Sunday, December 18, 2011

Noma, Copenhagen. The World's "Best Restaurant"...

"Was it good?"

Everyone (who is foodie/geeky) has been asking me this since I got back to Hong Kong.

"It was interesting," has been my default answer, as a way of hedging my argument (and buying time to give it some more thought).

I want to just blurt, "no, the food wasn't the best I've had" but I think Noma deserves more than that (honest as that was). I've been putting off this post because I've been having an internal argument with myself about this, and the other obvious fact that it's been named "World's Best Restaurant" by the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants award two years in a row.

Yes, this is edible - Malt flatbread and juniper
As I think about this meal, I'm trying to remove it from all the hoo-ha of it being the No. 1 restaurant in the world etc. and simply comparing it to my personal dining experiences. Although of course, after experiencing this 12-course lunch for myself, I do wonder why it's the World's Number 1 restaurant. (The 12-course is usually for dinner, but if you come early enough for lunch, you can have it too).

Moss and cep
The pleasures of thinking about a concept vs. the pleasures of taste

That was the big question in my head while I was downing the 12+ courses. (12+ because there was a procession of "snacks" beforehand - no, not pretzel chips or olives).

I decided that both are important, but they're not equal. There's a a hierarchy. It must pass the "does it taste good" test, before it can even be allowed to even take the "what's it making me think" test. I guess I am shallow like that. My argument is, no one opens a restaurant, especially one with which they hope to use to affect the rest of the culinary world, to serve bad food.

Not that Noma's food was bad though, actually it was overall, taste-wise, very interesting. On a technical level, things were cooked perfectly and they displayed the use of some cool new tools and techniques. As far as I could tell, results were as they intended (e.g. if they wanted something cooked medium rare, it would be; fragrances came out of the oils; chars were balanced; things were made into sufficiently light parfaits etc.).

However, if we take the view that cooking here is art, that would be akin to reducing art to technical accuracy... which opens a rather large can of worms, and simply crushes the aforementioned hierarchy. Is the question then, what is this food intended to be?

Blue mussels
Thanks to Noma, we're hearing "new Nordic" a lot. Rene Redzepi said to Edible Selby (NY Times' T Magazine) that it's food that could only "happen on that specific place on earth, in that specific moment". One of the manifestations of that is foraging, which is awesome when you know what you're doing. The philosophy is excellent, if you ask me. I view it in two ways. One, pushing the boundaries of the contemporary culinary landscape. Redzepi is taking us beyond Adria's avant garde (or 'molecular', a term that Ferran himself doesn't like or use for his own food), into getting to know our food in its most concentrated, pure form. The other way is thinking about how a lot of the food seemed "raw" or unadulterated. I don't mean that we were literally served raw food (although some of it was), but that the flavours of the components of each dish seemed like they were always a distillation of the original, to bring a more intense form of the original.

Pork skin and blackcurrant
Take these pork rinds for example. The pork "skin" at the top was actually a berry film. Extremely sharp and hardly mistakable for anything else, but the appearance plays with your head a little, especially when the bottom part really is pork skin.

Leek and parsley

I feel like Noma is telling the story - a story of food as it is in Denmark - here and now. It's not just about seasonality, however. The 'here and now' encompasses knowledge and influences from the past, just like everything else.

Cookies and cheese
Imagine there were intangible 'prints' in fabric, like what the person who wove it was thinking when they were working on that patch - these are things that can't be picked up by the naked eye, but were undeniably integral to the production of the fabric. I guess it's a "spirit"? From what we ate, I felt like this was a crash course in the "spirit" of Denmark. There was a clear appreciation and dedication towards the passing of seasons, and their own natural environment - the sea (mussels, oysters) and land (herbs, blackcurrants, "vintage" carrots, pork, venison), which also references their traditions - the "cookies" that came in a blue tin - very Danish - and perhaps even less obvious things us outsiders wouldn't have picked up on.

Potato and chicken liver
In terms of the cooking, I must say I liked the snacks (ends with the "toast" with vinegar) a lot more than the main dishes. They were more playful, in presentation and concept, and most of them simply popped with interesting flavours.

Pickled and smoked quail's egg
These eggs for example, were smoked in the little egg-shaped case as they were being delivered. The eggs themselves were also soft-boiled to perfection and were enveloped in a lovely, light, mellow tone of hay.

