What makes a restaurant great? Is it the food, inventiveness or quality of ingredients? Or is it the ambience, décor and quality of service? And what makes a restaurant “best” in the world, if such an accolade can even be assigned? Regardless how you respond to the above, Noma is at the pinnacle of global cuisine, ranked first in the prestigious “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list three of the last 4 years. But perhaps I should start from the beginning…
For the first decade of this century, Spain’s El Bulli was the undisputed leader in haute cuisine. Ranked as the tope restaurant numerous times between 2002 and 2009 and assigned three Michelin stars as early as 1997, the restaurant attracted talent from around the world, including young Danish chef René Redzepi. Following his stint at El Bulli, Redzepi made a brief stop at French Laundry, a three Michelin star establishment located in Napa Valley which was ranked best in the world in 2003 and 2004.
While many young chefs try to replicate the formula of restaurants they have worked in, Redzepi took a different approach. In 2002, Danish chef Claus Meyer approached Redzepi about opening a restaurant in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn district. Together, they developed “New Nordic Cuisine” which they showcased in their new restaurant opened in 2004.
“New Nordic” focuses on fresh, natural products foraged from land and sea. It espouses use of local, in-season products from Nordic countries which meet the tenants of purity, simplicity and freshness. It is also explores the use of everyday, edible ingredients not on your typical menu.
I visited Noma earlier this month with several friends. I had always wanted to go but it is notoriously difficult to obtain reservations and the price is high enough that I had never made it a priority. However, I jumped at the opportunity when a friend informed me she had been contacted about an opening for 4 people (she and another friend had put their name on a waitlist).
More than a restaurant, Noma is an experience, evoking pleasure, surprise, bewilderment and a host of other reactions. 50 chefs and 25 support staff serve approximately 20 courses over 5 hours paired with a wine or juice menu. Dishes explore the interplay between taste, texture and mouthfeel, highlighting contrasts between them all. Rather than explain each dish, I have included pictures of most of them along with a brief description.
Menu for the evening. 20+ courses paired with 8 juices or wines (several course were not listed)
Gooseberry and elderflower appetizer. Tart but good
Nordic coconut, drinking the milk which had an anise/licorise flavour. This was a unanimous winner and one of the standout presentations
Deep-fried moss and cep, served with creme fraiche. A unanimous winner with a unique crispy flavour melting in your mouth
Pickled and smoked quail eggs. Marginal at best although the puff of smoke when you opened the lid was a winner
Cheese cookie and herb stems, a unanimous winner
Savoury æbleskiver and greens, a take on the classic Danish holiday dessert. Another unanimous winner
Sea urchin toast. I found the sea urchin to be much like foie gras which I don’t care for
Burnt leek, another classic. The inside was very tender and flavourful
Squid and fennel, served in an ice bowl. This one was marginal as I found the squid tough
Dried scallops and beechnuts. The scallops had an intense seafood flavour which was a bit strong for my taste
Onions and fermented pears with ants. I found this suprisingly good. Aparently different ants have different acidic flavours
Potato and sea trout roe in oil. The contrast between roe and potatoes was overshadowed by too much oil
Purple carrot and truffle. This was the highlight of the night for me. The carrots are left in the ground for up to 2 year
Wild duck, pear and kale. This was another winner although we were warned in advance we might find buckshot in the duck
Potato dessert in plum sauce. Another unanimous winner
Frozen yeast cookies (not on the menu). This was very unique but not a particular success
Classic Danish with beet icing if I remember correctly. It was good but not particularly unique (apart from the beet)
Pig skin dipped in chocolate and freeze-dried blueberries. This topped the uniqueness chart. I really liked it but opinions varied widely
The most common question asked since I visited is “Was it worth it”? My response is an unequivocal “yes”. The food is highly innovative and forces you to explore new culinary boundaries. One of the benefits of going as a group was the range of opinions from dish to dish. While there was unanimous agreement on some, others resulted in much more animated debate, which only made the experience that much more enjoyable.
One of the things I appreciated most was the attitude of staff. After reaching the pinnacle as the best restaurant in the world, it’s easy to let success go to your head. However, everyone was exceedingly friendly without being patronizing or condescending. An added feature was a visit to the kitchen and development lab where chefs work on inventing new dishes.
In the kitchen. It is more spartan than my own. There is also a prep kitchen downstairs where much of the plating is done
Development lab where they invent new dishes
Staff dinning room. Given the long hours, chefs are served lunch by apprentices between the lunch and dinner sittings
Australian sous-chef giving us an overview of the development lab and restaurant operations
Kitchen, 12:30 A.M. Chefs work from 9 A.M to 12 A.M, Tuesday -Saturday
If I have one criticism of our dinner, it was the quality of service. While everyone can make a mistake, wait staff made several routine errors which are simply unacceptable at a world-famous restaurant. Much has been made of the fact tha while Noma has been ranked best in the world on the 50 Best Restaurant’s list, it has never been graned three Michelin stars. While I can see Michelin being put off by the laid-back Danish service approach, I agree that it simple was not up to the standard of a three star restaurant. Although it didn’t detract that much from the evening, it is a key feature Noma needs to address if they want to continue to improve their patron’s experiences.