noma (Denmark, Copenhagen) – eating with the earth

Once upon a time, before all of the fancy food blogs, I stumbled upon verygoodfood and one of Trine’s many lunches at noma. It was just a one-star Michelin restaurant then but Trine’s captivating posts made it quite clear that this restaurant was worth more. With each successive post, noma bubbled further up my “to do” list. The timing never worked but I was fortunate enough to eat Redzepi’s food at Manresa last year – an experience that only solidified the need to travel to Denmark. This year’s early Summer vacation was Copenhagen or bust and I was quite fortunate to have Trine as my host1 for this special noma lunch.


Smoked quail egg

Noma’s star has risen quite high over the past two years with its naturalistic take on fine dining. The restaurant’s influence has spread rapidly – mixing El Bulli’s modern, and under-appreciated democratic, principles with Michel Bras’s “one with nature” approach. Redzepi has taken the L’Arpege “I’ll grow my own vegetables” philosophy a few steps further by sending out on a team of foragers to comb the Nordic countrysides for ingredients.2 It is a model that will prove influential but not necessarily imitated – there aren’t many (populated) places on Earth that can still yield an abundance of wild and foraged ingredients (though I suspect what populated areas might yield would surprise me.)

Question: Can you just give us a flavour of the type of ingredients you are using?

Rene Redzepi: …. We have a landmass here with only about 25 million people living in it, so there’s a lot of wilderness and it’s virtually untouched. There are a lot of wild plants – 50 to 60 common wild herbs, flowers and leaves, and about 60 types of wild berries – so we try to experiment with using them.

from: http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2008/05/08/320700/an-interview-with-nomas-ren-redzepi-chef-conference-2008.html

Not only is anything edible a potential ingredient, an ingredient’s ingredients are also fair game – oils, saps, leaves, and flowers. It is this exploration into largely overlooked by-products, flavors, and textures that link restaurants like noma, Manresa, The Sportsman, and Ubuntu together into conceptual cousins.3 This naturalist approach can be challenging to our notions of both “food”and “fine dining.” Industrial food production has limited the concept of edible food to a handful of plants, meats, and liquids while fancy restaurants have focused on a small subset of “luxury” ingredients. The dishes and ingredients served at noma will find limited overlap with either; but the skill employed to learn, coax, and balance such flavors in these restaurants is unquestionably haute.

This was a weekday lunch that Trine at verygoodfood was gracious enough to set up. She is (obviously) a frequent visitor to noma so she is quite friendly with the staff. This meal lasted six hours, enough time for the sunny weather to turn into a dramatic downpour. The lighting was great for picture-taking but note-taking was turned off – not every dish will have a detailed description. To say it was one of the greatest restaurant experiences would be an understatement – the staff at noma are very proud of what they are doing – and that enthusiasm and dedication might be the ultimate secret ingredient in the food.


Rye bread, chicken skin, lump fish roe and smoked cheese


Radish, soil and herbs

An introduction to the philosophy of the restaurant – eat nature, all of it – the “soil”, root, stems, & greens. With one dish, the restaurant’s vision and philosophy is simply stated.


Toast, herbs, turbot roe and vinegar


Squid and green strawberry, cream and dill

The squid, surprisingly tender for being raw, was cut into small cubes and drizzled with the cream. This was a delicate pairing that showcased the power of a simple herb, while the sweet cream luxuriously seeped into each bite. The acidity of the green strawberry, a flavor profile Redzepi must be particularly fond of, served as a foil but its strength was a challenge to my sense of balance. The elegance of the squid/cream/dill pairing was among the hallmarks of this trip.


Bread with lard


Shrimp, seaweed, rhubarb, and herbs

A tempered version of the squid dish – the Danish shrimp were sweeter and the rhubarb less abrasive – the ingredients sang together in harmony – herbaceous, acidic, and sweet. If you look closely, you can see the outline of a small shrimp under the seaweed, just behind the first cube of rhubarb.