Radish, soil and grass
Ah, soil, probably what balsamic glaze was in the early noughties, or maybe I'm being to harsh. This was much less fussy than some other 'soils' I've eaten though, and takes the idea quite literally, whereby diners need to dig the baby carrots out of the pot themselves.

Toast and herbs, smoked cod roe and vinegar
The vinegar was powdered and is what you see sprinkled on top. A delicious combination hitting all the right notes - the salty pang of roe, plus smokiness, fresh 'green-ness' of herbs, the sour tingle of powdered vinegar. As the last 'course' in the snacks round, it set the bar really high.

Bread with virgin butter (rear) and lard and crackling (front)
In case anyone asks, virgin butter is half-way churned butter, and has nothing to do with nuns. It's made in a tiny dairy in Sweden. From what I understand, there's still a bit of buttermilk in it which gives it a slight tartness and is also feather-light, like an even lighter version of whipped butter. Needless to say, the bread was also amazing. The bread I had in Copenhagen was totally on par with the best I had in San Francisco and Melbourne.

Apple and Jerusalem artichoke, garden sorrel and coriander
The main meal kicks off with this apple, the dusting of which is actually made with the skin of apples. Thus begins many courses of very light, cold, room temp or lukewarm (but never scorching or even very warm), fruit and herb-heavy dishes that, while well-executed, seemed a bit monotonous.

Sea urchin and dill, cucumber and cream
This was probably my favourite dish - the sea urchin like the sea itself distilled, and yes, it was beautiful to look at (all the dishes were).

Biodynamic grains and watercress, dried scallops and beech nuts
Those bronze chips were the scallops. I expected the intensity of Chinese-style dried seafood (if you've walked through the streets full of dried seafood shops in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, you'll know what I mean), but it was hardly that. In fact, I thought the grains offered more flavour.

Sauces were served at the table for a number of dishes. Actually, interacting with the staff was one of the nicest things about the meal. Usually the chef who prepared the dish would come out and introduce it to you at the table. Their enthusiasm was clear and fairly infectious.

Chestnut and lörjrom
Raw chestnuts - I don't think I'd ever had them before! I have to say I prefer them cooked, and, maybe I'm becoming a typical old Chinese lady, but having a continuous flow of so many raw, cold-to-tepid courses wasn't quite agreeing with me, especially considering this is northern Europe and we were diving headfirst into winter.

Onion and thyme, gooseberry juice
Every dish was practically a still life. I mean, who can make a few layers of a pearl onion with a bit of clear juice look like this?

Pike perch and cabbage
Eventually we go onto "heavier" dishes, with a constant motif of greens and some ashes here and there.

Carrot and truffles
The carrots are actually naturally deep purple like that, and they call them "vintage" carrots as they'd been sitting in the soil for much longer than usual. The story is that Rene Redzepi went to visit a farmer one ay and he was looking for veg. As it was the middle of winter, there wasn't much, the farmer confessed, except some carrots that he hadn't dug up yet. They dug them up and found them to be extremely sweet, as the sugars had become concentrated while underground, donc voila.

Pickled vegetables and bone marrow
So pretty, but (and I feel really bad saying this) I couldn't really distinguish between the vegetables after they'd been pickled. Of course, I can look at each one and tell you, but when I was eating them - not really. It was just all slightly tart and had a little crunch. Nice, but it looked so painstakingly put together, I feel bad I didn't 'taste' more. The bone marrow, I thought, could have been grilled or caramelised somehow to provide a contrast in texture and flavour, and to bring out the richness of marrow.

Venison and walnuts, bitter greens and juniper
This is the dish I remember best from the meal, and it's because of the idea behind it. It's the tenderloin (I think) of venison, with raw walnuts and various greens that the deer I was eating would also have eaten. The 'logic' is almost perverse, but if you think about it, many classic food combinations simply exist because things are grown in close proximity, with similar climatic requirements - tomato and basil, pork and apples, soy sauce and rice...?

Gammel Dansk (frozen apple dessert)
The old Chinese lady in me is a little frustrated at this point - frozen dessert and all - but I suppose it's part of the cultural experience. Perhaps being in the cold all the time makes the Danish less fussed about food getting (or being) cold? I do apologise for sounding so narrow-minded - I just can't help but feel that this temperature issue really put a damper on things for me...

