The end of a great meal is always a bittersweet experience. I am exhilarated by the meal I just had, but saddened that it is done. Such was the case when Scott Boswell and I finished our dinner at noma. Our sadness, however, was considerably tempered by the fact that we would be returning to the restaurant in just a few hours for lunch, this time accompanied by our wives and my one-day-shy-of-eleven year old son. In addition, we would get to experience some of noma's culinary history. Our dinner consisted of noma's current menu and some of its newest dishes. The lunch would consist of a collection of dishes from the last three years. We left our dinner at noma the night before quite happy. We had eaten an amazing meal and were coming back for more!
The snacks we had at lunch were the same that we had at dinner the night before. A discussion of them with photos can be found here.One dish that requires a little further discussion is the live fjord shrimp. For his age, my son is a very experienced and adventurous diner, but I knew that he would be challenged eating the live fjord shrimp and he was.Rene Redzepi told us that about 90% of the people to whom he serves it are challenged by it. He says, "It's because of the eyes...an oyster, no problem, it doesn't look at you and move, but essentially it's the same thing." My son did eat it, but didn't really enjoy it and unfortunately, it put him a little on edge going into the rest of the meal. Happily, his raised defenses soon began to melt away.
At dinner, Scott and I very much enjoyed the wine pairings using the wines of the Loire Valley. Since many of the same wines would be paired with lunch, I opted to experience another side of noma that I had heard about - their natural juices, and had my lunch paired with them. Another reason for choosing the juices was that I would be having dinner later that night at Restaurant A.O.C. and wanted to limit my alcohol to remain fresh for that - or at least as fresh as possible. That didn't stop me from trying noma's own Pilsner style beer to start my meal. It was golden, hearty and refreshing.
Cucumber was the unifying bridge between the first full course and the paired juice. We were served a salad, but a salad unlike any that I had ever had before. Called "Gem Salad and Hazelnut Milk, White Currant and Juniper", the main part of the salad was the leaves and the root of a gem lettuce that had been cooked in an aromatic tea made from "wild plants." The root was then sliced and arranged on the plate looking like little white coins. The cooked leaves were arranged around the salad with a perimeter of nasturtium leaves, while the plate was dotted with sweetly tart white currants. This all rested on a small pool of hazelnut milk and was dressed on top with a vinaigrette of green juniper oil from Gotland and apple vinegar. Each plate also held a cucumber blossom that added a bit of cucumber flavor and a touch of color to the dish. The juice was a cucumber juice, which truly tasted of the essence of itself and mingled nicely with the faintly sweet salad. The dish was a lovely study in texture with no element proving overly assertive, but each adding subtle nuance.
Invasive species can be a real problem. Sometimes, however, an invasive species can be an improvement - at least culinarily. The razor clams in the next dish, Razor Clam and Parsley, Horseradish and Dill, are Pacific razor clams, which have invaded and overtaken the native variety. Chef Redzepi prefers these clams to the native North Atlantic variety, stating "they are quite larger, do extremely well in our cool waters and are extremely tasty." Not having a basis at hand to directly compare the two varieties, I can't personally confirm the differences, but these clams were certainly quite tasty, quite large and quite beautifully presented, wrapped in a shiny parsley sheet next to grated frozen horseradish with a swirl of clam and dill juice poured onto the plate. Chef Redzepi, who serve the dish, urged us to use the spoon and the fork to get each of the flavor elements in each bite. He was right about that too.
I have certainly had pineapple juice before, but this was the first time I ever had apple pine juice. The next juice pairing was apple juice infused with pine. It was a remarkably delicious combination, tart, sweet and with added depth from the pine. It was paired with another dish that I had a version of in NY at the Corton dinner, Tartar and Sorrel, Tarragon and Juniper.
One of the oldest dishes still in their rotation, the development of this dish has an interesting story. Chef Redzepi explained that when this dish was first conceived, it seemed that most new dishes were being prepared with some type of new machinery and/or new chemical. While he has nothing against either of those things, he and his crew wanted to see if they could " make a dish where we only used our hands and still make it feel innovative." They used to make this dish with a mortar, but now they do use a blender. At the Corton dinner, I was enthralled by Redzepi's skillful use of sourness, especially with sorrel. In Copenhagen, the sorrel was even more sour, but the dish was even better. As Chef Redzepi explained to us, in Denmark he is able to get wild woodsorrel, which grows in shade in forests. By virtue of being relatively sun deprived, the wood sorrel, a type of oxalis, becomes even more sour. While I enjoy sour, too much can be unpleasant. With this even more sour wood sorrel, I was even more amazed by Chef Redzepi's balancing skill. He had instructed us to pick up a little of the meat and and a little of the sorrel with our hands, dip it in crushed juniper then in a tarragon emulsion before eating it. Eating this dish was as much fun as it was delicious and it was quite delicious. The apple pine juice made a perfect pairing.
