‘Plankton juice. Are you serious?’ I wasn’t able to fully restrain my tone of voice; it might even have come off as a little rude. The glass in front of me – just one of the many unconventional non-alcoholic pairings that went with the meal – could best be described as ‘algae green’. There wasn’t even an attempt to cover up the fact that this was effectively whale food, served up for human consumption in one of the most exclusive, remote and expensive restaurants in the world.
The chef/waiter – frequently the same people – was unperturbed, as if he’s used to the reaction: ‘yes, I almost picture that it was developed by some bearded hipster living in a hut down at Bondi’.
But this is Noma 2.0. This is normal. With well-placed faith, I took a sip.
Date Last Visited: 30/Mar/2018
Address: Refshalevej 96, 1432 København K, Denmark
Highlight Dishes: Danish venus clams, various seafood platters, cod’s head
Price Guide (approx): 2,250 DKK food only (~$491 AUD at time of writing), price I paid: $891 AUD (food + drink pairing + post-meal drinks)
It must be like what music fans feel, as they wait with bated breath for the appearance of a beloved artist’s concert. So it was for yours truly, as my barely-contained footsteps propelled my excited self through the chilly Copenhagen Spring ever closer to its outskirts.
Noma is only a couple of kilometres from the centre of Denmark’s capital, a stone’s throw from its former location. Yet, were you to be teleported here, you would be forgiven if you thought civilisation has long been left behind. The restaurant is close to the bank of a lake, and the view from inside the dining room looks directly out into the wilderness, and there’s odd fox that may be seen passing through the property. A sharply juxtaposing, clean-cut figure of a power plant being the sole reminder of urbanisation.
And then there’s that dining room itself. Built to Rene Redzepi’s exacting specifications, with the staff spending almost much time on it as the tradesmen, it’s a building that exudes effortless charm, with multiple functional spaces: a relaxing lounge area for pre & post-meal tipples, a central open kitchen, a private dining room, and of course, the main dining room with no more than ten tables. It is warm – not only in temperature – but in homeliness, as if you just happen to be in the residence of a rather wealthy eclectic who really, really likes wood. And of course, Redzepi does: the entire place is decked out in the stuff. But what’s just as eye-catching is the ‘seafood wall’: a clothes line of dessicated marine creatures adorning the room reminiscent of the dried seafood hawkers of South-East Asia. There’s no mistake that Noma 2.0, in the seafood season of its new 3-season structure (the other two being vegetables and game meat) is as devoted to the stuff as is an aquarium.
As I’m sure is the case with many of you, it’s been a dream of mine to visit Noma ever since hearing about Redzepi’s cutting-edge restaurant, voted the ‘best in the world’ by W50B no less than four times, a feat no other restaurant has equalled. And yet, it manages to do this with no fancy tricks of molecular gastronomy or ingredient manipulation. While Noma Australia was a stunning foray into Redzepi’s idea of what locality and sustaininability can be, I always did suspect that he would perform at his best on home turf. Of course, getting to Copenhagen from Sydney is only second to securing a reservation at Noma in terms of difficulty.
But when you’re walked down the path to Noma’s entrance, and are then instructed to open the door yourself (what?), to be greeted by the entirety of staff saying hello (ohhhh!), the dream becomes reality.
And the food? A continuation of the dream. When it’s Noma, you can expect the unexpected. But blind faith here comes well rewarded. Any initial apprehensions were immediately quashed when the first of a series of hands-only bites arrives: Faroe Islands sea snail broth, served in its shell arrived at the table. Crusted with pickled relish vegetables, the first sip was the initial wade into the Scandinavian sea, and before long it becomes a struggle to make the moment last as long as possible, with its sweet, rich flavour.
Danish venus clams were painstakingly overlapped in mesmerising concentric circles yielding a plate that would not be out of place in a museum of contemporary art. Atop are only five shells, yielding an amount of flesh per clam that could be mistaken for a breadcrumb. You get 15 of them (each nibble was just one clam!), full of that chewy, almost crunchy texture and briny that mollusc-lovers know all too well. The other two shells are filled with a surprisingly rich, buttery-sweet blackcurrant wood fudge. Although it was only the second course, it was already an exercise in trying to figure out just how the Noma team are able to extract so much flavour from something so little.
A beautiful, hand-crafted serving bowl fashioned out of mussel shells by local Scandi artisans comes with two of what seems like mussel flesh, until you’re told they’re the ‘best bits of the mussel‘ – the frankenstein-esque creation of six mussel lips, stitched together to form the singular ‘mussel’. Hah, nice.
Norwegian shrimp, served with wild fruits (including wild strawberries) and prawn cracker is one for prawn lovers, with incredible texture zest, and surprising richness. I don’t think I can think of a more prawn-focussed dish, which was only reinforced by sucking on the buttery prawn mousse tucked into those prawn heads on top of the (yet again crafted) lid. One of the oilier dishes that – while somewhat distracting from the freshness and incredible mouthfeel of the prawns & fruits – goes some way to satisfying those who by now would be wishing for some heartiness.
A ‘starfish’ of cured trout roe & eggs was spiced up with saffron and Arctic lime, and finished with egg yolk and fermented, dehydrated plums. Heady, creamy, popping with freshenss from the roe bursting in the mouth. Here, Japan one-ups Scandinavia – the roe here was simply not as good. But if cool factor can go some way to make up for it, a ‘jellyfish‘ of squid juice aspic and lumpfish roe was served up, wobby like a Scandinavian take on a dashi gelee. The plate looks like an edible ecosystem, and the five varieties of cooked seaweed adorning the edges of the plate that stole the show.