Pear tree!
The green sponge was actually a creamy, aerated parfait, a little aspect of technique that gets me quite excited, but probably only because people around the world haven't grossly over-/misused it just yet.

Bone marrow toffees
By the time our petit fours came, the sun had completely set, and the staff were pretty insistent on getting us out the door at 4pm sharp. We weren't the most organised group (when we arrived, I thought the table was for 6 people, but we'd booked for 8, but in fact, in the end we did have 8. And our party arrived a bit late etc.) but I couldn't help but feel that we were unwelcome sometimes, particularly upon arriving & leaving and interacting with the maitre d'. We weren't the perfect customers, but I don't think we were horrible enough to be made to feel unwelcome either.

Marshmallows on crackers, coated in chocolate
Anyway, the petit fours were nice, but not as exciting as the rest of the meal. The bone marrow toffees left a question mark in my mind because they were exactly like normal toffees without the (delicious) taste of butter. The marrow provided very little in the way of richness.

Chocolate-covered potato chips with rosemary(?)
Of all the meals I've eaten in my life, was this number 1? No. But do I regret coming all this way for a lunch? No. If I were to help justify its standing, it would be because the restaurant's philosophy combines the technology and understanding gained from the elBulli years with the simple, back-to-basics concept of eating local and pre-agriculture know-how of foraging. The combination is pushing the envelope, conceptually, but while a concept nourishes the mind, I can't eat a concept. So we're back at square one.

It was interesting.

Strandgade 93
+45 3296 3297
Bookings are taken via their online system only and generally open 3 months ahead. Check the website for the exact date.

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  1. Nice! I've been waiting for this post for a while...

    Since I didn't have the food, I can't pass judgement on it. But I would agree with you that food has to taste good first and foremost. If a restaurant can't dazzle your palate, then it doesn't deserve to be called a good restaurant. Philosophy, technique, presentation... blah blah blah.

    El Bulli blew my mind becos the food tasted good AND they used interesting techniques that played with our preconceived notions about particular ingredients. But when you get down to it, it was the simplicity and purity of flavors that really got me.

    Maybe one day I'll find time to make it to Denmark...


    fantastic taste > anything else, in my book (but I am also superficial, so I love looking at them beautiful food, and i adore stories and concepts behind anything. howwww? can't we have it all?)

    world's best anything...ahem...cough cough. but anyway, tonight you'll taste the world's best fish siu mai according to meeeeee hihihiyyy

  3. Great and nice lengthy read (and love the new camera and pictures as well)...

    What is quite interesting is that although I haven't eaten at Noma and can't see myself ever bothering I am already recognising and have eaten a mongrel assortment of what they are doing -smoked ingredients (especially with hay), light natural foams and yoghurts and a more elemental use of vegetables.

    It will be interesting to see where such influences ultimately lead. However, at the moment, I still prefer to joy of the Med and the rambunctious flavours of Asia to the foraged basics of the North.

  4. It looks like a meal that I would still be hungry after the 12 courses. That's the Chinese lady in me talking. :)

  5. Excellent review. I think I agree with 95% of what you say! :)
    After having worked for a week with Noma's ex-sous chef in our kitchen where he was promoting Nordic food, I can relate to everything you write and the dishes I saw on your photos are following the feel of what he was doing here. ( )

    Amazing food, clean flavors, perfect cooking methods. Really spot on cuisine!

    That said, I find the sparkling water listing questionable - not for Noma, but as a listing in itself... one day we should have a coffee together! :)

  6. I like the way you started and ended the post with "It was interesting". You are totally driving home the point.

    And oh yes, lovely photos!

  7. Good review.

    I think 2 specific subjects are presented here:

    1) Food and Media
    2) Noma

    1) Food and Media. I think because it was rated No.1 twice by the media, in essence, affected your dining experience - heck ONLY because of the media did you bother to cross half the world to experience the food.

    This means a few things. The media has influenced your experience; the media has influenced the restaurants ability to provide you with a direct experience (ie just between you and the restaurant); and the media has now directly involved itself with the majority of the restaurants diners' experience.