There are few things I enjoy eating more than langoustines. I was thrilled when I saw them come out on the next plate. I use the term “plate” loosely, as the langoustines were served on large stones. Nevertheless, or more likely, as a result of the stones, the dish, Langoustines and Söl, Rye and Parsley, was particularly stunning and dramatic. Once again, we were instructed to eat the langoustines with our hands, picking them up and dipping them in beads of “mayonnaise,” which was actually an emulsion made from Pacific oysters and seaweed. The protein rich oysters are simply blended with a touch of oil before the seaweed is added. The result is a deep, rich, primal oceanic flavor. The langoustines, small, but extremely flavorful, were, according to Chef Redzepi, alive just a couple of hours before. They are fished from very deep waters from a specific area of the Faroe Islands, which are located in the North Sea between Iceland and Norway, to the northwest of Scotland. They were magnificent.
Potatoes and Milk Skin, Lovage and Yogurt was really a study in potatoes, with the other ingredients used to highlight the essential potato-ness of the dish. In the center of the plate lay a very smooth potato puree made only from potatoes and potato stock without any fat. To add a little creaminess to the dish, the kitchen layered milk skin on top. Some slightly cooked small potatoes were scattered around the plate to provide textural contrasts, while chervil and watercress stems were placed to add color, flavor and visual drama. The dish was finished with a sauce made from yogurt whey and lovage oil. It was a surprisingly complex dish with many subtle nuances of flavor and texture. It was my son's favorite savory dish of the meal.
A pairing with a crazy good, flavor saturated celery juice couldn't have been better.The celery juice was carried through to the following course, King Crab and Leek, Ashes and Mussels.
The king crab, from the north of Norway, was plated next to the leeks, which had been covered in hay ash. The small logs were then bathed table-side with a foamy sauce of mussels. The plate was then sprinkled and finished with fried bread crumbs. One might think that the ash would impart a burnt or at least strongly smokey flavor to the dish, but somehow it doesn't. The overall gestalt of the dish was similar to the langoustine dish from earlier and the oyster dish from last night, incorporating very elemental and primal sea flavors and eliciting a very specific taste memory. Ash coatings seem to be a growing trend. According to the noma staff, the use of ash in food was a Viking tradition. More recently, I first became of the creative use of ash in modern cooking via Andoni Luis Aduriz, who presented his ash coated beef at Madrid Fusión several years ago. This particular dish, was put in service at noma over the past three years or so and Redzepi may have used ash before then, so it is not clear to me, if one has come from the other's influence or if they were arrived at independently. I have since seen ash used elsewhere, most recently prior to this meal at Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia, where leek ash was used in a lamb dish. This would also not be the last meal I would encounter an ash coating on this trip. The ash is certainly visually striking and all the dishes I have had with it, have been outstanding, yet I have so far been unable to discern more than a subtle flavor contribution from the ash in those dishes. Based on the evidence, I have had so far, though, I am happy to continue exploring its continued evolution.
Like the celery juice before it, noma's carrot juice spoke of the essence of the very best carrots. This was poured more for fun to taste it then it was to be a specific pairing for the next dish, Turbot and Stems.
The turbot was spectacularly delicious, served with a sauce of elderberry capers, white wine and roasted turbot bones and accompanied by celeriac, puree, beach cabbage leaves and a variety of stems and herbs. Though the plating could not be considered so, this dish, was perhaps the most classical of all that we had. It is also one of the oldest noma dishes that we had, as it has been served using different fish and accompaniments seasonally “for a long time.” This was another of my son's favorite dishes. In my estimation, fish doesn't come any better than this.
Sea buckthorn is a flavor I had been totally unfamiliar with prior to this trip to Scandinavia, but it is a flavor that I will now seek out when I can. The next dish was accompanied by a sea buckthorn juice, that was bright, tart, refreshing, addicting and colorful. Its flavor seems like it should come from a tropical fruit rather than a berry from very northern latitudes.
