Perfection without pretension…
Before I begin I must confess that time was against me during this meal so I did not take photographs. However it became evident that this post would be pretty rubbish if I could not accompany my ramblings with some photographs. So my sincere thanks go to Trine Lai and the FoodSnob for kindly allowing me to use their images to illustrate some of the dishes I was served. Let me preface this review by stating this was by far and away the best meal I have ever had and there is very little criticism in what follows. Please forgive my gushingness and overuse of complimentary adjectives.
I started the day by waking late and immediately getting into a panic as I was checking out of the hotel that morning and I wasn’t packed. After a very rushed breakfast I jumped into a taxi and spent the rest if the morning working (I won’t bother with details as I become terribly boring when talking about what I do).
We managed to wrap up in good time for me to make my lunch reservation when my hosts revealed they had laid on a buffet lunch. This was unexpected and although the food was lovely (herring, smoked fish, rare roasted beef). I was terrified of filling up and spoiling my appetite so I ate sparingly but enough hopefully so as not to offend my hosts (who had been great). But now I had eaten and I was in danger of being late for my table.
It was a glorious crisp winter day and after a short taxi ride I was there. Noma is housed in a former warehouse and retains a wharf like cool. The decor has a restrained simplicity without straying into minimalist pretentiousness. Large windows framed views of Københavns Havn and flood the dining room with natural light. I received a warm welcome as I entered by none other than chef Rene (I thought famous chefs were never to be found in their kitchens!). He immediately confirmed with me when I needed to be at the airport and that his staff would make sure I left on time.
This initial brush with kitchen royalty unnerved me so I was shaking as I was shown to my table and I accepted a proffered glass of champagne gratefully. I have eaten at some fine restaurants but it was quite apparent that this meal would be something else entirely. The ambiance was friendly and informal (and no dress code… good for a scruffy urchin like myself) but there was an a buzz of anticipation across the room that indicated the food here was a serious business!
The service was extremely slick (I was offered a table with a better view of the open kitchen when the staff sensed my interest in what was going on in there). I soon came to realise this efficiency was a necessity given the complexity of what was about to be served. Notably the serving duties were shared between the kitchen and waiting staff which imbued an informal dynamic to the atmosphere. Chefs served food, sauced plates, explained the dishes and the ingredients and techniques employed. As a foodie dining alone the openness of the staff to questions and their eagerness to know what I thought of each dish was refreshing compared to the forced formality of other fine dining establishments.
The meal began with a series of ‘snacks’. A cookie flavoured with speck, lardo and currants had an unctuous texture and a pleasing savoury-sourness. It was presented in a old biscuit tin and followed by a crisp sandwich comprised of a rye bread and crisp chicken skin around a creamy filling of split peas and smoked cheese (imagine posh pease pudding… yum!). Then a porcelain egg was placed before me and opened releasing a whiff of smoke. Inside was … glory of glories … a pickled and applewood smoked quails egg, perfectly cooked with a liquid yolk. Biting into the egg was a moment of smoky, salty, rich yolky perfection. But we are only getting started. Next were baby radishes presented in a terracotta pot with soil (made from roasted hazelnuts and malt) covering a herb mousse and delicate toasts with smoked cod roe, herb tips and powdered vinegar. Best of all the amuse bouche were æbleskiver… traditional Danish pancakes in a distinctive shape of a sphere usually filled with apple and coated with sugar. However at Noma these had been reinvented with a confit pork filling surrounded by fluffy pancake batter and a dusting of vinegar powder …utterly sublime.
After six courses of ‘snacks’, I was invited to select my menu. Once I had confirmed that I was happy to try anything and everything it was suggested that Chef Rene could assemble a tasting menu for me that would enable me to sample as much as possible in the limited time that I had available. This was an offer I wasn’t going to pass up! Eating without a menu was a revelation. At no time during the meal did I know what was coming up next. This made the whole experience so surprising and exciting that I would like to repeat it elsewhere. Courses arrived quickly so I that would make the best of the time that I had (I had been asked to say if I found “the pace” too fast).
