the magic really takes off is when the croc fat & chicken skin combo is mixed in. It smells pungent, but in taste, adds an extra dimension of piquant richness to the seafood that is a little beyond my vocabulary to describe. It melts in the mouth and has a sticky, toffee effect if not eaten with the shellfish.
The dish is a bit challenging to eat, and you will get your hands dirty – it’s fine dining, but nobody said it had to be fancy 😛
I really couldn’t fault this one – the ingredients and flavours are right up my alley.
Speaking of dishes up my alley, Noma keeps punching with the WA deep sea snow crab & cured egg yolk. The snow crab is cooked halfway and is served warm, allowing its springy, chewy texture to fully express itself in mouthfeel. This is a surprisingly notable turn of events as up till now, pretty much everything has been served at room temperature. A little bit of warmth makes all the difference. Unfortunately, of us four diners, three of us encountered shell in the crab, which could have led to a dangerous accident. I’m quite surprised a restaurant of Noma’s level made such a rudimentary mistake not once, not twice, but three times. It’s hard to forgive, but I guess we had no choice but to move on.
Now as for the egg yolk, it ain’t any ordinary variant; it’s egg yolk that’s been cooked with – get this – fermented kangaroo jus. I got my first hint from smelling it – it’s just about the most pungent thing on the menu, almost to the point of foulness. However, my foreboding disappeared with just one bite – somehow, all of the acridity disappears in taste, and what’s left is marvellously luscious yellow gold that I could see myself eating with nothing more than slabs of bread.
Other than the triple incident of shells in the dish, another dish with flavour win.
Sometimes, you gotta love menu descriptions – a pie. Why, thanks Noma, I guess it is a pie! Or rather, half a pie, because Rene’s a bit of a tease and well, one can never have enough of a good thing, eh?
On the left, we have half of a seaweed & scallop pie and on the right, lantana flowers – a member of the verbena family. You are meant to pick off the flowers, and decorate the top of the pie before serving. Something like this:
Oh my, that is suddenly 10x prettier. Is it 10x tastier?
Not bad, not bad. One fault: I don’t like the outer pastry. It’s seaweed you see, and so unlike real pastry, it’s a bit thin, chewy and “skin”-like. It also doesn’t quite hold together the pie as well as I would have liked. Not quite my thing. However, the internals of scallop “fudge” is creamy heaven. Think pureed umami and you’re on the right track.
The Lantana flowers add an element of sweetness which has a small neutralising effect on the richness of the pie, but ultimately it’s a matter of looks to me. Here’s a fun fact: the stem and leaves of the flower are poisonous! So uh…don’t eat the stem please. Seriously.
Redzepi calls this the BBQ’d milk ‘dumpling’ w/marron and magpie goose. Dumpling…taco? Or crepe? Or even – wait for it – jianbing?
Whatever you want to call it, this dish’s uniquely elegant plating can’t be denied. However, with the knowledge that there’s marron within, I couldn’t wait to dig right into it, and so I did!
The “taco” is actually milk that has been reduced to its constituent solids and then caramelised. Inside sits pretty much a whole poached marron tail, flavoured with a magpie goose ragu.
Bloody hell, it’s tasty AF. The marron is an utterly generous portion, and one of the plumpest, juiciest specimens I’ve ever had. The magpie goose was less impactful, adding a bit of sauciness and gaminess to the flavour palate of the dish. The milk skin tasted sticky-sweet, and almost like a burnt caramel with a fraction of the sugar content. A savoury that really made us wonder – just what could top this one?
I’m sorry for the foreshadowing, but no, the sea urchin w/tomatoes is not the abovementioned dish-topper. That said, it’s a solid bowl all by itself. The tomatoes all hail from Tasmania, are dehydrated for 8-10 hours and served in a tomato broth, along with a piece of sea urchin on the side.
The tomatoes are the star of the show here. They are all of varying levels of intensity, but are all succulent, packed with an intense sweetness that’s almost heady in its flavour.
The sea urchin however is not so becoming. While I like sea urchin of all kinds, this one just didn’t seem to quite hit the right level of richness. A high-quality urchin would be almost buttery and packed with taste. This is a shadow of such an ideal urchin. My dining companions were even less impressed.
Still, a dish that’s 80% tomatoes that makes you think “wow, these are some damn good tomatoes” is a dish well done indeed!
And here we have it folks, the best dish of the day, as agreed on by everyone at the table – the abalone schnitty & bush condiments. There’s so much going on here, describing it is an exercise in and of itself. Yes, there’s a crumbed & fried full-sized abalone schnitzel. On the sides are sea lettuces, foraged herbs, kakadu plum, Neptune’s necklace (cool name!), finger lime, and god knows what else, served with a side of yeast & celery oil (not pictured).