Let me digress for a bit on drink pairings: you should go for it. While the alcoholic one was great trip in and of itself, with a heady mix of organic, biodynamic whites, the real juicy number is – you guessed it – juices. Much like the meal itself, most are made with fruits, vegetables and herbs local to the area – such as tangy cloudberries (where one punnet costs more than some entire bottles of wine served in the pairing), ginger and rhubarb. And of course, there’s that plankton juice.
It sucked, haha. My palate simply could not accept its saline pungency. But hey, don’t let that put you off – my friend loved it, so you’ll never know until you try, right?
Back to the food. Now, seafood platters. If the meal to date has been wave after wave of pure umami pleasure, the next act was a positive tsunami. Mahogany clams, literally a century old, come lightly steamed, julienned, with gooseberry buds, shoots & capers. Queen clams, mere decades old and plastered with calcified algae and other unrecognisables, are painted with a flavour-boosting razor clam roe mousse.
Limfjorden oysters, round rather than ovoid in shape, came with a pretty arrangement of wasabi leaf which rose up to the task of matching its pungency & sweetness. Hand-dived Faroe Islands sea urchin, a brilliant orange-purple, impressed with its salinity and freshness, tempered with a dash of walnut rose oil. It’s no buttery Hokkaido uni; However, this specimen was an identity unto itself, and helped Noma form its own.
A sea cucumber, as big as a child’s forearm arrived as visual garnish (and certainly with a dash of ‘wow’ factor – it was still breathing!) accompanying the actual edible dish of chicarron made from its innards (an assuredly dead one, I presume), dehydrated orange shards, and an oyster garum – a type of ferment. It was deliciously acrid, perhaps even a challenging number for seafood newbies – but of course, Noma’s
reality palate distortion field does wonders for the palate.
Squid in seaweed butter, cut up into rings, was remarkable in how one of the lightest seafood could be given the rich treatment. A lovely salad of sea snails, rose petals & dashi, as beautiful as the hand-fashioned beeswax jar it’s served in, delighted in its cacophony of flavour, even if it did come off just a little bit too salty.
With all of Noma’s seafood locally caught and much of it done so by hand, Redzepi’s ethos of sustainability and connection to the land was never in question. However, it truly expresses itself in the final savoury course: cod’s head, BBQ-grilled, with an earthy mushroom & lemon thyme glaze, and served with condiments of horseradish, nutty Danish wood ants and curry-like spice plants. Of course, followers of Redzepi’s Instagram feed will have seen this coming. You know the one I’m talking about – ‘all the meat from a cod’s head’. And indeed, it was amazing just how much was actually edible – we were served only half a head between the two of us, yet there was enough meat in there to make one wonder: how could we humans be so wasteful?
As delicious a dish as it was instructional. When was the last time you cleaned out a fish head?
Desserts were surprising.
Most restaurants, even truly great ones, tend to steer clear of mixing ocean funk with sweetness. Not Noma. A pear & roasted kelp ice cream challenged all senses: it looked like a mussel, it kind of even smelled like a mussel, and the shell, while edible, absolutely looked the part of a mussel shell. But of course, it was a candied, isomalt-based creation (perhaps too hard for my liking), and the ice cream was – dare I say it – well balanced. The seaweed funk was unequivocally there, and yet after a multi-course wade through the waters, it seems just so appropriate. Plus, it was still ice cream in the end – it was sweet, it was creamy.
Cloudberries & pine cones made for a more traditional palate cleanser-style dessert, where an overly-tart broth of the expensive fruits was served up with a milky yoghurt and candied young pine cones, the only source of sweetness in the dish.
A small, seaweed-redolent bite of sugar kelp tart with oyster caramel overstayed its welcome somewhat (oh boy, was it strong), which preceded the final dessert of moussey, soy & berry-infused (entremet-style) salty-sweet plankton cake. It would have been inappropriate in any other restaurant, but at Noma, it seems fitting that the meal ends with the beginnings of the ocean’s ecosystem.
Dining at Noma is perhaps the closest humans can come to experiencing the sensation of what it must be like to be one with the ocean and all its bounty. Only restaurants in Japan is the execution at comparable levels, yet make no mistake: Copenhagen will boil over before anyone confuses a meal at Noma with that of any other restaurant.
Redzepi, the auteur chef, has transformed Noma into far more than a wooden bastion of hand-caught shellfish and biodynamic everything. It’s a life-long, educational journey on how humankind can consume responsibly in a world of ever-declining resources, how we can pass on to the next generation, but most of all, what it means to be a chef. No, this soul searching of Redzepi’s wasn’t something that presented itself to me in revelatory form while dining at the new Noma. It was always expressed through his actions: the closure of old Noma, the relocation of its entire staff to Japan, Australia, and Mexico and exploring all that these regions proffered. Not to mention the MAD conferences, more or less the most influential non-award food event in the world, and the almost missionary-like work Redzepi undertakes whenever he’s not on the pass. However, all this has perhaps crystallised into something that is more solid, more sure of itself when diners visit Noma 2.0. Redzepi himself seems to believe his own story. Despite this, even the new digs are transient. What’s new today is inevitably old tomorrow. Never say never.
But right now? Noma 2.0 stands, metaphorically and literally, on another level in the world of great eating. It’s not about dropping a week’s pay on a FOMO-inducing experience of braggery (well, I’ll admit, it’s a little bit of that – shoot me?), it’s simply about one of the best restaurants in the world, nestled in this remote part of the pale blue dot. I can’t wait to experience the next chapter of its story.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Noma
- The benchmark against which all other seafood restaurants will be judged
- Some dishes are over-seasoned relative to the overall meal
- If you’re not a fan of the ingredient theme Noma is in, you’re going to have a hard time
Would I return: unequivocally
F8.5 | S5 | A3