Tartar and wood sorrel, juniper, tarragon

The iconic noma dish – a masterful balance of flavors. The wood sorrel, with its lemony brightness, is a perfect foil for the beef. Interestingly, this was served at the end of the Manresa dinner when a 48-day aged ox was used. This beef had a far milder taste, as it probably was not aged as long. Eating the dish with one’s hand, while a simple and common practice, helps further connect one with the food and the environment. This recipe is quite the hit in Denmark as I had a larger version for lunch the next day – at a different restaurant.


Razor clams and parsley, dill and mussel juice, horseradish snow

Aka the giant slug stuck in the sewage pipe. The clams, like the squid and shrimp before it, were of extraordinary quality but this dish employed a few molecular gastronomy techniques I dislike – unnatural agar agar textures and snow. The texture of the parsley jelly was a bit too congealed and disrupted the clam’s texture. The snow was too cold and obstructed the full taste of the clam. The clam in the mussel juice, with some horseradish incorporated sans snow, would have been an excellent continuation of the seafood motif – the concept was strong and its presentation resonated with the natural influences of the restaurant.


Fresh cheese, Axel berry shoots, watercress

The axel berry shoots exemplifies the noma ‘everything should be considered as an ingredient’ approach and the rewards that come from such risks. What probably does not even make it to most kitchens was one of the most amazing things I have tasted in my life. The leaves, when bitten, secreted an almond-like oil that covered the mouth, much like olive oil. It was a sensational effect that unfortunately over-shadowed my concern for the rest of the dish.



Langostine and söl

As good as many dishes were, this langostine, a perfect specimen if there ever was one, stole the noma show. Barely cooked, plump and sweet, born and bred just for me, this langostine could only be eaten by itself – it was too perfect. The presentation was equally beautiful, harkening back to more primitive times. (One is supposed to pick up the langostine with one’s fingers and wipe it across the stone and into the oyster sauce.)


Asparagus and woodruff, Shoots of fiddlehead, hops and bull rush

A great egg, from a chicken eating whatever they please, particularly during Spring, has many herb-like undertones. The greens in this dish, by themselves, were quite strong and high strung but the herbaceous egg yolk calmed and unified them. This is one of those “you can eat that?” dishes, resembling a forest floor more than haute cuisine.


Ashes and leeks, Mussels and king crab


Turbot and vegetable stems, pickled elderflower berries


Lobster and saladroot, hip rose and currant wine


Marrow and pickled vegetables

A nice respite from the never-ending food parade – a great way to cleanse the palate and pep up. The marrow obviously provided counterpoint, although there were some quite large pieces hiding in there. I have become addicted to pickled vegetables since my Kyoto visit and this dish makes me wonder how wonderful noma might be during the Winter.


Musk ox and milk skin, new young garlic and ramson onion


Birch juice and birch syrup, spanish chervil and honey


Beet and garden sorrel, crème fraiche and pickled hip roses


Walnut powder and ice cream, dried cream and dried berries

It is a restaurant that can be enjoyed with a single visit but it will, assuming Redzepi continues his development, reward the frequent visitor even more as the seasons speak. Different seasons are sure to bring a wide variety of tastes – it is a cuisine connected directly to the whims, fancies, and randomness of the Earth. Then consider that winter will bring a variety of preservation techniques (smoked, dried, pickled.) It is a restaurant whose excitement is hard to contain – from the enthusiastic staff and their obvious delight and commitment to the restaurant’s ideals to the endless possibilities with the philosophy they’ve chosen. It may require one to re-calibrate their conception of fine dining but the potential exists for the meal to change paradigms around those same concepts.

The totality of Redzepi’s cuisine could be ten years down the line as he fully exploits the bounty of his land. When one considers the diversity of ingredients to choose from, and explore over time, the sheer potential for range and nuance of flavor is staggering. And considering that it is already highly influential within its own region,4 the potential for the region’s restaurants to deliver innovative cuisine over many years makes Denmark a food destination whose stock may only rise. Spain revolutionized fine dining but its innovations can be applied anywhere; whereas, the unique ingredients that noma cooks with can only be found in Denmark.

I would like to go back – tomorrow.

