COPENHAGEN, Denmark — James Spreadbury, the affable Australian general manager at Noma, greets us at the door like one of those godsend folk you meet at a party where you don’t know anyone. The one who sees you hovering at the door and says the drinks are in the kitchen, and I’ll walk you there and, by the way, my name is James.
“If you’re jet-lagged and don’t feel like you can make a choice, then don’t worry, ” he laughs, seating us at a broad but simple wooden table set with two earthenware plates and a vase of scraggly wildflowers. “There are none.” The food, about 20 courses in all, will come at a rapid clip at first, he explains. A series of small, handheld bites will acclimate us to the kitchen’s ways before the meal settles into a slower pace of more substantial courses. “Let’s get started, ” he says, pushing the vase into better view. Nestled among the ferns, pine boughs and thistle are two malt flatbreads dusted with juniper disguised as moss-covered twigs.
Noma has been called the best restaurant in the world for the past two years by an international panel of influential restaurant critics organized by Britain’s Restaurant magazine. When it unseated Spain’s El Bulli for the top spot in 2010, shock waves reverberated throughout the food world.
Noma’s 34-year-old chef, Rene Redzepi, soon became the champion of a new Nordic cuisine built on the flavors of foraged herbs and edible plants. His plates look like gorgeously rendered simulacra of natural landscapes, and his ingredients celebrate the high-latitude bounty of Scandinavia. You won’t find foie gras and truffles on this menu, but you might sample the best Swedish bleak roe, pickled ramson shoots, Finnish muikku fish, sloe berries and musk ox.
My wife and I, already planning a trip to Copenhagen, were lucky to get a booking at Noma. The week before our trip a couple of lunch tables opened on its online reservation system and we grabbed one. It was for our first full day in Denmark, and so we sat down to these 20 courses as our internal clocks were telling us to scrounge for oatmeal.
But Noma transports you so thoroughly with its opening salvo of bites that you pretty quickly find yourself in the moment. Young chefs from the small, semi-open kitchen hand deliver the plates with explanations. You get to meet just about everyone in this international crew.
We bite into clouds of fried reindeer moss that shatter into hundreds of crisp filaments and fill your mouth with something you recognize from ever having played in the woods, but never thought of as a flavor. It makes you want to kiss the person you’re dining with on the lips.
Crisp curls of pork crackling hug skins of black currant fruit leather. An egg-shaped dish opens to reveal pickled quail eggs absorbing fumes atop a bed of smoking hay. Pert greens and fronds rise from the dirt in simple terra cotta flowerpots: We pull out icy radishes and carrots swathed in a green emulsion of sheep’s cheese and herbs. The crunchy “dirt” is hazelnut and malt. Exquisite cheese and arugula-stem crackers come in a Danish cookie tin you have to crack open. (Remember how to do this: nails just under the side of the lid. These associations are important here.)
These dishes bring to mind the design in kitchen shops all over Copenhagen. The Danish love ingenious little doodads that match modest materials to beautiful design. That’s precisely what this food does.
And it keeps coming, bite by bite, taste by taste. One mussel with an edible cracker “shell” arrives on top of pearlescent, beautiful blue mussel shells. The root end of a small leek faces up on a plate with a Medusa-hair frizzle of frying. The bit of braised leek attached to the roots melts on the tongue, its flavor combining with the garlicky punch of ransom stem wrapped on top.
These flavors taste familiar and foreign all at once, so as your mind places them in context, your tongue searches out what it doesn’t recognize. The easy, lapping rhythm of this service feels of a place with the coursing water you see just outside the windows. The restaurant is set in an old warehouse on Christianshavn, the canal-streaked island in central Copenhagen. (Christiania — the self-proclaimed autonomous enclave where weed is sold openly, if not exactly legally, from street stalls — is nearby and attracts a different kind of epicure.)
The bites portion of the menu ends with a perfectly bizarre classic of the Noma menu: æbleskiver and muikku, a favorite sweet Danish doughnut hole reimagined as a savory treat, with a tiny, whole fish emerging from it. Delightful and a tiny bit disturbing, it makes you pause for the meal to reorient itself into one of courses and silverware.
