Noma… World’s Best?

I was lucky enough to have the best meal of my life at Noma earlier this year. There are rumors that’s it’s in line to be awarded the No.1 spot in the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants(organised by Restaurant Magazine) tonight following in the footsteps of El Bulli, The Fat Duck  and The French Laundry.

I have to admit to mixed feelings about this

… on one hand I really, really hope it’s true as the Chef Redzepi and his team deserve all the recognition going for what they have created.

… however I worry that it will probably also mean that mere mortals like myself will stand no chance of getting a reservation and experiencing Noma’s unique experience (I would love to be proved wrong about the latter… please keep the online booking system!). This would be a shame as its the most pretension free fine dining restaurant I have ever eaten in.

If anyone can figure out why it’s only got 2 Michelin stars let me know…

Update: rumours were true… my warmest congratulations to the Noma crew!

Portugal

Last week we had a wonderful holiday in Portugal staying in a villa with family. Our villa was located near Moncarapacho, about a 45 minute drive east of Faro towards the border with Spain. In contrast to the well known resorts in the western Algarve with their hotels and golf courses, the eastern half is relatively undeveloped and comprises traditional fishing port and charming sleepy villages. The weather was gloriously sunny for the whole week and it was nice just to relax and mess about around the pool. The setting was beautiful and all around were citrus groves heady with the scent of blossom.

I didn’t cook all that much as it was cheaper to eat out but we had couple of barbecues including some fantastic local fish (sea bream,  sardines) and tasty, toothsome quail.

There is also a Portuguese speciality where you cook your own steak. The stone is heated to extreme temperatures and you cut pieces off the joint, cook to your liking and thoroughly enjoy.

Lazy lunches were had on the terrace by the pool … we grazed on ham, chorizo, antipasti,  potato salad, and some amazing local breads and cheeses.

I made brioche rolls for breakfast which was a real hit with C. The texture of the bread was very open compared to normal brioche as I had the dough prove all afternoon and overnight before baking.

Lazy Holiday Brioche Breakfast Rolls (posted to Yeastspotting)

75 ml warm water.

3 eggs (+ another for brushing over the rolls if required).

200g butter chopped in cubes.

500g strong white bread flour.

4 tablespoons honey (we were low on sugar!).

1 sachet (6-7 g) dried active baking yeast.

pinch of  salt.

  • Mix the flour,  salt and yeast into a bowl. Make a well in the flour and add the eggs and water. Mix to form a stiff dough (adding more water if required). Knead lightly in the bowl until the dough is smooth.
  • Add the butter to the dough and mix until well incorporated, this will be messy as the dough will be very sticky (I used a fork to do this). Cover and leave to rise in a warm place (a pool terrace in Portugal is ideal!)
  • When dough has doubled in size knock back and knead in the bowl 5-10 times. Recover the dough and leave to rise again.  I didn’t need the dough till much later so I put it in the fridge at this point.
  • Generously grease a muffin tin with butter (grease the whole upper surface of the in as the dough is likely to rise over the edges of the cups).
  • Turn the finished dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead 5 to 10 times. Separate the dough into thirds. Portion each third into 6 even pieces and place each piece into a cup in the muffin tin. Set aside to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (I left mine overnight).
  • Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas mark 4. For a glossy finish brush the top of the rolls with beaten egg (I didn’t bother).
  • Bake in the preheated oven until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  • Leave to cool in the tray then pop out and enjoy!

When we ate out I gorged on seafood which was abundant, especially the most sweet baby clams. The local speciality dish is Cataplana which is a big one pot shell fish stew served with rice and plenty of vino tinto! Eating out at the local restaruants was tremendous value,  3 courses costing typically around €2o per person including wine. 

There is also a Portuguese speciality “steak on the stone” where you cook your own steak. The steak is served barely seared on a stone tile heated to an extremely high temperature and you cook to your liking. Mrs W. was a big fan!

Plot 15 Supperclub

Supperclubs or “underground restaurants” have become one of the big fashions in food over the past couple of years. The idea is simple, some brave amateur cook (or cooks) invites a bunch of random strangers into their own home and cooks dinner. Guests pay a ‘contribution’ to cover the cost of the meal (perhaps leaving a bit extra for the toil of the hosts) and bring their own drinks. With the rise of social networking and the profusion of food blogs getting the word out about such enterprises is now relatively easy. So perhaps it was just a matter of time before two adventurous souls (the heroic Jenny and Sarah) had a go in Belfast.