- chuck

1 – One of the great benefits to running a cult fine dining blog includes making friends with fellow bloggers.

2 – This could very well be Marc Veyrat from the pictures I’ve seen but, having never eaten there, I am not certain.

3 – Yes, there are certainly others but I do not know if I’ve eaten at them.

4 – It is a classic case of Schumpeter’s creative destructionism – rather than improving on the status quo, completely reinvent the market. Here, Rene Redzepi eschewed olive oil, heavy cream-based dishes, and foie gras for local foraged products; and turned his philosophy into a source of regional pride. Creative economics students with an interest in food could write a very interesting case study, or thesis, on noma. There could also be an interesting project in exploring the Nordic food cluster using Michael Porter’s theories on clusters – get some funding and report!

  • http://www.foodsnobblog.wordpress.com Food Snob

    A poignant meal.

    From what I have seen/heard/tasted, it certainly seems Noma is at the forefront, if not leading the way, amongst the current (utterly charming) ‘new naturals’ movement that places such as Ubuntu, el Poblet, etc appear to be a part of.

  • http://highendfood.wordpress.com IFS

    Great review Chuck, you capture the essence what is so special about noma – the whole experience is somehow moving, touching and evoking emotions. It’s like diving into an unique world… @Foodsnob: Don’t think one should count el Poblet into the new naturals movement as Dacosta is more concerned with virtual landscapes and less on natural ingredient-driven cuisine. Manresa, Ubuntu, MR (a spin-off) and Oaxen (Laurent will report) are prime examples – Geranium was (sadly!) a more polished version…

    Can’t wait to revisit noma…

  • http://www.cari-vicarious.com Cari Sanchez

    What an inspired meal. Wow, Chuck, I can’t believe I haven’t come across your site before! I’ve lived and dined around the world as a student and an English teacher, so needless to say my budget has been a bit more limited. It’s helped me appreciate the more modest, traditional side of each city and region’s food culture (with the occasional splurge). However… I do dream of the day when I follow in your footsteps!

    I will be back many, many times. Thanks for stopping by my humble little blog.

  • http://foodsnobblog.wordpress.com Food Snob

    @IFS I appreciate that point – and it is not something set in stone yet – but I think aesthetics are very important to and prominent with the new naturals (in particular evoking nature in the presentation of dishes). Natural, local ingredients are certainly at its centre, but it is also about what is done with them.
    Additionally, I have not eaten at el Poblet myself, so I defer judgement on it to those who have…
    I consider restaurants such as Manresa and Arpege too (add Bras, Mugaritz, etc) as almost – to invoke an almost natural image myself – the ones that ploughed the furrows that allowed these seeds to blossom into what they have become.

    P.S. I have seen recent photos from Oaxen and agree, on just first impressions, this seems very much to fit the same mould…

  • http://verygoodfood.dk Trine

    Wow, Chuck!
    Thank you so much for providing such strong and sharp interpretation of noma and Rene, for sharing your experience here with everyone and, not least, for taking me back to our great lunch. A very special experience for me too. Looking forward to seeing you back! :)

  • http://duaumea.blogspot.com Lars

    Fantastic post Chuck!

    I don´t know how many times we have spoken about going to Noma and countless time ended somewhere else:(,, but this gives me even more inspiration.
    We went to Lejontornet in Stockholm when Rene had a apperance but I really think that you have to try it “at home” to get the full experiance.

    If someone wants to see pictures from Oaxen just jump to me and my brothers blog, sorry for being non-english, but we had everything on the menu exept the pigs head that were sold out that day…..

    I´m going to Tokyo in a week so it will be fun to check out Ryugin and compare it to your trip that loked really good!

    Enjoy!

  • chuckeats

    @FoodSnob – go to El Poblet once the German tourists leave for the summer – you are so close and it is so important. Eat two meals – once for the tasting menu and once for a la carte.

    @IFS – thanks – there is an emotional component that I did not really touch upon – the experience is not ‘just a good meal’ – it is meaningful and revelational.

