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Noma - Cuisine, Creativity or Cult?

Rating: 91.
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"At Noma, we wish to offer our personal rendition of Nordic gourmet cuisine with an innovative gastronomic take on traditional cooking methods, fine Nordic produce and the legacy of our shared food heritage. Moreover, we regard it as a personal challenge to help bring about a revival of Nordic cuisine and let its distinctive flavours and particular regional character brighten up the world." Thus the "about" section on Noma's website.

The story of Noma and the Nordic cuisine movement started in 2003 when the restaurant was established by Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer. For those of you who don't know (I didn't) Noma is a contraction of the two Danish words Nordisk (Nordic) and Mad (food). The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2005, the second followed in 2008 and since 2010 Noma has been considered the best restaurant in the world by the San Pellegrino World's 50. Noma has been taking this list by storm. The restaurant entered the list in 2006 at number 33, rose to number 15 in 2007, entered the top 10 at number 10 in 2008, getting to number 3 in 2009 and in 2010 they took the highest ranking, relegating El Bulli to the number 2 spot. These accolades and Rene Redzepi's commitment to spreading the word about Noma's food philosophy have made the restaurant world famous.

Noma's success in the last two years is without precedent. In 2010 the book Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine was released in English, a very successful book which received two James Beard Awards in 2011. This year, after several years of preparation and inspired by the 2009 'Cook it Raw' event, Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer organised the MAD Foodcamp. This event, called a culinary Woodstock by many, caused many chefs and journalists to undertake a culinary pilgrimage to Denmark. And most recently Rene Redzepi participated in the culinary G9 conference in Lima which resulted in this declaration which made headlines around the world.

Getting a reservation at Noma is not easy, in fact I tried several times and failed miserably. I was however fortunate enough to be invited by a friend on Twitter, who had decided to celebrate his birthday with a dinner in the so-called 'Staff Room' at Noma. So, there I was.

Noma is located in a beautiful 18th century former warehouse in the old Christianshavn area in Copenhagen. I had dinner in Noma's staff and meeting room located on the first floor. This private dining room is used for groups of up to 15 people. There were 11 in our group. In the Staff Room Noma offers a 3-course menu called Noma's classics or a 7-course menu similar to the 7-course menu served in the restaurant, both including wines. I had the 7-course menu which consisted of 8 courses in total.

There were no fewer than 12 pre-starters. Twigs made from malt flour and beer (1), Nasturtium and snails (2), Deep-fried reindeer moss with ceps (lovely spices) (3), Blue mussel: a mussel served on an edible shell made from squid ink, flour and water (4), the (in)famous live Fjord shrimp served with a browned butter sauce (5), Cheese and cookies (lovely crispy cheese biscuit) (6), Rye bread cracker, chicken skin, peas and lovage (7), Caramelised milk cracker with cod liver (lovely and tasty) (8), Pickled and hay-smoked quail's eggs (glorious) (9), Aebleskive and Moiko: a savoury doughnut filed with pickled cucumber and a Moiko (a small fish) (10), Carrots and radishes served with edible soil and grass (11) and Crostini served wild herbs, seeds, cod roe and a crisp made from duck bouillon (exceptionally intricate preparation resulting in fantastic duck flavours) (12). All exciting, unusual (I don't get to eat live shrimp and deep-fried moss every day) and fun pre-starters, some very complex. An excellent start of the evening.

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10 11


The first course, Apple, Jerusalem artichoke, garden sorrel and coriander. A dish that the restaurant calls 'The Apple that has fallen into the grass". Lovely sweet and sour notes from the apple compote and nice acidity from the apple juice. Pure flavours from the Jerusalem artichoke puree.  Wonderful warmth from the cinnamon. A beautifully presented dish (the photograph doesn't do it justice) with clean and intense flavours.

Second course, Raw razor clam wrapped in a parsley jelly served with frozen buttermilk and horseradish, clarified mussel juice and dill oil. The jelly had a fantastic pure and intense parsley flavour. The frozen buttermilk and horseradish was strong and powerful but worked a treat when combined with the other ingredients. The clarified mussel juice was absolutely brilliant. Loved the touch of dill. A well-conceived dish with very precise flavours.