The parade of seafood continued with Lobster and Red Currant, Rosehip and Salad. The lobster was sauteed and served with a lobster cream that used the lobster coral, lightly cooked lettuce leaf, roasted salad root, pickled rose petals, sorrel leaves and a creamy red currant wine sauce. The lobster, barely cooked, was sweet and tender. Sorrel leaves added a nice, piquant component while the rose petals added a touch of sweetness. The dish was pure, luxurious decadence.
Our last savory dish moved away from the sea. Beef Cheek and Verbena, Pear and Endive. The cheek from ox was braised in hay at 72ºC for 24 hours and served with chicory (endive) cooked in red currant wine sauce, pear, verbena, a verbena and spinach puree and a sauce which had been cooked with chicken and brown butter and poured table-side. This dish really reflects Redzepi's pairing talents, utilizing ingredients that most mortals would not consider to be intuitive combinations such as ox cheek and pear and performing culinary alchemy to create something absolutely marvelous.
Lingonberry juice worked well with the dish. It had a flavor and mouthfeel reminiscent of cranberry juice, but deeper, fuller and more robust.
The forest in summertime was the theme of our first dessert, a noma classic, entitled simply, Blueberries and Wood Sorrel. The dish contained wild Danish blueberries, a blueberry sorbet, a pine granita layered on top to look like forest moss, a pine flavored sorbet, wood sorrel leaves, wild thyme flowers, brioche croutons for crunch and pine oil to finish. This dish, marvelously creative, fully reflects the Scandinavian basis of Redzepi's cooking.
Elderflower liqueur has become quite fashionable in recent years and with good reason. The juice at noma, served with the first dessert supported it - refreshing and delicious.
I'm not sure that I have ever tasted a better dessert than Walnut and Blackberries, Cream and Powder, despite the fact that I am generally not terribly enthusiastic about either walnuts or blackberries. Walnut is incorporated into an ice cream and a powder. The powder is made using walnut oil and maltodextrin. The dish includes frozen cream and dried blackberry. Minimalist in appearance, the flavors are anything but, achieving great depth and perfect balance. I loved this when I had it in NY at the Corton dinner and I loved it no less here.
It was paired with sorrel juice, which really, really grew on me the more I drank it. Outstanding!
Our final dessert, based on a Danish breakfast called Øllebrød, which basically means "beer bread", consisted of a small porridge made from rye bread and ale. The bread had been soaked in the ale for a while then pureed. Underneath there was milk foam and skyr sorbet. This dessert straddled the boundary between sweet and savory, reminiscent of Sam Mason's Beer and Pretzels dessert that he served at Tailor and I most recently had at a Sam Mason retrospective dinner at Aldea. Both desserts are definitely designed for adult palates and work extremely well for them.
Based on the previous night's dinner and the day's lunch, it is interesting to try to gauge how noma has changed over these recent years. While delicious proteins were served throughout both dinners, it struck me that over the past three years the emphasis of the plates has shifted away from the central proteins and more towards the supporting elements or vegetables as the main element on the plate. At lunch two of the savory courses lacked any visible or central animal protein, while at dinner there were four and those dishes that did possess significant animal protein, seemed to use them in more integrated ways, such as The Hen and the Egg, The Oyster and the Sea and the Dried Scallops with Watercress and Biodynamic Grains. As the animal proteins appear to have receded from their centrality, the dishes have also become even more sophisticated. Of course one dinner and a lunch is not enough evidence to commit to such a sweeping conclusion, but these are the impressions I was left with after our too brief journey into the cuisine of noma.
I was left with even more impressions and thoughts about this wonderful restaurant. The food at noma is delicious, original, beautiful and of a place. The service is friendly, warm, efficient and extremely professional. The space is warm, inviting and comfortable. It is no wonder that Rene Redzepi and his restaurant have become popular, but I believe that what makes it resonate so deeply with its diners goes beyond that. noma merges modern sophistication, elegance, luxury and comfort with something more elemental or even primal. With an emphasis on such things as roots, rocks, seaweed, raw food, red food, marrow, eating with hands, skins on the chairs, woodsy interior, foraging, pine, berries, wildflowers and more, noma taps in to atavistic tendencies that run deep in our collective psyche. It strikes a deep chord. That it is done so well helps that chord ring loud and true, making for a very powerful and visceral response from most diners. In a sense, as modern diners, we have a restaurant in which can have our cake and can eat it too. We have a very sophisticated restaurant that comfortably allows us to deeply respond to deep primal culinary instincts.This time we left noma not having the consolation of returning for yet another meal there in a few hours. That was indeed very sad, but we still had some other things to look forward to.