It’s the world’s best restaurant offering the nation’s most expensive meal, and 27,000 people still queued up hoping to get into Noma Australia’s sold out 10-week season in Sydney.
It sounds like the sort of cultish behaviour normally reserved for Apple fans awaiting the next iPhone.
In foodie circles, chef Rene Redzepi is certainly regarded as the Steve Jobs of his trade. He’s a thinker and innovator with few equals, whose Copenhagen restaurant has been named the world’s best four times in the last six years.
Redzepi’s success is the result of thinking like a poet, artist and theatre director. He delivers drama, beauty and a lyrical narrative on a series of small plates.
When I ate at Noma in Copenhagen for the first time in 2012, I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype. I was wrong. It was an astonishing experience, even for someone with the privilege of having already eaten in many of the world’s best restaurants.
Relocating his entire establishment – some 80 staff and even the tables and chairs – to Australia for a culinary locum is something of a triumph for both Lendlease, the developers of Barangaroo, and Tourism Australia. It’s a rhetorical answer to the age-old question asked of visiting celebrities – “What do you think of Australia?” – as they step off the plane for the first time. If Redzepi’s here, our Masterchef- and MKR-obsessed nation must be doing something right. After all, Heston Blumenthal, another former No. 1 on the world’s best restaurants list with The Fat Duck, is here too, and now has a permanent restaurant, Dinner by Heston, in Melbourne.
But Redzepi is already used to Australia and the way we think. His restaurant manager, James Spreadbury, is Australian, so too sous chef Beau Clugston. The floor and kitchen are well stocked with Australians and Redzepi shares their sense of humour, which certainly helps Noma translate locally.
And the creative favour has been returned, literally. Australian dining is now liberally garnished with former Noma chefs and Redzepi’s influence is seen on local menus with the same zeal reserved for Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame a decade earlier.
The tension between triumph and epic failure generated by dropping people in unfamiliar surrounds is the stock-in-trade of reality TV shows. The $485 question over 12 courses for Redzepi – add another $215 if you want the matching wines – at Noma Australia is does he climb the mountain so many others have tried to scale, only to be turned back by a blizzard of public indifference?
But first it needs to be recognised that Redzepi is a giant standing on the shoulders of giants.
Noma Australia may be one of the finest exponents of native flavours seen thus far – although personally, I’d give that crown to a New Zealander, Ben Shewry at Attica in Melbourne – but this has been a long, hard-fought journey by many over decades, dating back to a Queensland pub cook in 1898, Hannah MacClurcan, Australia’s first celebrity chef, who confessed to passing off roast wallaby as hare without her diners realising.
“Most people, even Australians, are prejudiced against the wallaby, after all they are one of Australia’s natural foods,” MacClurcan observed in her self-published cookbook from more than a century ago.
White Australians have never really taken to indigenous ingredients. It was best left to survival experts like Les Hiddens and Malcolm Douglas, who inadvertently reminded us of how disconnected we are from the place we inhabit as they found food in a landscape long considered inhospitable.
Ironically, the curiosity of outsiders most often championed indigenous flavours, from Frenchman Jean Paul Bruneteau’s 1980s Sydney restaurant, Rowntrees, then Riberries in the 1990s, to Shewry more recently. And many others, especially siblings Jennice and Raymond Kerch at Edna’s Table in Sydney, and supplier Vic Cherikoff should be recognised too, along with Andrew Fielke, who founded Red Ochre in Adelaide in 1992, and more recently in that city, Scotsman Jock Zonfrillo at Restaurant Orana.
Then there’s Steve Snow at Fins, who was stuffing bunya nuts in squid in the 1990s, and now Aboriginal chef Clayton Donovan at Jaaning Tree (and before him, Mark Olive).
This list is far from exhaustive – Kylie Kwong is one of the more recent converts – but worth noting because the native produce industry remains nascent and the oft-written “one-man crusade” is actually a much larger force.
Perhaps Redzepi will deliver the shot in the arm and critical mass it needs to truly fire. As the chef himself notes, many of the ingredients he wanted to use at Noma Australia were simply too difficult to source consistently, even for just 10 weeks.