It just so happens that two of my favourite things are going out to eat and meeting new people over dinner so when I heard about the Plot 15 supperclub starting in Belfast I was very keen to try it out. Mrs W. offered to make it a birthday treat and after an email or two we were booked in.  A couple of days before the event the address details were emailed out.

We arrived at a large terraced house in the university district excited but somewhat nervous. We were greeted warmly at the door and I soon had a glass of wine in my hand and got chatting to the other guests. Canapes of hard-boiled quail’s eggs with toasted cumin and salt were already on the table and along with a roaring log fire were a sign of good things to come.

A large communal table had been beautifully set for the 12 diners. dishes were plated in a small serving kitchen off the main dining are (the main cooking was done in another kitchen). The service was warm friendly and accomplished. Apparently we were the sixth supperclub that they had catered, after some exposure in the Secret Belfast facebook group and the local press they were now booked though April.

We started with spicy sweet potato soup topped with crispy Jerusalem artichoke shavings and served with warm pitta bread. The soup was rich and well seasoned, the sweetness of the potato nicely balanced against the spice.

My main course was a roasted whole mackerel in lemon and freshly ground Indian spices with dahl and basmati rice. The mackerel was beautifully moist with crisp skin. The dish was fragrant with lemon and coriander and had a subtle hint of spice.

Mrs W. doesn’t do whole fish on the bone so she opted for the vegetarian choice of saag paneer with dahl and basmati rice and said nice things about it! The combination of the fish rice and dal was well balanced and so good that not a whole lot was left once I had finished!

Dessert was a fragrant Tunisian orange & almond cake served with thick greek yoghurt. The cake was moist, sweet and fragrant and very moreish.

The real pleasure of the evening though was not the food (very good though it was) however but the warm hospitality of our hosts and the pleasure of sharing a meal with new and interesting company. We lingered over our coffees and wine and eventually headed home having had a fun and memorable night. Talking to our hostesses the motivation behind the project appeared simple: they enjoyed cooking and wanted to meet new some new people. The menu (which will change monthly) will feature local, seasonal food some of which will be sourced from their Belfast allotment

It’s probably not for everyone, which is good because only nice people should go (I like the fact it is (was) a bit of a secret). You need to leave your fussiness at the door … remember it is a supperclub not a restaurant … you are a guest not a customer. But if you like dinner parties but don’t fancy the shopping, cooking, sorting invites, washing up etc the this may well be your bag. You’ll get a good dinner and maybe end up with some new friends.

Amongst the party was another intrepid food blogger, Sarah … here is her take on the nights events. Thanks (and credit) go to Sarah for letting me use her gorgeous photographs (I took some pictures on my phone but they were rubbish)… check out her blog.

I will be back again … it was great craic! Thanks to all who were there for making it such a great evening (and to the guy who didn’t show up … shame on you!).

Maybe I’ll even have a go at doing a supperclub myself … there’s a thought …

Plot 15 Supperclub serves a 3 course set menu dinner twice a month
Suggested donation of £20
contact: plot15supperclub@gmail.com or 07780 787453
website: http://plot15supperclub.wordpress.com/

Copenhagen: Part Two

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.

Copenhagen: Part One

I haven’t posted in a while… time to catch up on a few things…

I occasionally have to travel for work which I don’t really enjoy as much as I used to. I miss Mrs W. and C. terribly when I am away and I hate the BS and boredom that now comes with air travel (especially as travelling anywhere from Belfast usually requires two flights). However there are some compensations. When I have to travel it is an opportunity to indulge myself by sampling more experimental cuisine than normal as I don’t have to accommodate anyone else in my plans.

As soon as I had confirmed my travel dates to Copenhagen I put some thought into what and where I might like to eat. My schedule was an early arrival on Monday and to fly home on the Wednesday afternoon. I had been to Copenhagen previously and I had enjoyed the city which is clean, stylish and cycle friendly. I had also loved the food. From the hot dog stands which are on almost every street corner, marinated herring, smørrebrød and the ubiquitous pastries to the lovely Vietnamese meal I had in Lê Lê. Now that I was returning I was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Noma was at the top of my list. This iconic restaurant has come to symbolise all that is exciting about Nordic cuisine. I had read and heard so much about its unique approach that if I could possibly secure a table I was going. I immediately put myself on the waiting list and was delighted when they called to offer a lunch reservation on Wednesday. So with a business dinner with my hosts scheduled on the Tuesday evening I wanted to find somewhere interesting to go for dinner on Monday. I started to research where might be a good option as I wanted to go somewhere interesting but somewhat less extravagant than Noma.

