Before I begin, I would like to introduce myself. I am the eldest of DocSconz’s oft-mentioned sons, and have learned to harbor a great appreciation for good food as a result of my upbringing. At school in Hanover, New Hampshire, my options are often limited, particularly for a student with a small budget. The occasional meal at Carpenter & Main (briefly mentioned here: http://docsconz.typepad.com/docsconz_the_blog/2009/04/index.html) serves as a welcome respite from the repetitive dining halls and ill-equipped kitchens, but its prices prevent more than the occasional visit.
My boring diet was one reason why I decided to apply for one of Dartmouth’s vaunted Foreign Study Programs, the Geography study abroad in Prague. Although the ability to experience traditional Czech cuisine was appealing, I was more excited by the opportunity it would present me to do some traveling and dining before classes began. I first met Chef René Redzepi at a cocktail reception during the 2008 Star Chefs Conference in New York, where my father introduced him to me as one of the best chefs in the world. At the time, I was just learning that a revolutionary culinary scene was emerging in Scandinavia, but I still had some difficulty accepting that such a thing could occur in the region that counts lutefisk among its most popular dishes. Still, my curiosity was piqued, so when I made my plans for my pre-study travel, I made sure to reserve a table at noma for my travel-buddy Austin and I. My dad, unable to travel to Copenhagen on such short notice, would live vicariously through me.
As it turned out, my travel schedule permitted me only that one night in Copenhagen, so in effect Austin and I were traveling there exclusively to dine at noma. I’m glad we made the trip. Although some deception by Google Maps caused us to take a while to actually find the restaurant, we managed to allow ourselves enough time to arrive early. noma is beautifully situated at the far corner of the North Atlantic House, a site dedicated to the preservation of North Atlantic culture. Its other two sides are surrounded by harbor, making for a wonderful view of downtown as twilight sets in.
When we entered, we found that we were among the only diners there, but others soon began to fill in the empty tables. One thing that I noticed over the course of the night was that noma would only fill a table once a night. I think that this approach makes sense, especially in the context of a restaurant that focuses on tasting menus. It would simply be a mistake to rush dishes from the kitchen and people out the door to make room for new customers – like any great restaurant, Chef Redzepi and the staff at noma recognize that good pacing is key to a good meal, and as it turns out, the pacing was flawless. Austin and I were brought a new morsel of food almost every twenty minutes, giving us ample time to savor our new course, but not enough time for us to grow restless while waiting for more.
At this point, I would like to offer my apologies for the lack of gastro-photography – we had a camera, but it was merely a point-and-shoot. Its photographs do not do justice to the beauty of each dish.
As we got comfortable at the table, the friendly and knowledgeable sommelier asked us if we would like anything to drink before we got started. Austin and I were baffled – should we go for the homemade fruit or vegetable juices, or maybe a flute of champagne? We ended up with neither. I hate to reinforce the stereotype of the beer-drinking student, but Austin and I couldn’t help but opt for the fresh, home-recipe Pilsner-style beer from noma’s own brewery outside of the city. The beer was served in a wine glass, and were it not for the foam head I could have mistaken it for a glass of white. Upon reflection, the flavors of the beer foreshadowed the style of the meal that we were about to enjoy – it was crisp, refreshing, and pleasantly aromatic.
While I am on the topic of drinks, I suppose now would be a good time to briefly delve into our pairing dilemma. While I would have liked to opt for the full pairing to go with the twelve-course tasting menu, our budgets forced us to restrain ourselves a bit, so I asked the sommelier if he might be able to set up some pairings so that we could come as close to experiencing the best of the tasting menu as possible, while not breaking the bank. I have to commend the man because he did a marvelous job, almost on the fly. The seafood-heavy menu called for a majority of whites throughout, with the exception of a red to pair with two turf courses toward the end. Surprisingly, one of my favorite pairings was a glass of exceptionally flavorful carrot juice, which was served with two earthy dishes in the middle of the meal.
It has now come time to get to the main event, the food. Our meal began with a series of seven “snacks”, which lived up to their name quite well. These were not included on the tasting menu, but it appeared as though other tables were getting a similar treatment. The concept behind noma’s snacks is that they are bite-size pieces that stand on their own, and that the diner is supposed to eat with his hands. Some of our favorite tastes were served as snacks, and Austin and I reached a consensus that the pickled and smoked quail egg was our favorite snack of the bunch. It was served without its shell and prepared so that the white functioned as the solid outer section and the yolk exploded into an incredibly rich and buttery sensation as I popped it in my mouth. To reference my childhood, it felt like a tiny Jell-O Easter Egg in my hand, and it blew up like a Gusher fruit-snack as I bit down on it.