What he has done is remind us that we need to look a little harder in our own backyards. Case in point: mat-rush (lomandra longifolia), a common grass-like garden plant, is served as one of the “bush condiments” with the abalone schnitzel. It looks a little like a leek. Chewing on the white base of the stem offers a lightly nutty flavour.
It appears the idea of Noma Australia is to awaken a nation to possibility. It’s part celebration of what we do extraordinarily well – how can your heart not swell with national pride when the world’s best chef tells you the Western Australian snow crab, pulled from deep waters off Albany, is the best he’s ever tasted? – and part reminder that an entire civilisation survived off this landscape before the wagyu beef and Tasmanian truffles showed up.
Redzepi’s sense of humour reveals itself in the opening drink, a “snakebite”, a blend of beer and cider that earned its notoriety at London’s Walkabout pub. When you’re paying $215 per person for drinks, it seems a little cheeky, but this is no ordinary blend. Redzepi managed to coax Tasmanian winemaker turned brewer Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall into producing a one-off Noma blend that includes 5- and 7-year-old farmhouse ales with 18-month-old barrel fermented cider.
Yes it’s good, fascinatingly complex too, and really more-ish, matching beautifully with the first dish, thinly sliced unripe macadamias in a gelatinous, rose-floral, chilled spanner crab consommé.
Redzepi subverts what we think we know about macadamias, serving them as something that more closely resembles a water chestnut. Anyone who’s ever cracked a macca knows how much trouble it is. When they’re unripe it must be hell. Why go to all that trouble? I suppose because he can and because the chef loves pushing against accepted wisdom.
But the benchmark and overarching principal behind all of Redzepi’s food is how to make things more delicious. The macadamia soup is one answer.
Next is a plate of native berries. Shewry once served them as a dessert at Attica in an ode to the rainforest. Here, Redzepi plunders them for savoury notes and astringency, with fresh lillypilly, lemon aspen and muntries mixed with a range of pickled fruits and covered in a snow of grated kakadu plum.
It’s one of those dishes that doesn’t quite work on paper, but makes perfect sense in the end, as a blend of sweet and salty, sharp and sour.
The third of 12 courses is two types of wattle seed in a “porridge” wrapped in saltbush leaves, garnished with finger lime. It’s slightly health food store.
My dining companion thinks it’s utterly brilliant. It certainly moves wattle seed from garnish to centre stage and the desert oak seeds remind me of mung beans.
I’d like some bread to mop up the leftover basil dressing, but there is none. Redzepi is experimenting with bread – he’s even dabbling in home-made vegemite – but not yet convinced the end result is up to standard, so there’s no bread.
And best you don’t come to Noma craving steak. That abalone schnitty is about as meaty as it gets.
The seafood platter is Noma’s tribute to aboriginal middens. An oyster, clams, a pipi and mussel balance on river stones, each one topped with a translucent shard of reduced chicken stock brushed with crocodile fat – the detail that’s getting all the headlines. Personally, I think the garnish overwhelms the simple beauty of the chilled shellfish – like dipping your sashimi in soy – and it sticks to my lips like fatty clingfilm if I don’t get it all into my mouth at once.
It has to be said the mood in the room is ebullient, far more so than the Copenhagen original where, despite Redzepi’s best efforts to the contrary, the weight of being the best creates a more sombre and reverent mood among the diners. Out here, in the summer sun, this is a frolic for all concerned, from the guests who can’t believe their good fortune to the team who gather by the door to welcome you with the enthusiasm of a labrador puppy spotting you coming home.
The wine options are not for Old World classicists. It’s all new and natural, with all the quirky funkiness that implies. Like the food, the grape varietals chosen reveal unexpected characteristics, from the Tamar River’s ‘Brian Rizza’, a riesling, to the effervescent Sassafras sauvignon from Canberra. But the matches are spot on.
I tried Manon’s Wild Nature pinot noir with the abalone in an attempt to rebel, but the Pyramid Valley On Skins from Marlborough, New Zealand, a blend of pinot blanc, pinot gris and gerwurztraminer couldn’t have been more perfect.
That WA snow crab is a Hannah MacClurcan moment. It’s truly bloody delicious, made even richer by salted cured egg yolk, which seems to be a nod to a Chinese classic. But when delivered with the added detail that fermented kangaroo is also used, it becomes mind-altering for some, and not in a good way.