Bread (freshly baked sourdough hot from the oven wrapped in a neat bundle to retain the warmth) immediately arrived accompanied by pork fat and a butter flavoured with skyr (Icelandic curd). I also had a number of paired wines by the glass of which a 2008 Kerner Pillnitzer Königlicher Weinberg, Klaus Zimmerling from Dresden was the most memorable. However my mind was on the food…
The cuisine at Noma attempts (with no little success) to present Nordic seasonal ingredients in an modern innovative style whilst maintaining their integrity. It is quite obvious that the produce used is of the very highest quality. Contrasts of flavour and texture (some of which are quite challenging) are found within every course and between one dish and the next. The cooking shows subtlety and lightness of touch throughout with many elements presented raw or barely cooked with light ethereal sauces.
The first dish was finely sliced beetroot served with sorrel juice and malt. The earthy flavour of the beetroot shone through and contrasted with the sharpness of the sorrel and sweetness of the malt. This dish, apparently still in development, exhibited a delicate balance of flavour. Next was sea urchin, grilled cucumber dill and cream. Having never had urchin before I did not have much to compare it to but the staff informed me that the native cold water urchins they used were more delicate in flavour than those typically found in the Mediterranean. The urchins were served with frozen cream and dill granita, the whole dish subtle and refreshing.
A salad of chestnuts, bleak roe, walnuts and cress shoots contrasted the texture of the crisp nutty chestnut shavings with the soft salty eggs. A combination of sweet and sour followed with verjus, onions (cooked sous vide then caramelised), tapioca and thyme leaves. This was followed by salsify and truffle from Gotland, milk skin (sounds awful but I really liked it) and rape seed oil. This was my first experience of truffles and will not be my last!
The next dish appeared austere but was the most memorable of the whole meal in terms of intensity of flavour. “Potato with lovage and whey” comprised potatoes cooked in three ways, one of which was tiny new potatoes that were only just cooked (they still had a rawness to their texture) but had a marvellous intensely concentrated earthy flavour. I was informed that they were harvested from plants that had been left in the ground for a second year (I call them weed potatoes in my vegetable patch). The chef who served the dish (who was Irish… serving the potato dish to a man from Belfast… not a coincidence I think!) explained that they were poached in clarified butter for 3 minutes. The following dish of king crab, mussels, leeks and ashes was rich and packed with umami goodness.
Next up was beautiful plate of pickled vegetables, bone marrow and herbs served with a consommé of stunning clarity and depth (the sourdough had been replaced with a fresh loaf so every drop was mopped up). A horn handled steak knife accompanied the final main dish of beef cheek and pickled flowers, winter cabbage, capers and ramson onions. I was somewhat losing the plot by this point but I can recall that the beef cheek was unbelievably tender (I was told it had been cooked sous vide for 72 hours).
Three desserts were served. I don’t have the sweetest tooth so they were very much to my taste but I would guess they might not be a chocoholics cup of tea. The first (a kind of pre-sweet) was a trio of carrot (cooked, raw and as a sorbet) served with a buttermilk mousse and a liquorice biscuit which was refreshing and captured the sweetness of the carrot. It was also a nice transition between the savoury courses and the sweeter desserts. A spectacular plate followed “The Snowman from Jukkasjärvi”. The snowman was assembled from apple meringue, cloudberry sorbet, yogurt snow and a thyme flavoured marshmallow.
The final course was a refinement of the traditional Danish dessert “Øllebrød”, a porridge like confection made fro m beer and bread. It came with frothed milk, skyr and toasted rye kernels. However after all the preceding courses (and my impromptu business lunch!) it was just t oo rich and heavy (or I was too full). This seemed a heavy course to serve at the end of such a long tasting menu and was the only plate I did not finish. The bill (and perfection does not come cheap) came with this last course along with notification that a taxi was waiting outside to take me to the airport (the staff already having packed my luggage into the boot).
I made time for a brief tour of the kitchen where I thanked the chefs (who were mostly British and Irish which should signify great things for British restaurants in the future) for the best meal of my life. The biggest surprise to me however was that the service had outshone the food. My only regret was that I couldn’t have taken longer over it (18 courses …in just over 2 hours!) and lingered over a coffee.
I am glad I ate lunch at Noma when I had the opportunity. It will have 3 stars soon so I suggest you do likewise.