Sunday, December 5, 2010

Noma - A Nordic Epiphany

Sea buckthorn leather with rose petal pickled in apple cider for 6 months.
I've been experiencing writer's block for this post for a long time. It should not have been difficult, considering that the 6 Ws (namely, what, why, who, where, when and how) are straightforward: -

What: 4-hour meal at Noma.
Why:  It is by a mile the most interesting meal I have had so far.
Who: Head chef and co-owner, René Redzepi.
Where: Copenhagen, Denmark.
When: June 2010.
How: Sheer fortuity.

I attribute my writer's block to self-doubt. Self-doubt is one of those insidious parasites that feeds on a writer's insecurities and, if left unchecked, will eventually paralyse the writer. Thankfully, liberation arrived at my doorstep yesterday in the form of a gift from a dear friend, P, for an occasion. The gift is the newly-published Noma cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Flipping through the pages and spotting some of the dishes I had at Noma suddenly unblocked me. Just like that. (Thank you, P!)

I came to know about Noma over two years ago indirectly through a cooking programme known as "New Scandinavian Cooking". This programme was, in my opinion, really a tourism pitch for the Scandinavian countries masquerading as a cooking show. Not that I minded it one bit because the hosts of the show were very charming and engaging and the Scandinavian landscapes were simply breathtaking.

While reading up on the hosts, I found out that the Danish host for the programme, Claus Meyer, is a co-owner of a highly-regarded restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark - Noma. Having since been sold on Scandinavia as a holiday destination (well done, producers), my husband and I decided earlier this year that we should also schedule a visit to Noma. And I have to say it was most fortuitous that we secured our reservations at Noma just shortly before Noma was named the world's best restaurant by the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants List 2010 in late April this year. I would otherwise never have been able to get a table because on the very next day, the newly-crowned Noma reportedly received more than 100,000 email reservations requests!

Did Noma live up to its hype? Oh, yes, unequivocally. And this is where I pass the baton to the pictures I took of my 4-hour, 12-course Noma nassaaq (itself preceded by half a dozen appetisers), which my Danish server suggested should be "taken with some velocity"!

Savoury cookie with speck, blackcurrants and spruce. Crisp, chewy, savoury and tangy.

A playful sandwich of crisp ryebread, smoked cheese and lumpfish roe cream, and chicken skin. The chicken skin (with fat scraped off) needed to be baked for 2 hours under ovenproof weights.

Quail eggs that had been blanched, smoked and pickled. The edible quail eggs came ensconced within an inedible quail egg container that trapped smoke for a very dramatic uncovering. I find this dish reminiscent of the soft-boiled eggs at Japanese ramen shops but these are smaller, smokey and the yolk is completely liquid.
Organic asparagus and radish in 2 types of "soil", a herb cream and a malt soil. I was shocked to see this dish because I had something very similar at Les Creations de Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, just last year. I asked when this dish was created and was told that it was probably about 5 years ago. I decided not to probe further because I really like both these restaurants. Whether it is mimicry, flattery or coincidence, the customers are the winners here.

Herb toast with cod roe emulsion topped with skin of duck sauce. Ethereal.

Unusual and fun take on a traditional Danish pastry - Aebleskiver with Finnish fish and cucumber, dusted with vinegar meringue powder. The cucumber is hidden in the pastry.
Smoked lard that came with the bread. Pure pork fat = flavour.

Beetroot with dill emulsion.

Dried scallops, hazelnuts, grains marinated in watercress
with squid and blue mussel sauce. Very interesting take on scallops.

Tartare of ox, wood sorrel, juniper powder and cream of tarragon. The ox is hiding under the bed of wood sorrel leaves and this dish has to be eaten with your hands. One of my favourite courses.

Langoustines from the west coast of Denmark dusted with red seaweed powder with an oyster and parsley emulsion and rye bread crumble. The langoustines were sauteed at high heat for 30 seconds on one side and a mere 2 seconds on the other side, which created a barely-cooked texture that brought out the natural sweetness of the langoustines. It was perfect. Really.

New potatoes, potato puree in milk skin and chervil. Delicate flavours here.

Purple carrot with a decadent-tasting truffle vinaigrette. 
The carrot was cooked by continuously spooning hot goat butter over it for 45 minutes. One of the chefs kindly brought out his pan to our table 4 courses earlier to show us how he was cooking our purple carrots!

Norwegian king crab and leeks rolled in ashes with a mussel emulsion and breadcrumbs.
Hen and the Egg - participation time! We had to cook the egg ourselves according to very specific instructions from our server. I could see that every customer in the restaurant was delighted by this amusing course when it came to his or her turn.

Danish pork neck with chicory and sheets of pear and verbana sauce.

Goat milk mousse with sorrel granitas finished with grapeseed oil. A refreshing dessert in many ways.
Carrots done five ways: carrot sorbet (encased in buttermilk foam),
carrot top, pickled carrot dried carrot and fresh carrot. Yes, this is a dessert course too.

Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream with apple and brown discs. It was nicely weird and weirdly nice.

Potato crisps with anise and chocolate.

Sea buckthorn and beetroot flødeboller. Flødeboller is a traditional Danish sweet.

Apart from the very delightful and surprising food that Noma serves, what makes Noma that special rare restaurant are the people. The servers are relaxed, chatty and friendly, in direct contrast with the servers you would meet at 3-Michelin-star French restaurants who would speak to you in a formal manner and address you as "Monsieur" or "Madame". There is no dress code for Noma - that was a first for me for fine dining restaurants. For some of the courses, the chefs actually served and introduced the food they cooked to the customers directly - that was another first for me. The sous chef, Sam Miller, was an exceptionally nice chap. After service was over, he invited my husband and I into the Noma kitchen for a little tour which thrilled me to bits because I could see where all the fun and magic happens. In fact, I am convinced that the chefs have more fun preparing the courses than the customers do eating them.

Bread proofing in the Noma kitchen.
According to our server (and echoed by Sam), the man behind this amazing restaurant is the head chef, René Redzepi, who unfortunately was not present that day. Sam also shared with us that chef René Redzepi serves in Noma what he likes to eat himself. I may not have met the man myself but I can conclude that he eats really well. And I am grateful to him and his wonderful team for letting me sample Nordic food at its best.


  1. love your post...claus is our cousin and we have loved seeing his passion for his danish food heritage become the new nordic norm.
    it is also something we practice daily here in the states following the traditions we were raised with back in denmark.

    karen elisabeth

  2. Thanks, Karen. Let Claus know that I am still hunting for Greenlandic honey!

  3. Nice post, thank you, very well written. Have a reservation there this week and didnt want to bother anybody to ask for the dress code.
    There is a greenlandic shop selling in Cph. Selling greenlandic honey, had some from my friend and it was special.
    Next time in Cph. Check out Claus's and our new joint venture a Singapore eatery, namnam. Nonya food and Singapore street food. soon in english
    Warmest wishes
    Michael Pang-Larsen.

  4. Hello Michael, thank you for dropping by. I'm STILL on the lookout for Greenlandic honey. Can't get hold of it from my part of the world. I'm from Singapore, by the way. It's good to know that our much beloved street food has a following overseas.
    All the best with namnam!

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