It’s a reminder that what we choose to eat is sometimes all in our head. And also that, occasionally, ignorance is bliss.
The sublime stumbles to my least favourite dish; a dried scallop pie with pretty pink and white lantana flowers. The flavour reminds me of the scraping from a Sunday roast pan, and the mouthfeel of the cool pie with kelp pastry is every bit as fatty. I don’t mind that memory, but what sets me off is the lantana as I pull the flowers from the stem – that bit’s poisonous we’re warned – to scatter them over the pie.
The scent summons up every bad memory I have of weekends spent clearing this noxious weed from bushland to rehabilitate it – the itchy scratches all over the body from thorny branches that stab you as you fight it, the feral animals that used it as a refuge. Lantana, in my mind, is a reminder of every sin we committed against this landscape and even Redzepi cannot redeem it for me.
But the rollercoaster returns to the apex with a barbecued milk “dumpling” filled with marron and magpie goose. The pancake-like milk skin houses the barely cooked shellfish bolstered by the goose meat. It’s truly brilliant, luscious and luxe, followed clean, fresh, sweetly salty mix of sea urchin with dried tomato and pepper berries.
It’s like a palate cleanser before the final savoury course.
The abby schnitty offers several layers of genius. The first is taking an ingredient seen as exotic and expensive and turning it into pub food. Redzepi is almost taking the piss and you’ve gotta love him for that.
The next important detail is finding a way cook it so you’re not chewing squash balls, because for all the fanfare about abalone, it’s about making a really dull, flavourless protein interesting and flavoursome. There’s the panoply of native ingredients surrounding it to discover, including bunya nut, warrigal greens, assorted seaside succulents and sea veg.
It’s a brief and fascinating masterclass in the Australian palette, including a sandpaper fig, the sweetest and most palatable of the 45 native fig species in Australia.
Until now I thought the fig reference was more European metaphor, but all the native figs can be eaten. A meal like this changes the way you look at the world around you.
Desserts begin with marinated melon, watermelon and mango on ice, the mango covered in small dried green ants, like kaffir lime leaf with six legs. If only the menu on “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” was this opulent.
If you’re still squeamish, take consolation in the fact that Redzepi serves ants live in Copenhagen, so at least you’re not trying to catch them as they run off the plate in Sydney.
There’s also a serve of bush tomatoes with Tasmanian mountain pepper berries that deliver a long, slow burn, like sichuan pepper, if you’re game enough to eat them.
Sommelier Mads Kleppe finally ventures further afield for a dessert match, serving Osaka brewer Akishika Shuzo’s 2013 Moto Shibori, a sweet sake with elderflower and green apple notes.
You could take the lamington as a sly dig at both Sydney’s history and its lockout laws: the marshmallow-airy cake so heavily laced with rum and the “coconut” is a deception made from grated solidified milk. It sits on a shallow pool of native tamarind that cuts through the sweetness as the cake evaporates in your mouth.
Like Sydney’s Chris Manfield before him, who turned the Gaytime into a pun-laden dessert, Redzepi ends the meal with a “Baytime”, a chocolate-coated stick (literally) “ice cream” made from raw peanuts and freekah that reminds me of halwa.
Lunch lasted four hours. We moved outside to look at Sydney’s harbour with infusions made from native flavours, watching young chefs huddling around the preparation benches at the outdoors kitchen, getting the shellfish ready for the next meal.
Redzepi’s visit has been a bold experiment. It’s the culinary equivalent of Sydney winning the Olympics.
And like those moments when we only really discover our homeland by showing it to friends when they come visit, Noma Australia is reminder to look at what surrounds us with fresh eyes, count our blessings and perhaps try a little harder to appreciate it.
The Noma Australia menu
Unripe macadamia and spanner crab
Wild seasonal berries flavoured with gubinge
Porridge of golden and desert oak wattleseed with saltbush
Seafood platter and crocodile fat
WA deep-sea snow crab with cured egg yolk
Pie: dried scallops and lantana flowers
BBQ’d milk “dumpling”, marron and magpie goose
Sea urchin and tomato dried with pepperberries
Abalone schnitzel and bush condiments
Marinated fresh fruit
Peanut milk and freekeh “Baytime”