The other snacks were all phenomenal, but none of them stood out from the rest like the quail egg did. In addition to the egg, we were treated to snacks like a Speck-flavored cookie on top of an elderberry one, home-grown radishes served in a pot, with edible malt soil and yogurt, and a veritable garden placed on top of home-baked crisps. Along with the snacks, we were served some of the crustiest yet tender bread that I’ve ever eaten. It was made with special Danish wheat, and had a nice, hearty flavor. We were given rendered pork fat with bacon salt and some rich butter to spread. It’s not surprising that they take their bread seriously. Unfortunately, time has taken my memory of some of the other snacks and their ingredients, though if I think hard enough I can still taste them.
Although the snacks were delicious, they were not substantial. With impeccable timing, the noma staff brought us the first course of the “real” menu just as Austin and I devoured the rest of the bread. Entitled “Razor Clam and Parsley, Dill and Mussel Juice”, the dish highlighted each of its ingredients in different ways. The clam was served raw, encased in a parsley gel with yogurt powder lined up next to it. In the bowl was a small pool of mussel juice, with dill oil forming little droplets in the juice. The eating got messy, but the clam was supremely tender – this course was a phenomenal start to the meal, and its clean flavors refreshed the palate nicely. It set the stage for the plates to come.
Next up was the “Beetroots and Sorrel, with Malt Flat Bread.” It served as an earthy contrast to the fresh, almost green-tasting plate that we were served before. The texture was also a nice contrast to the fresh clam.
Upon tasting the following dish, I was able to tell almost immediately that it would be my favorite of the night, although I wouldn’t have known it by looking at the menu. Unlike my father, I’ve never been a huge fan of uni – despite trying it multiple times, there’s usually something about the texture that bugs me. So when the “Sea Urchin and Grilled Cucumber, Dill and Cream” was served, the brilliant green and yellow-orange hues were appealing, but the knowledge of what was on the plate was not. That all changed once I took my first bite; the sweetness and crunch of the grilled cucumber was married with the rich uni flavor, while reducing the intensity of its texture. The dill complemented this almost-perfect union quite nicely, and the cream served to enhance the smooth flavor of the entire course. I was absolutely wowed by this course, in a way that was not quite replicated again through the meal. The following courses were fantastic, but I think the dish’s refusal to play to my expectations enhanced my experience two-fold.
Indeed, the cucumber and uni dish is a tough act to follow, which may be why the “Chestnuts and Bleak Roe, Walnuts and Cress Shoots” was one of my least favorite dishes. Keep in mind that this is all relative, but the water chestnuts seemed to dominate the course and it came off as rather bland in comparison to the previous dish. Perhaps contrast was the point, but it was not so memorable as some other plates I enjoyed.
Following the chestnut dish was one of the most fun dishes Austin and I enjoyed, the “Langoustine and Söl, Parsley and Seawater”. In its preparation, the langoustine was placed clean on a scorching-hot rock, so when it was brought out only one side had been cooked. It was up to us to roll it over and dip it in the spots of parsley flavor that dotted the remaining landscape of the rock, thereby cooking and flavoring it further. This dish was quite unforgettable, and the memory of the experience has preserved the flavor in my head for later enjoyment.
The “Salsify and Truffle from Gotland, Milk Skin and Rape Seed Oil” was an interesting addition to the lineup. The menu had previously been following a pattern of alternating seafood and earthy dishes, and this plate did not disrupt it. The salsify did a better job of contrasting the langoustine than the chestnuts did for the sea urchin, so I think that lead to my greater enjoyment of this dish – it felt very clean in the mouth, and the texture of the milk skin was quite unlike anything I’ve consumed before. It complemented the texture of salsify and the sauce, making for a very delicious and texturally interesting combination.
The next dish, “Vintage Potato and Whey, Lovage and Prästost” disrupted the aforementioned pattern, but it was delectable all the same. The tiny potatoes were bursting with pure, unpretentious potato flavor, and the greens and cream in the dish worked well to elicit a feeling of eating straight from the farm. I could taste the care that went into growing and preparing this dish, so that it made it my favorite earth-based dish till now.
At this point, we began to enter into the heart of the menu, signaled by the arrival of “King Crab and Mussels, Leeks and Ashes”. This, too, married disparate elements and was served with minimalism in mind - it was served as two pairs of rolls, alternating on the plate, surrounded by mussel foam and flakes. One roll was leek rolled in ash, and the other a piece of king crab. It looked and tasted simple, but the flavors were clear. I consider crab to be my favorite crustacean, so the elementary presentation and flavor only enhanced experience. Although the implementation of ash was surprising, its perfect execution was not, and it made what would have otherwise been a good dish great.
After the crab came the “Pickled Vegetables and Bone Marrow, Herbs and Bouillon,” which I think was my favorite rustic dish. I’m not sure Austin knew what to expect with the bone marrow, but after scooping marrow straight from the bone at the Boston tapas bar, Toro (discussed here: http://docsconz.typepad.com/docsconz_the_blog/2009/05/toro-tasty-tapas-in-boston.html), I knew that I was in for a treat. The acidity of the pickled vegetables foiled the creamy marrow quite nicely, and altogether made for an incredibly delicious package. It was simultaneously rich and acidic, and to be honest, just writing about it is making my mouth water.
