From our distant shores, most of the 'World's 50 Best Restaurants' seem quite far removed for us. Considering we have also found a fair number of the fashion for foams, spheres, leathers and soils a bit underwhelming flavour wise and having never experienced 'El Bulli' (the home of it all), we approach a visit to one such establishment - whose owner sprang from there - with some degree of cynicism.
This restaurant has won the title of 'World's Best Restaurant' for three consecutive years by serving twigs, ant dressing and moss, from a menu based on 'foraging', making us wonder whether the culinary world hadn't just created the next bit of carnival-style hype to keep itself interested.
So, when we actually secured a table (which are like hens' teeth) at Noma, we were wondering whether it was going to more of an exercise in politeness rather than pleasure, and just another rich, long meal, more peculiar than most, to challenge the waistline.
We had just eaten at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Stockholm the night before. The eight courses had some nice touches, however it was not only the huge cost which left us with indigestion, but also the meal itself. The meal at the famed 'Noma' was said to be 19 courses ... oh dear!
As the taxi driver was negotiating road works to get us there he commented on how ironic it was that "the best restaurant in the world had the worst road to get to it" (we knew 'Noma' recently officially ceded the title, however the locals obviously have their own view!). So he dropped us round the back and we walked past the smell of burning charcoal in an enclosed outdoor cooking area to the front entrance. We were greeted by a tall slim man with a pleasant smile - just as we had got out the iPhone to take a 'touristy' shot of ourselves. He offered to photograph the three of us together, so, feeling a little gauche, we took him up on the offer.
Then we walked through the appealing entrance to be greeted by what seemed a whole restaurant team en masse! "Oh my God" we thought, being the shy Kiwis we are "how do we respond to this???" So, feeling like royalty under a paparazzi spotlight, we smiled graciously and tried not to look quite as overwhelmed as we felt. Though it did occur to me that one of those faces was a little familiar... and actually it seemed like a genuinely warm welcome, and the place was a cosy temperature after the chill outside, and what a lovely ambiance with blue/grey circular wooden tables, old beams and comfortable looking chairs - with what looked like some sort of animal pelt on the back of them.
We were seated in a relaxed and friendly manner - no pompous formality here - offered a glass of Champagne, given the explanation that the first ten dishes would be shared and would be arriving at a fast pace, followed by individual servings. Then a smiling René Redzepi himself appeared for a moment to greet us and mentioned that he had enjoyed meeting fellow chef Michael Meredith and that there were a couple of Antipodeans in his crew.
At that point three raw potatoes arrived with a straw in them (not made from plastic of course, but of plant material). Hmmm. This looked a little indigestible, what was the deal here? It was explained that we should not dally but sip immediately as it was best warm - and the contents were some sort of herbal infusion. Obediently we did as we were told - and surprise, surprise, the contents were quite light and delicious. The dish was called Nordic coconut. That showed a sense of humour - and how the hell did they hollow out the potato leaving such a small hole anyway?!
No time to ponder, as along came Stuart, that familiar face, the former head chef at District Dining in Auckland, with what appeared to be a bunch of herbs in a flowerpot with three twigs in it. This, he told us, was Malt flatbread and juniper, and there was a small round dish of something to dip it in. Ahhh, the famous 'twigs' - so that is what they were! Not bad actually, and the dipping sauce again was light and delicious. Just as we were wondering whether we were meant to eat the herbs, Stuart reappeared and removed them discreetly to the side, where they sat ornamentally for most of the rest of the meal.
The kitchen at Noma is very multi-national, as the talented, curious and fortunate flock to experience time there under their chef internship program. Some are then employed at Noma if positions are available, as was the case with Stuart, and also Hamish who had worked at Craggy Range's Terroir in Hawke's Bay. We met Hamish when he brought a dish to our table - because that is what happens here; you are mainly served by the fifteen chefs from the open kitchen downstairs, with genuine warmth and also with knowledge. As the chefs impart the ingredients, often the provenance of each dish and how they have prepared it, you quickly feel very engaged yourself. The camaraderie of the team is obvious.
The number of chefs visible in the kitchen downstairs was just the tip of the iceberg. There were 35 more interns upstairs who do the prep, as well as René's close, small senior development team. It does seem that everyone at Noma contributes ideas, goes foraging, and is generally very involved with both the place itself and all René offers in terms of participation and teaching. There is even a boat moored outside with a couple of Harvard graduates doing research into sustainable food of the future, including things like insects. But back to the food - Stuart would give us a tour later.
The next dish on offer was moss. Specifically, it was Reindeer moss, dusted with cep powder which was just quite crunchy and light with a delicate flavour. No problem with devouring that, and what a novel concept.
An old fashioned biscuit tin arrived and the lid was removed to reveal three Cheese cookies with a pesto of rocket and stems - very tasty. This was quickly followed by Berries and roses, Dried carrot and sorrel then a lidded preserving jar full of ice was presented and when we opened it and the vapour dissipated, there were three live and wriggling small shrimps. A small dish of butter was placed beside it and we were told, "brush them through this" I love raw fish, and don't mind live shrimp, particularly with soft shells, but Helen did go rather pale and hesitated a little...