My search led me to verygoodfood. This beautifully written and illustrated blog written by Trine Lai is a love letter to gastronomy in general and the Copenhagen food scene in particular. It is a must read if you are planning a visit and having read some posts I made a reservation at Aamanns Establishment for Monday dinner.

One of the nice features of Copenhagen restaurants is that many of them offer online reservations (Noma and Aamanns Establishment included). This is a great feature for those travelling as tables can be booked at any time of the day or night without having to make expensive phone calls or worry about language (not that this is a problem in Denmark as almost everybody speaks excellent English).

Noma is world famous and booked solid months in advance (bookings are allowed three months ahead so if you can plan that far in advance simply book a table using the online system at midnight three months before you wish to eat and your chances are good….no interminable waiting on the phone required!) If you register on the waiting list there is a good chance you will get a cancellation if you can be flexible with timings.

I arrived into Copenhagen and it was COLD with lots of snow (-10°C as I got off the plane). After sorting myself out at the hotel and a meeting with my business hosts it was soon dinnertime and I walked the sort distance from my hotel (the Scandic Palace Hotel located in Rådhuspladsen which was pleasant but dull in a corporate way) to Aamanns Establishment. The restaurant is unfussy, relaxed and tastefully decorated (image from the Aamanns Establishment website).

The dinner menu offered a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts. For me this is a good sign, I want to eat what the chef thinks is good and in season. One could also choose both starters and/or both desserts to make a 4 or 5 course meal. A nice touch was the wide selection of wine offered by the glass, with a paired choice for each course. This is great for those dining alone as a whole bottle is often too much for one and it is nice to sample a selection of wines. The service was excellent with the waitress happy to patiently translate the Danish menu (she found an English one later) and explain the dishes.

Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me so there are no photos of my dishes but Trine has posted an illustrated review which gives a flavour of the food served at Aamanns.

My starter of marinated scallops with brussels sprouts, almonds and a herb cream was a surprising, lovely start to the meal. Brussels sprouts aren’t usually my cup of tea, (the waitress translated them as greens) but in this dish the sprout leaves were charred to give a nice bitterness which contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the thinly sliced scallops and the acidity from the orange ceviche style marinade. The toasted almonds and herb cream added a lovely richness to the dish. This was paired with a nice white from Beaune (Bourgogne Aligoté 2007, Fanny Sabre).

My main course of braised ox cheek was always going to be a big hit with me and this did not disappoint. The wonderfully tender ox cheek, served with braised salsify, was melt in the mouth soft and glazed with a moreish sticky jus. However the accompaniments were even better. A savoury trio of onions comprising sticky caramelised onions, crispy onion rings and baby pickled onions gave sharp contrasts of taste. The dish was served on a bed of spelt grain which had a nutty taste and lovely toothsome texture similar to a very al dente risotto but with the bite on the outside of the grain. To compliment the rich beef I was served a pinot noir from Austria (2007, Schloss Halbturn) which had lovely soft rich flavours.

This was very accomplished cooking and I was not alone in my appreciation as I overheard gushing comments in English from two young guys at the next table. We got chatting and it transpired that they were chefs one of whom was en route to a Swedish relocation, the other was working at St John in London (another place I want to try!).

Dessert comprised pear compote with a scoop of chestnut ice cream topped with a chestnut foam which was rich and flavoursome whilst remaining light on the palate. Drinking wine by the glass allowed me to treat myself to a delicious sweet chenin blanc (2006,  Domaine Bablut).

I was full after three courses so I decided against a second desert or cheese and spent the remainder of the evening chatting to the two English chefs (one was called George and quite embarrassingly I cannot recall the name of the other) and the staff. The food was perhaps better than any meal I have eaten in London, innovative and good value at £60 for three courses with some really interesting wine choices  (Copenhagen is a very expensive city so prices should be compared to London).

My appetite had been whetted for Noma… to be continued!