    @IFS & FoodSnob – Mugaritz, L’Arpege, Bras, & El Bulli are probably the grand-daddies of this ‘movement’ (though I consider it more of a loose confederation.) In my mind, the philosophy goes beyond aesthetics, as places like El Bulli & Bras could not be more different in style. As such, El Poblet could very well be mentioned in the conversation, as their ingredients are not only first-rate but the food, despite its experimentation and ‘landscapes’, captures the spirit of the area; but I do consider the food in a league of its own.

    @Cari – thanks for the complements – look forward to more of your Southern travels!

    @Trine – thanks again and I look forward to seeing your future Manresa and Ubuntu reviews, and my own noma reviews :)

    @Lars – that was my problem too – ‘looks great, should go’ but never made it. I agree that the food needs to be “tried at home” – the dishes were great here in CA but they take on a special dimension when eaten in Denmark inside the gorgeous rustic-chic restaurant. Go – you will not be disappointed. Look forward to seeing your Tokyo pics (as I can’t read your site :) )

  • http://www.foodsnobblog.wordpress.com Food Snob

    I better go indeed, before I miss out.

    Agree, movement is not the right word, least of all as it sounds rather choreographed. Just to be clear, don’t think me so shallow to limit the philosophy to aesthetics. I think the look of the food beyond just pretty, but affecting – although, I admit, this may be a thing more personal than factual. I think the visual is an effective element of it or maybe by-product, but seasonal, top quality ingredients and intense ‘local-ness’ are the drivers – these are restaurants that literally could not be anywhere else.

  • http://www.tasty-bits.com Misha

    Chuck, thanks for the timely review. I was already looking forward to visiting Noma in October, now even more so. Anything else you’d recommend while I am in Copenhagen?

  • chuckeats

    @Misha – Aamanns (i think that’s the correct spelling) was excellent for casual but very high quality lunch. That is where I had the noma-inspired beef tartar.

    For fine dining, check out Trine’s blog (as well as some of the others that have commented thus far.) Do not go to The Paul – amazing ingredients, terrible execution (think Cyrus but not as tasty.) My other meal was Geranium, which went out of business.

  • http://highendfood.wordpress.com IFS

    @Misha: try MR after the re-launch definitely worth a visit. Avoid Bo Bech (Paustian) at any cost, this was dreadful. And, check out Trine’s wonderful blog.

    Still struggling with el poblet to be counted in – somehow the landscapes are too much on the forefront than the natural ingreients – just my take. And, Mugaritz for me was a prime example for too intellectual and missing the point cuisine. Most dishes were bland and some even disgusting on my last visit.

  • http://www.gastroville.com Mikael

    Nice write up Chuck and great photos. After that it is really time for me to go back. I was not really moved when I went a few years ago and I have not really been keen on going back after that meal. The technique was there and clearly the potential was there but the quality of the produce was far from what makes me tick.
    I have had some of the dishes in your write up at other occasions when René has been cooking but as we know it is never like on the home turf. SO at first opportunity I will give it a try.
    I am not sure what you mean with el Bulli being one of those who started the “naturals” movement. For me, Adria (Ferran) is more like the leader of the pack who basically almost killed gastronomy. Also, it would be interesting if you could elaborate on how the Spanish revolutionized dining. I saw the Spanish come and recently basically go away, and I am sorry but I never understood what happened. I would be delighted if I could understand what I missed.

  • http://www.arthurhungry.com Arthur

    Chuck – great stuff. It was during my post-graduate blogging dark ages, but I was at Redzepi’s guest appearance at Manresa last year too, and found it phenomenal. I guess I should have assumed you were in the house as well.

    Anyway, I now want to try Noma even more than before. Copenhagen is not an easy place to add to the busy schedule…

  • chuckeats

    @Mikael – w/r/t produce quality, you are obviously far more knowledgeable than I so I can’t make any guarantees if it has reached your (high) standards yet. As for El Bulli, my main point there was the ‘democratization’ of ingredients, for example, serving chicken feet in a 3-star meal instead of caviar and foie gras, allowing any ingredient fair opportunity to appear on the plate. As for the Spanish, ‘revolutionized’ may be over-stating their influencing but the have certainly captured the imagination of a new generation of chef.