This is all about that abalone. This is the tenderest morsel ever, the tastiest; backed up by a lovely, crunchy crumb that will spoil every other schnitzel I will ever have. Well, perhaps not that dramatic, but this is something to be tasted in order to understand what I’m talking about. I didn’t realise abalone could be cooked so well, indeed it’s almost as tender as tofu. Nor did I realise you could neutralise the “sea” flavour of this curious marine snail to such a great effect. And of course, only Rene Redzepi of Noma would think of cooking it as a schnitzel of all things. All my life I’ve eaten abalone braised, to think you could even give it the deep fry treatment…
…as far as I’m concerned, this is the ultimate expression of Noma’s cooking philosophy. Procure the best of the best ingredients, but do something that nobody else would even think of. By taking these risks, you stand tall above the rest…or die trying.
As for the surrounding garnishes, most of it is on the money, though everything else is essentially a fancy salad next to the abalone. Particular favourites were the finger lime, and the bunya nut that tasted almost sweet enough to be a fruit. I’ll admit it – the dish and its ingredients are easily beyond my depth of comprehension. Just eat it all, and be glad you were able to cherish it even this one time.
At this point, we finish off with the savouries and move to the first dessert of marinated fresh fruit. It comes in three parts:
- A mango sandwich w/mango sorbet & green ants (no, I didn’t drop it on the ground and pick up ants by accident)
- A pineapple slab in a hibiscus flower
- A piece of compressed watermelon marinated in the juices of the Davidson plum
So essentially, it’s fruit salad, but of course with a little bit of a twist.
There’s a bit of a psychological barrier with eating insects. However, if the media would have us believe it, our descendents will be eating the six-legged critters on a regular basis on the premises of sustainable eating. Might as well get an early start on that! Really though, these green ants release a burst of acidity when eaten, and add to the zestiness of the soft and creamy mango sorbet. Nothing more, nothing less.
The pineapple is a remarkably sweet piece, that when eaten with the petals of the hibiscus flower, take on an almost creamy, velvety quality in texture. Nothing special here, but quite enjoyable.
The oddest of the bunch would have to be the watermelon. As it’s marinated in the juices of a plum, it’s extremely sour on the outside, yet markedly sweet within, as the natural sweetness of the watermelon still reign on the inside. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but it definitely did its job of cleansing the palate.
In a subtle nod to Australia (like everything else wasn’t already??), the second dessert is a “lamington” that’s actually aerated rum cake w/milk crumbs & native tamarind sauce. It’s served chilled, such that the cake almost tastes like an ice cream, if it weren’t for the slight sponginess to it. Unfortunately, my sample was far too overpowering on the rum, and the bitter-acrid tamarind definitely did not work with the cake.
A very weak dessert for me, and one of the weakest dishes on the menu.
Things turn around with the “Baytime”, as the Noma team couldn’t exactly name it the Golden Gaytime (ahem *trademark* ahem). This is a raw peanut milk ice-cream that’s coated with a caramel & freekeh glaze, served on a twig of lemon myrtle. Could you be more Australian?
While a bit superfluous with the presentation, I couldn’t fault the ice cream itself. It’s not like a golden gaytime in that there is no textural crunch at all, but instead it possesses various levels of creaminess – a thick, sticky texture on the outside (no doubt thanks to the caramel & fibrous freekeh), followed by a smoother, more familiar ice cream within. It’s also never too sweet, so it was easy to crave 2-3 more after finishing what little we were provided.
Mmmm, now that’s a nice way to finish.
For petit fours, we were provided with apple & native herbs & desert lime, where the apple sugar wrapper is of course, made edible. This is incredibly sour, and is not for everyone, but I like sourness, so gimme gimme gimme!
Oh, and of course, a mandatory chat and photo with the man himself is on the menu. Anyone who is serious about food should have five minutes with Rene – he will open your mind. For once, I’m keeping his wisdom to myself – you’ll have to visit Noma to hear it!
It is immediately apparent that “reviewing” an experience like Noma Australia is virtually pointless. I did it anyway because no restaurant is above criticism, but it is obvious that short of describing the food as poisonous, there can only be one recommendation if you had the hypothetical choice of whether to go or not: you go. It is worth $485.
While some will balk and some will belittle those who scored a reservation as being “idiots with more money than sense” (which is pretty offensive, by the way), in the end an experience like this is an adventure. You’re only going to be doing it once. You want it to count – and Noma Australia, for all of the quirks in the meal, made every last dollar count; an experience that will be a benchmark for many a meal to come. It is likely a restaurant like Noma will not be seen again for some time, I will relish it while I can.
This post is based on an independently paid visit to Noma Australia
- Exceptional cooking technique and ingredients combine to form a remarkable menu that will have something to astound any level of foodie
- Omgosh that abalone
- Noma’s eccentric cooking style will not impress everyone
- It’s not too filling – I was hungry afterwards
- Slightly weak finish with the desserts
- Chances are, you will be unable to go due to the sellout of the pop-up’s entire run
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F8 | S5 | A2