The peak of the tasting menu manifested itself in the form of “Ox Cheek and Endive, Pickled Pear and Verbena”. Its presentation was hardly so minimal as that of the crab and leek. The ox and endive was distributed around the plate in small pieces, each piece topped with a thin sheet of pickled pear and a verbena leaf. It was a fantastic end to the savory portion of the meal. The cheek was phenomenally tender, and the endive had a slight crispness to it. The pickled pear complemented the richness of the ox very well, and the endive served as a neutral balance between the two. Despite its powerful flavors, this dish managed to strike a wonderful balance.
The dessert portions began with a full-on carrot dish, the “Carrots, Buttermilk and Anis”. Slices of differently prepared carrots, some pickled, some roasted, were arranged around a central globe of buttermilk, which in turn housed carrot ice cream. A bite of all three preparations together with the buttermilk set off an explosion on my taste buds, as the sublime sweetness of the ice cream set itself against the creamy-yet-sour buttermilk, while the pickled and roasted carrots each added hints of their respective preparations to the mix. Aside from carrot cake, I’ve never had a carrot dessert, nor do I expect to desire one again – I am perfectly content with remembering this dish as a substitute.
Afterwards came “The Snowman from Jukkasjärvi, Cloudberries and Wild Thyme.” The snowman was composed of three separate flavors – his head was a small scoop of ice cream, his torso was cloudberry sorbet, and his bottom portion was a large piece of sour meringue. He was placed on a “snow-covered” plate, which was actually cloudberry jam with more of the yogurt powder from the mussel dish. Taken altogether, the dish was at once sweet, sour and savory – much like the dish before, except with a fruity tang. Indeed, both dishes carried with them obvious connotations of the North – the buttermilk orb looked like a snowball, and the Snowman was set in a winter wonderland. It was the fruity tang, then, that made all the difference.
Our second to last course was actually a savory one, and illustrates a case in which the defiance of expectations does not necessarily have a better outcome. Austin and I were expecting another complex and sweet dessert, and although what we got was complex, it was rather far from sweet. The “Jerusalem Artichoke and Marjoram, Apple and Malt” seemed to be pretty heavily dominated by the artichoke’s flavor, which was a bit of a disappointment to us. I do not mean to say that it was a poor choice to put it on the dessert portion; in fact, it made me think more about my expectations for what a tasting menu should be, and what I expect it to be. It was almost a clever trick, and I appreciate the ingenuity that both the chef and staff had in placing that savory dish where they did in the menu. Overall, it enhanced the experience, although I did not appreciate it as much at the time.
The final course of ours is a traditional Danish breakfast, if my memory serves correctly. Called “‘Øllebrød’ and Frothed Milk, Skyr and Toasted Rye Kernels”, the variety of textures and flavors led to a sweet end to an experience that I will savor forever. The Øllebrød was a sweet, warm, oatmeal textured component to the meal, which was complemented by a slightly acidic ice cream. The rye kernels lent a nice crunch and toasty flavor to the dish, which added some more complexity to what turned out to be my favorite dessert. Eating this as the final course really reinforced the authenticity of the meal, and sealed the legitimacy of Scandinavian cuisine into my frame of mind.
To sum up the meal, it is clear to me that chef Redzepi had a lot of fun playing with contrasting flavors, both within dishes and among them. It seems to me that he deliberately ordered the menu to emphasize the contrasts between rich and light, and it seems that he has a fondness for sweet-and-sour flavors. I can’t fault him for that, as I do, too. As it is any time one goes out for dinner, the service is an important part of the experience; good service can make a forgettable meal memorable, and lazy service can make excellent food taste rotten. The service at noma was impeccable. It seemed as though a different staff member served us every new dish, and each one of them was eager to tell me about what I was going to eat, and how to eat it. The staff’s knowledge, congeniality and genuine enthusiasm served to make my night at noma even better than I could have imagined. They even managed to fit us into the small kitchen for an informative tour, too.
Although I dined at and thoroughly enjoyed my meal at el Bulli about four years ago, I savored it under my parents’ careful gaze. At noma, a (perhaps false) sense of independence pervaded my stay, which magnified my entire experience – I suppose you could regard this as a coming-of-age tale. Now, instead of learning how to identify and appreciate complex flavors, I was consulted on wine and courses, and chef Redzepi even left me a note apologizing for his absence.
As for Austin, he had never been to an avant garde restaurant before. Now he can say he’s been to the best restaurant in the world. Based on my experience there, I can say that it is truly deserving of the title. Simply put, my adventure at noma was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I strongly advise you to make the trek. You will not regret it.