The next offering of Pickled and smoked quail eggs appealed to her much more! So on we went to enjoy Caramelised milk and cod liver, Aebleskiver and muikku (a very cute take on a fish ball with a brioche dough), Sorrel and nasturtium, and the final appetizer: Leek and cod roe. Now this may all sound like a lot, but the servings are small and the food is light and delicately balanced, with very clean flavours. The use of herbs and oils, as opposed to heavy fats, meant we did not feel overly full.
Of course, I should also mention the delicious bread; baked for each service, which comes wrapped in wool. This is accompanied by some of the nicest butter you will ever try, churned by a bloke called Patrick in the north of Sweden. Equally delicious, the alternative was pork lard, topped by crunchy crumbs of onion and pork crackling. The bread is frequently replaced if they consider it has cooled too much - very dangerous!
We decided to take the option of wine matching rather than choose a bottle ourselves as we were unfamiliar with the list. All 'natural' wines and really, it was obvious by now, this was a very special place and the food intriguing, so we decided the best path was to savour the entire experience. After all, Denmark is not normally on our food trail.
Again, there was a Kiwi connection as the sommelier Anders talked about one of the wines, a 2011 Cuvée Margeurite by Domaine Matassa, being made by three partners - one of whom is Kiwi Tom Lubbe, who just happened to be a Sabato client before he disappeared into the south of France - possibly forever. From this point on the single portions commenced, and although this is going to sound like a lot of food, it worked as it was all so very digestible and very easy to eat.They are as follows:
Fresh milk curd and blueberry preserves, Dried scallops and beech nuts with biodynamic grains and watercress, Onion and fermented pears (I think this was where woodland ants featured; not whole and identifiable, but ground to add a lemony lift to the dressing, that worked!), Beets and plums, Potato and bleak fish roe, Pike, perch and cabbages - finished with a light foam, Verbena and dill, Fish head and Beef rib and lingonberries - this had been cured in clarified butter for three days, and was not to everyone's liking, as the woman on the table next to us loudly voiced her opinion that it was rotten. The complaint was beautifully addressed by a manager expressing a wish that she only enjoy what was on offer and removing it without any fuss.
The last 'formal' courses were three desserts: Quince and milk (like little ravioli); Gammel dansk, a partially-set milky dish with crunchy milk crystals in it, topped with a nettle sauce - sounds peculiar, but ate extremely well. Followed by Potatoes and plums - three tasty little quenelles, one of which was a light cream - all very delicious. Yes, 24 courses!
Just when we thought the experience was over, we were told: "there is a table for you in the other room", so off we went, to be offered excellent coffee, tea, and more surprises: Single wraps of beetroot with liquorice powder, and Crunchy pork skin covered with chocolate and berries. Honestly, a final winning touch.
By then it was around 4:15pm, so we would not have begrudged Stuart a break, as we had started at midday and we knew they were to do this all over again around 6 pm. However, Noma knows how to treasure their guests and we were taken around the open kitchen, out the back to the barbeque area, upstairs to see the private dining room then through another kitchen full of chefs doing prep and finally into the staff dining room. All staff sit down and eat together - it's a place attractive enough to open as a separate café, with generous tables, stacks of cookbooks, spaces for laptops and an area growing some greens under pink lights.
In an offshoot, but very much part of it, is a small test kitchen where we found René and his test kitchen team in deep discussion.
Gracious man that he is, he broke away to ask whether we had enjoyed our meal, pose for photos and print us out a list of further dining recommendations. These included Restaurant Bror, a restaurant recently opened by two of his ex-sous chefs, based along similar lines food wise (jokingly referred to as the 'staff canteen' as many of the Noma crew are to be found eating there on a Sunday night), though much simpler in approach, a pretty groovy cocktail bar called Ruby and very good casual fish restaurant by the name of Kodbyens Fiskebar which we tried and enjoyed.
Noma offers something far beyond the usual dining experience. Some reviews describe it as 'life changing' and you can see why, others do not like it at all, so it really is a matter of personal taste. We all loved it. Everyone is greeted as warmly as we were, and if you are interested you are enthusiastically taken behind the scenes afterwards. The place is not stuffy - many clients were informally dressed in nice jeans. There were romantic couples, friends, people who were on business and one couple who had their two teenage daughters with them, one of whom was visibly bored and kept getting up to go outside or threw her legs over the sides of the chair during the short amount of time she was seated. Perhaps the experience was lost on her, I'm sure many would have wished to take her place. The tables are generously spaced, so you can actually ignore your fellow diners if you so wish.
Noma truly is a special place, headed by René, assisted by his wife Nadine, who handles the bookings (always a woman behind the man!), and staffed by people who take genuine pleasure in offering you their best.
When you reflect on the boat moored outside and mention of research into how to feed the world population in the future, somehow it also seems there is a level way beyond what you experience and enjoy as a unique restaurant offering at Noma. Something a little more reminiscent of Noah and his ark perhaps...