  • http://www.gastroville.com Mikael

    I expect Noma to have progressed a lot since I was there with respect to produce sourcing. A lot is happening in Scandinavia. Also, René is on his way to find his own style, if he not already has. It is a style in which he has incorporated the authentic flavors of his region. That is quite a feat.
    I can agree with that Adria was involved in the democratization of ingredients and that is/was a good thing. Especially the French were, and still very much are, quite a bit stuck with a pretty much a traditional list of what is supposed to be served in a gastronomic restaurant. This list has been passed on from one generation to another for a long time. On the other hand, considering the supply of top quality produce in every corner of France, can you blame them?
    I do not question that Adria is a great chef. He is one of the greatest. It is true that he more than anyone else, possibly ever, has influenced a new generation of chefs. The question is how good that influence has been. Perhaps a bit too many practices have been subject to a democratization process. Among malpractices I count the use of questionable chemicals with often at best unknown health implications and the acceptance of using pedestrian produce. With pedestrian produce I mean produce of poor quality, not that it is inexpensive or cheap. With these democratization processes, words like taste, flavor and authenticity seem to have become superfluous when describing the cooking of certain chefs.
    Sorry if I hijacked your blog Chuck.

  • http://www.aidanbrooks.blogspot.com/ Trig

    Great review, Chuck. I’ve yet to eat at Noma, although I’ve known about it for a long time and worked with a chef last year who staged there. My fellow chef Nuno Mendes went there earlier this week and I only wish I could have taken time off and gone with.

    I’m a bit surprised by one or two comments above, in particular those that assume a chasm between the gastronomic movements. But go to any half-decent restaurant practising produce-led cooking these days and you will find many of the techniques of molecular gastronomy being practised in the kitchen. Even Santi Santamaría confessed to using some chemicals when challenged. Dishes may come out looking incredibly simple and pure, but as a customer you aren’t seeing the complexity of technique that goes into them.

    It all comes back to that phrase I don’t really like but can’t escape from – cuisine d’auteur. You can be as passionate as you like, master technique to perfection and use the best quality ingredients, but that will only get you very good food, not great food. A million monkeys and a typewriter can’t really produce Shakespeare, whatever the statisticians claim.

    Passion, technique and great ingredients are necessary, but insufficient, conditions. Bring something special – your own individual vision, artistry and touch – and you get truly great food. Grant Achatz has ably demonstrated this in recent years and René Redzepi is well on his way from what I can see.

  • http://www.gastroville.com Mikael

    Indeed, the malpractices go on everywhere. It is a very sad development.

    As the previous poster suggests, the result of the last 15 years of gastronomic development is the emergence of non-produce based cooking as opposed to cooking based on great produce. Apparently, there are clients for it. It is not for me.

    Many chefs claim they have great produce but frankly the list of chefs who really go out of their way to find truly great produce is much shorter than people think.

  • http://gastrosontour.wordpress.com Laurent

    Lovely report Chuck ! I think i got all this dishes during my last 2 meals and you really caught the essence of such experience.

    My meal of last monday there was just exceptional : this 5th meal there was simply the best meal of my life ever, got new creations from René mixed with signature dishes.

    Went also to MR (my previous meal 2 weeks ago there was fantastic, this one was nice but not faultless).

    Herman is another must in CPH with maybe one of the best service in town (except noma of course) while the kitchen delivers highly executed dishes. Got at least 2 dishes with a 3* level.

    Oaxen was out of time. Same as Bras is. In the middle of nowhere, charming location, strong local identity, unique food in an unique environment. We spend amazing 24h there.They’re at a level of 2* without any doubt.

    I hope to report to all these meals soon :(

    Cheers
    Laurent

  • http://gastrosontour.wordpress.com Laurent

    Ooops, i forgot to mention that indeed Aamanns is a lovely place for lunch or dinner. Modern bistrot atmosphere, excellent wine list, and indeed, local products served in a simple way but so tasty and of such a good quality (herring, beef tartar) that you have a very good time there (at a very attractive price). And Anders, is a great host. Another must.