The third course, Dehydrated scallops, grains, watercress, roasted beech nut, mussel juice and squid ink oil. Beautiful thin slices of scallop. The dehydrating process had intensified the scallop flavours. Very pure and clean flavours from the mussel juice and squid ink oil, somewhat 'green' flavours but lovely pepperiness from the watercress. A dish with wonderful textures, fantastic crispness from the scallops and lovely bite from the grains and beech nuts. A rather generous portion considering how strong the flavours were.

Fourth course, one of Noma's signature dishes, Beef tartare, wood sorrel, juniper berry powder and tarragon emulsion. Nothing more, nothing less. An excellent tartare made from beef tenderloin served with wood sorrel on top. The beef went perfectly with the tarragon emulsion and the juniper berry powder. Well executed, loved the warmth of the juniper berry powder. Again the photograph doesn't do it justice.

On to the fifth course, Celeriac and truffles. Celeriac roasted with goat's butter in a 'Big Green Egg' BBQ served with some Gotland truffle, a sauce made from mushroom bouillon, truffle and grapeseed and some watercress and wood sorrel roots. The celeriac was flavoursome and it was perfectly cooked (not too soft and not too hard) but in the end it was just a lump of celeriac, rather too big for my taste. The sauce was very concentrated and the roots gave the dish a 'raw' note. Overall I didn't enjoy eating this and I didn't finish my plate.

Sixth and main course, Caramelised sweetbreads, wild mushrooms and greens from the hedgerow. A large piece of caramelised medium-rare sweetbreads served with a chanterelle compote, mushroom bouillon, cep oil, celery, and a truly wonderful and incredibly tasty grilled lettuce sauce and lots of "greens". I thought this dish was unbalanced and it didn't work for me. Too much sweetbread, too "green", lacking finesse.

Seventh course and first of the desserts, Fresh milk ice cream sprayed with Gammel Dansk, dehydrated milk foam, wood sorrel and milk powder crumble. A lovely dessert with creamy and refreshing flavours and wonderful textures. Loved the salty milk powder crumble and the wood sorrel provided a wonderful savoury note to the dish.

Last and eighth course - a Noma classic, Walnut ice cream with dried berries and walnut powder. Delicious intense walnut flavours from both the ice cream and the powder and fantastic bitters from the dried berries. Nice but rather simple.

It is clear that Noma is not your average fine dining restaurant. It proclaims itself to be a restaurant with a vision and a mission and the food it serves sometimes comes across as a consequence of these rather than as an end per se. In focussing exclusively on Nordic cuisine and Nordic produce it severely limits itself in what it is able to express and this makes the culinary journey on which they have embarked with such integrity all the more admirable and interesting. Surely it is well worthwhile to try to inspire people to reconnect with their environment when they eat their food. On the other hand the question arises whether one may perhaps be taking this too far? Trade between Northern and Southern Europe has been thriving since the 12th century and Mediterranean and even Asian ingredients have been imported in these Northern parts since then so why stop using them now? The lack of ingredients that have been imbued with the warmth and sunshine of more southern parts left many dishes feeling rather cool in the make-up of their flavours and I felt that in the context of the entire menu the 'herb and vegetable' theme was being pushed a bit too far. Even the best wood sorrel should be enjoyed in moderation only. Considerable knowledge and creativity is being invested in their quest to (re)discover Nordic haute cuisine and they employ the most modern cooking techniques and equipment. However, when one of my fellow diners requested a macchiato after dinner, he was flatly refused. What is wrong with an espresso machine? The staff at Noma are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and clearly proud to be at the vanguard of the Nordic cuisine movement. The members of staff I had a chat with, spoke very highly of Rene Redzepi and his interest in developing their skills rather than merely exploiting their labour. Eating at Noma has left me puzzled in many ways and intrigued as I am by the experience I have had, the food that I was served with failed to reach out and grab hold of my heart. Noma - cuisine, creativity or cult? At this stage a little bit of each.

Posted 09-10-2011


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