These courses come plated more as edible landscapes, suggestive of winter in Scandinavia. Weirdly, this isn’t a winter of hearty braises and steaming pots, but of icy, penetrating, evergreen flavors.
Slivers of raw squid rest on a sweet/sour sauce of white currant and pine, with tender pine shoots and unripe sloe berries for garnish. It’s happy and chilly, like “Frosty the Snowman.”
A fantastic Limfjords oyster rests in its shell on a beautiful tableau of smooth sea stones. You open the shell to find the oyster lightly poached and (miraculously) slivered evenly, with bright-tasting gooseberry and buttermilk dressing. Lightly sweetened acid serves as a kind of piercing light in this food.
My favorite dish of the meal, another Noma classic, pairs slivers of raw chestnut with poppy-orange Swedish bleak roe in a butter sauce that also holds bits of walnut and rye. I still can’t figure out how they got all the nut slivers to stand on end in the sauce, but the pleasure of knocking them and swishing them around in that thrumming-with-flavor sauce makes my list of top life moments with a fork.
A touch of home
Noma in winter, apparently, is all about great seafood. Incredible sea urchin. Pike-perch, which the cooks wrap in cabbage and grill over the best hardwood charcoal grill out there — Atlanta’s own Big Green Egg. (I took a tour of the kitchen and saw two out back.)
Meat first appears as a sticky glace that a cook pours over tightly wound curls of pickled vegetables, and as you explore the plate your fork finds tiny discs of smoked bone marrow. The brightness and tang of this meal yields just a bit to the savory flavor of meat.
Then you get a bone-handled knife in a leather scabbard that could slay a Viking. It heralds a dish of wild duckling (totally unlike any farm-raised) with beets, malt and birch leaves rendered edible after a year’s maceration. It tastes like a camping trip and makes a great bookend to the reindeer moss.
Gammel Dansk, the country’s favorite potable bitters, has been refashioned here as a frozen round of icy sorbet. The meal ends with something called “Pear Tree!” — a roasted pear half served with pine-flavored frozen parfait that has been pumped full of air to hold a honeycomb of bubbles. Think of an aerated candy bar that melts like Dippin’ Dots on the tongue.
I found myself amazed by the texture but couldn’t help wishing the kitchen had broken with its local-food imperative and served orange or lemon. Dessert seems like a good time to acknowledge the Dane’s historic advances in seafaring commerce. On the plus side, I think I ingested enough pine to cure my seasonal affective disorder. Hello, new evergreen me.
The bill came, and because it was in Danish kroner and I had willfully ignored the exchange rate, it didn’t seem expensive. Or did it?
We ended up paying about $800 for our two meals, two aperitifs with the starters, and bottle of fantastic Jura chardonnay with the meal that we couldn’t finish and ended up giving to another table.
But we floated out of there, absolutely high on the experience. No one in Christiania had anything on us.
Here’s the lunch menu that the restaurant served on the day we visited in January. Interestingly, the menu presentation at the restaurant is entirely verbal and it took a couple of emails to get a written version of it. I can understand the impulse. This meal is experiential and very much about the moment. The kitchen doesn’t want you to document your meal as much as live it.
But as there were so many new-to-me flavors, I found myself wishing for a word once in a while to latch on to. What were those intense little seeds on top of the squid? Oh, right, unripe sloe berries.
If you go, you might ask for a menu on the way out. And, by all means, ask for a tour of the kitchen. You’ll be astonished at what gets accomplished in this small space.
OUR MENU AT NOMAMalt flatbread and juniper
—-Squid and unripe sloe berry
White currant and pine
Sea urchin and dill
Cream and cucumber
Limfjords oyster and sea weed
Gooseberry and butter milk
Chestnut and löjrom
Walnuts and rye
Cauliflower and pine
Pike perch and cabbages
Verbena and dill
Pickled vegetables and bone marrow
Browned butter and parsley
Wild duck and beets
Beech and malt
Pear tree!- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog