Nordic Food, pure but not simple. This is the self-limiting stricture that led Noma to win the title of the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’, the Oscar of the gourmet scene. The chef’s insistence on using ingredients only from his immediate region inspires offerings such as cauliflower and pine, pickled rosehips, and onions in gooseberry juice. Guests are called in to do a bit of the cooking, often send one dish back uneaten and still rave about the place. It is a case of mixing in the right elements.
Take some raw style
Noma is on situated on a Copenhagen dockside, where squalls come in from the North and Baltic Seas and icy gusts unsettle fishing boats that are moored to the quay. The invitation is to dine in a warehouse that was once used to store salt, fish and bits of dead whale. Most restaurants of this ilk (2 Michelin stars) produce the standard fare of padded chairs to sink into, elaborate curtains and generally over-designed interiors. In Noma the paint on the exposed beams is left chipped, the chairs are wooden and the furnishings are simple drapes in black. Despite its initial appearance the scheme is, crucially, comfortable as there are around 20 servings to get through. Too often restaurants are innovative with their food but leave the decor lagging behind. This is a gritty, unapologetic approach with an edgy elegance to it which is a reflection of the culinary experience.
Source national reinvention
Noma is formed out of ‘Nordisk Mad’ (Nordic Food) as befits its restriction to ingredients from one geographical region only. Chef René Redzepi’s aim of showcasing the best requires immaculate and uncompromised sourcing. Totally easy to skip if you can’t be bothered, totally unglamorous and totally pays off. Staff scamper across the land to track down the freshest ingredients (Noma serves its beef raw) and some that others would never even contemplate. One brilliant find is wispy reindeer moss which is served with a sprinkling of powered cep mushrooms. In this dish weight is as defining as taste.
Many chefs abandon their national cuisines and turn to other countries for inspiration. At Noma, reinvention, starts at home. Unusual combinations abound such as beets which work perfectly with plucked-this-morning blackberries. When strawberries appear they are not ripened red and topped with cream, they are bitter green and served with salad root, turning the familiar into the original – with a crunch. Rich, thick sauces are vetoed with vegetables appearing in a pool of gently warmed buttermilk. A quail’s egg smoked in, and served on, a bed of hay the scent transports you to a countryside place a hundred miles away. This is not cooking like Grandma used to.
In the midst of these superlatives we flatly refused to eat something. Once we had sent back a fish course at the 3 Michelin-starred Waterside Inn in England with sharp questions as to its freshness. At Noma the challenge was quite the opposite. The shrimp was intentionally left still alive but its legs waved so unnervingly that it was reprieved. “Don’t worry,” a waiter reassured us, “half the people don’t eat it.” It takes some verve to send out a dish you know has a 50% chance of being sent back, but perhaps that is what you need to hit the top spot.
Whisk up a few explanations
Traditionally waiters are the public face and chefs are imprisoned in the kitchen. In Noma it is often the sous-chef who cooked the dish who serves it up, allowing gives great insights into the cooking procedure itself. One described the long process of pummelling sea-buckthorn berries to give them a leatherised texture. Another discussed the removal of refined sugar from desserts using instead the natural sweetness of vegetables – before exhorting the use of thyme as a palette-energiser in a bowl of rhubarb and ice-cream flavoured with the local hard liqueur Gammel Dansk.
The ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ title is awarded by Restaurant Magazine/sponsored by San Pellegrino mineral water, an accolade that has food aficionados jetting into Denmark just to sample cookies with lardo and currants. All this could easily have turned into unbridled expansion but large parts of the restaurant are clearly under-utilised. “For us it’s not just about cooking food for our guests,” says the maitre d’, “it’s about discussing it with them too. That takes time.” Timing is a lesson all guests learn as they actually get to cook one course themselves at the table (eggs with zucchini flowers) under the guidance of a sous-chef. It is a lesson well learned.
Sprinkle with the human touch
When Noma won its title, the entire restaurant staff travelled to London to collect the award. Everyone that is except the dishwasher who could not get a visa. René Redzepi and his team turned up wearing T-shirts with the man’s face on them, a recognition that even the smallest cog plays a critical role in making a gastro machine work efficiently. The T-shirt has now become a foodie cult item with a message. Leatherise sea-buckthorn from dawn til dusk but (like Formula 1 pit stops) unless you’ve got a team, you aren’t going to pull it off. In Noma it says a lot that the kitchen walls are made of glass so the whole restaurant can watch the chefs in action.
Dining at Noma is unpretentious and a bit of a lark. For our first course the waiter directed us to the flower arrangement where we found thin curvy flatbread, made from malt and juniper, masquerading as twigs. Lunch started with a snap. Another offering was a bowl of fava beans sprinkled with sunshine-shade flowers which fulfilled a childhood dream of being able to rush out into the garden and eat all the pretty things there. An earthenware plant pot appeared with an instruction to dig your food out from the soil (fortunately revealed to be dark, pulverised hazelnuts).
It is this humorous take that defines this self-assured Copenhagen outfit and sets it apart. Fine dining places, however accomplished, can be hushed-whisper affairs. England’s Fat Duck, a previous ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ winner, displays an irreverent attitude scooping out mustard ice-cream or proffering crunchy chilli lollipops. But the difference between the Fat Duck and Noma is that, in the latter, the humour spills out from the food, swells over the plate and into the atmosphere. There is no stiffness in an ambience as light as, well, reindeer moss and as refreshing as course number 13, cucumber and elderflower. Noma is not only the best restaurant in the world, it is also the most fun. This may well be the hardest ingredient to source.