COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – Approaching Noma, perhaps the world’s most famous restaurant, one can’t help feel the sort of trepidation that comes with any trip to a high-end dining experience. Fancy restaurants are by their nature intimidating places – expensive, filled with wealthy, successful people, and often, snooty staff.
Noma, a restaurant that takes immense pride in defying almost every convention in the book, doesn’t fit that stereotype, and makes its point from the very beginning.
Rather than a greeting from an aloof maitre’d with a waxed moustache and immaculate hair, guests’ first contact at the restaurant is with a 63-year-old Gambian immigrant called Ali Sonko and his infectious smile.
Sonko, a permanent fixture at Noma since it opened almost 15 years ago, started as a dishwasher at the restaurant, and having worked his way through the ranks, now owns a 10% stake in the business.
Voted the best restaurant in the world four times in the well-respected, but often controversial World’s 50 Best list, Noma is portmanteau of the word’s “Nordisk,” meaning “Nordic,” and “mad,” the Danish word for food. The restaurant’s name perfectly defines its ambitions.
Noma and its founder Rene Redzepi have built a culinary dynasty by focusing solely on ingredients from the Scandinavian region, shunning things like olive oil, and focusing instead on foraged ingredients from near the restaurant.
Famous dishes to appear on the restaurant’s menu over the years include dried moss, ants, and more recently mould.
Located in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, it has a fair claim to be the most influential place of gastronomy in the world. Alumni are spread all over the world, and have taken the restaurant’s philosophy of hyperlocalism with them.
Any time you eat an edible flower at a local bistro, or hear about the house churned butter at that trendy new spot downtown, Noma has probably had at least some influence.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Noma twice, once in November 2011, and more recently in late July. Here’s what it was like on my most recent visit.
The original Noma was open from 2003 until early 2017, when founder Rene Redzepi and his team closed shop with a vision of reinventing the restaurant. A wildly popular pop-up in Mexico filled part of the intervening time, with the rest dedicated to building a new restaurant almost from scratch in a new location roughly a mile from the old restaurant.
Situated on a small lake just outside the centre of Copenhagen, Noma’s new location was formerly an ammunition storage facility for the Danish military, and comprises the main restaurant, its kitchens, and numerous greenhouses where the produce served to diners is grown. Designed by renowned architect Bjarke Ingels, the site’s 11 buildings stretch more than 60 metres from end to end, and are designed to resemble an old Danish village.
In its previous iteration Noma changed its menu based on what ingredients were most readily available, but used vegetables, meat, and fish throughout the year. Now, it operates in three seasons, focusing on seafood for four months, vegetables for another four, and then game for the final four. Visiting in July meant I was served the vegetable-focused menu.
That did not necessarily mean it would be entirely vegetarian, the restaurant made clear before my visit.
It would still use stocks made from meat and fish, but would not serve entire pieces of either. Other animal products like cream and butter also frequently appeared.
As an avowed carnivore, I was slightly apprehensive about spending a small fortune on an entirely vegetarian menu – a meal at Noma costs between 2,250 and 2,400 Danish kroner ($AU472-$AU504), not including drinks. Over three hours and 20 unbelievable courses, however, I had my mind opened to the incredible possibilities that vegetable-based cooking can achieve.
But before the food, let’s talk about actually getting into the restaurant.
Getting a reservation at Noma isn’t as simple as just going online, or giving the restaurant a call, and is much more like trying to get tickets to a festival or major concert. Noma releases reservations three times over the course of the year, and if you want to stand a chance of getting a table, you’re going to need to be on the Noma website the minute booking opens. Once you manage to secure a table, you’ll need to pay for your food upfront.
A system put in place by many fine dining restaurants in recent years, effectively buying a ticket for your meal discourages no shows, and allows the business to sink more money into ingredients. It’s painful at first – my table of four, which I booked back in March for my July reservation, cost me almost $AU2,027 four months before actually eating – but it does mean that all you have to pay for on the day is your drinks.
Now, onto the meal. After passing Ali Sonko and his smile, you walk down a beautiful flower-lined avenue before entering Noma.
There you’re greeted by virtually every single member of staff with a cheery hello, before being led past the open-plan kitchen to your table.
You’re immediately presented with your first dish — a potted plant. Mine was the herb thyme.
Me and the rest of my party were a little confused initially. On my previous visit in 2011 I’d also been given a potted plant near the start of the meal, but with more explanation of what I should do (pull out the radishes buried in the plant’s edible soil). This time, we were left to explore the plant, before eventually being told to look for a straw.
On finding it, we were greeted by possibly the most delicious soup I have ever tasted. Imagine the best mashed potatoes you have ever had, then imagine it was a drinkable liquid, then times that by 10.
After draining every possible drop of the heavenly soup, our next course, a tart of crisp potato and nasturtium flowers, alongside sea buckthorn jelly shaped like a butterfly, was swiftly upon us.
Early courses at Noma come in rapid succession, with five served in about 20 minutes at the start of the meal.
Massimo Bottura, the owner of Italy’s Osteria Francescana, the current number one restaurant in the world, speaks of a meal in terms of an opera – it should ebb and flow, with peaks of excitement, periods of calm, and ultimately, a grand finale. Redzepi and his team at Noma clearly subscribe to a similar philosophy, with the pace of the meal changing around four times over our three hour lunch.
Following on from the nasturtium tart, everyone at the table was presented with a vibrant green tangle that would have looked more at home on a beach than in one of the world’s most exciting restaurants. And that’s exactly where it had come from, as this was a dish of various seaweeds, foraged from beaches around Copenhagen. If you’ve ever had sushi, you’ll likely have eaten nori, the green pressed seaweed used to wrap sushi rolls, but this was a whole different experience. Salty, vegetal, and crisp, the dish tasted like what a walk by the shore smells like.
Next up was a quail’s egg cooked at exactly 129 degrees, topped with a “chorizo” made from rose hips, the fragrant berries which grow on rose bushes.
Despite containing no meat, this tasted genuinely like the Spanish sausage, with perfect spicing and a chewy consistency. Dishes that followed the egg included a dehydrated cucumber skin cannelloni filled with a puree of nuts from the beech tree, and morel mushrooms picked last year and preserved until serving (both are pictured later on).
One of the most striking and unusual details of a meal at Noma is that rather than being served your food by dedicated wait staff, many of the courses are brought to the table by the chefs who have cooked them.
This allows the staff to explain the inspiration behind the food they have created.
This dish – a walnut “tofu” served with a sauce made from sunflower seeds and crisp rose petals – was, our server explained, inspired by the restaurant’s Mexican pop-up. This was actually the one dish in the meal I did not enjoy, mainly because I dislike the texture of tofu.
The meal continued to build towards its crescendo with a succession of dishes alternating between rich and starchy, to light and refreshing.
For every caramelised milk stuffed with cheese and truffles, there was a dish of peas and cream, and for every deep-fried marigold flower with an egg yolk and whisky sauce, there was a berry and fava bean salad served ceviche style with a horseradish oil (my favourite dish of the meal).
Eventually, however, we reached the zenith of a truly astonishing meal — vegetarian shawarma.
For the uninitiated, shawarma is a Middle Eastern dish of roasted meat (generally lamb or chicken) which is marinated in around 10 different spices before being cooked slowly on a spit. For Noma’s vegetable based menu, the restaurant swapped out the meat for celeriac and truffles. The result was the richest, most decadent vegetarian dish you could possibly imagine.
Earthy, salty, sweet, and amazingly meaty, it’s entirely possible that had I not known this was a vegetable based dish, I’d have thought it was a piece of slow roasted meat.
An accusation often levelled at fine dining restaurants is that while the food looks and tastes amazing, portions are so small that you end up wanting another meal. After the shawarma, that certainly wasn’t the case, and all four diners at my table were feeling the same kind of full one feel after a big homecooked meal.
Sadly for our waistbands, but luckily for our taste buds, we had three desserts to come. The first, a haute cuisine take on berries and cream which was described by our server as “much better than my mum’s version.”
Next came a dish one of our servers earlier in the meal had described as “controversial.”
It turned out to be a pancake made from mouldy barley – created in the style of the Japanese mould koji, which is used in the fermentation of soy sauce, miso, and the production of sake. Noma devotes a huge amount of effort and time to fermentation, experimenting with all manner of preparations. A whole area of the back of the restaurant, known as the “Fermentation Lab,” is devoted to such processes.
The dessert was served wrapped around an ice cream of plum seeds in essentially the fanciest ice cream sandwich you’ll ever eat. The texture of the mould was akin to the outside of a really good goat’s cheese, while the filling tasted almond like. The dish was divisive. I loved it – my mother, not so much. It was certainly interesting, and also provided a perfect snippet of Noma’s goal in pushing the boundaries of what we eat.
People are happy to eat blue cheese and the mould on the outside of salamis, so why not have a dish of just mould?
Just as it started, our epic, three hour long lunch ended with a potted plant.
This time, however, it wasn’t just for serving soup. It turned out that the whole thing was edible. A cake of chocolate and the delicate perfume roses, served alongside a hunting knife for slicing. Sadly, I failed to get a picture of the cut cake, but it’s safe to say it was a thing of beauty.
And there, our meal ended. Three hours, 20 courses, and more than $AU470 later, we were finished, with full stomachs and expanded minds.
Noma is, in many ways, more than a meal. It’s lunch, a show, a lesson on agriculture and Danish history, and a trip to an exhibition all rolled into one.
The food won’t be for everyone, and I certainly wouldn’t want to make it my weekly spot for eating out — even if I could afford it.
But, in terms of experiences, it’s utterly stunning. If you ever get the chance to visit, take it with both hands. You’ll leave a hell of a lot poorer, but you won’t regret it.
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