  • chuckeats

    @Mikael – i don’t disagree w/ your Adria assessment and I find myself enjoying ‘molecular’ food less and less (in some ways, it seems to be an easy gateway into fine dining (it was for me) b/c of its “newness.) But I do enjoy the work of those most who have used some of Adria’s ideas as a point of departure – which would means places like Manresa, noma, etc. (And don’t worry about hijacking the thread – this is a great set of comments in this thread)

    @Trig – i think the point is not the methods but the aim – is it technology for technology’s sake (which would be something like El Bulli or Moto)? or does the technique contribute to something more that includes a vision – such as noma. (excuse me if we are saying the same thing.) that said, i do know Mikael’s lament is that what you state is true – which i presume is why he has re-focused Gastroville’s priorities.

    @Laurent – Trine had suggested Oaxen as a potential day-trip but there just wasn’t enough time – it does look spectacular. Thanks for confirming it is as good as it looks.

  • will smith-but-not-that-guy

    Where would you rank Noma — and Redzepi — in the pecking order? From your pictures, he looks to be well on his way to maybe even surpassing Adria. What do you think?

  • http://upescalator.wordpress.com/ JC

    Great review! It’s very interesting to follow all the noma reviews from the past couple of years (mostly Trine’s blog, of course) and see how, unlike many restaurants, they continue to improve season after season. So far, in my limited experience, only Urasawa surpasses them, but I’m Japanese-biased and perhaps that’s unfair to say. I can’t wait to go back.

  • http://www.jadedfork.com jaded fork

    Most exciting meal, Chuck. I’m very intrigued by the langoustine. The setting looks almost extra-terrestrial. What are those protrusions on the stone? I’m also very curious about the birch juice. How did that taste?

  • Jakob

    If you wish to explore the wave of noma-inspired Danish restaurants, you might consider a trip to Jutland on your next visit. The newly restored Henne Kirkeby Kro have had raving reviews – “noma, watch out”!! Malling & Schmidt in Aarhus also deploys MG techniques to express a personal vision: “To reflect the moods, the variation of the light and flavours of our land, on the dishes that we serve, giving our guest an intimate culinary view of our region, Jutland.”

    PS. As regard to noma, the most significant development from the start to the meal you just had, seems to be the almost complete absence of corn produce. In many of the dishes in the first cook book, bread supplemented the meat in the shape of large chips and croutons, and porridge were mixed with e.g. parsley puré and tiny bits of calfs’ tongue. In your meal, almost all of the savory dishes can be reduced to one single format: One animal produce in a vegable setting. The result is, of course, a much lighter cuisine (a nesessity in a meal comprising 15 dishes) but also less “Nordic”. In the traditional nordic diet, a lot of carbohydrate-rich corn produce provied energy to endure the cold climate and harsh labor.

    http://www.hennekirkebykro.dk

    http://www.mallingschmidt.dk

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  • 7chef

    Langostine dish,,is so…great,,
    i’v never eat ,,,like this,,
    so..juice,,and nature,,,sweet,,
    langostine ,beef tartar is best,,,in noma,,

  • Flemming

    FINALEY ELECTED THE WORLDS BEST RESTAURANT!!!!

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  • http://morselsandmusings.blogspot.com Anna

    this looks amazing.

    having married a swede i’m always looking for nordic inspired food in stockholm and gothenburg but it looks like i need to travel further south to experience it.

    inspirational

  • http://tonicdown.blogspot.com Chris

    Dang, this restaurant’s really getting good. Kudos. How was that levain and spiced salt btw?!

  • keith

    My group of 5 ate At Noma’s this past July. Truley a one of a kind experience. We have been to Per se, FL, Masa, Philippe Rochat in Lausanne.

    Sooo when can we all go back :)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Debbie-Hackett-Draper/602676673 Debbie Hackett Draper

    I will have just to respect the expert’s opinion. It would be hard for me to find something that I would dare to try. I think it all looks artful and definitely some genius creativity, however, doubt this is my kind of cuisine.

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