    There is no longer a direct relationship between the restaurant and the diner. The media has provided a level of expectation that the restaurant HAS to manage. Its both a blessing and a burden. It really depends on how both the media and the restaurant want to deal with it. Most would welcome the challenge and see it as what it is: an accolade and a reward for its concept, execution and consistency. A few others might see it as a hindrance and a disempowerment of its own ability to present itself gastronomically.

    I think in this case the unfortunate situation was that the media did both you and NOMA a disservice? Or maybe NOMA was provided with an unfair addition to your expectations. Its something I guess we will both ponder as we progress down our respective careers.

    2) The subject of NOMA itself. Well as discussed we cannot really establish a fair dialogue about this because the addition of the media attention has skewed the experience.

    I guess I understand its concept as pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer cuisine based on the Nordic tradition. However as some said, the basic fundamentals of dining has to be both acknowledged and attended to; did you enjoy it and did it taste good? I think NOMA might have had a better chance if it was, theoretically, presented with a situation where it was just them and you. Unfortunately the burden of the media may or may not have affected the experience both from your perspective and their added requirements to meet expectations.

    Would you have enjoyed it better if you were presented with some obscure Nordic restaurant providing molecular dining? Possibly. You would have been much more adventurous, less expectant of a cataclysmic life-changing meal and thus enjoyed it more. You also would not had judged it upon such stringent criteria and perhaps not compared it to the best dining moment of your life, as I think you were?

    Then there's the point; it wasn't very nice.

    But it was interesting (at least).


  8. Nice write up and I somehow felt that the recipes sounded almost a bit too simple for World's No. 1 restaurant, but I do admire the idea behind it.

    I can't help but notice that almost all dishes including dessert had 'green colour' in it. May be this small observed detail is hinting or summarising the specific concept they're trying to portray. *not saying they're trying too hard :)

  9. I was offered the chance to dine at Noma in 2008 & didn't take it. How foolish was that?!?

    At the extreme high end, food becomes something like an art form. And, there's plenty of art that I love experiencing at a gallery, but would never hang on my walls at home, even if I could afford to (Rothko and Matisse come to mind).

    Thanks for the review!

  10. I agree with how you've laid it out. Perhaps the Asian in us tells us that when it comes to food, it's about how it tastes first and foremost. However, the old adage of 色香味齐全 does not necessarily list it in that order and actually lists taste as last.

    What Noma does appear to do is bring the concept of food back to roots - I like that everything looks like it was picked up or fished and then plated, sans cooking. Very much how we think about the integrity of food sources.

    I don't know what criteria for "best" at San Pellegrino is but taste must feature somewhere. Perhaps the weighting for concept was so overwhelming that it pulled up the overall marks including a "not so best" for taste?

    But then again, it's all subjective. Perhaps our Asian palates don't really like Nordic too much? But whatever it is, the experience and your post certainly created a good and worthy debate around it. That's gotta be worth something.

  11. I really loved reading this review as I think it is one of the problems of ridiculous things like World's 50 Best Restaurant Lists (has one person even been to all 50 restaurants on the list let alone a sampling of restaurants in a variety of countries?) which lead to hype which mean your meal at Noma could only be a little disappointing. Interesting rather than mind blowing. I had to laugh at you getting jaded about soil - a sign of too much fine dining! I feel almost like I have eaten at Noma after reading this and love the beautiful photography as well. Lens details?

  12. Thanks all for your comments - it was really interesting to see how you all felt too.

    @Gourmet Chick - the lens is a Canon 50mm f1.4 USM and I'm using the 600D. It's my favourite thus far (not that I'm an expert - I only have 2 lenses!)

  13. very good and honest write up, you old Chinese lady ;)

    I completely agree with you and the rest of commenters, although I like to visit these kind of restaurants to experience, learn and discover; yet they are not my cup of (hot) tea.

    ps: 2 lenses is a v good start.

  14. BRILLIANT writing.

    & mouthwatering food porn.

    i think i'd enjoy Noma... i like its aesthetics. It's got that Nordic wabisabi thing going on.

    & probably the simplicity of the flavours.

  15. Hello! I knew about your blog, but first time I've poked around! Love the writing style, honesty and thought behind this post. I can totally relate and I know exactly how you feel when people ask for you opinion on a restaurant right away. I need some time to think. I appreciate the work you put into this blog and as a fellow blogger who doesn't get to read too many blogs, this is one I will return to!