Love, like an American supermarket, is a fascinating and scary thing.  To walk its aisles is to struggle to distinguish what you want from what you need.  To fully understand its intricacies is to know too much.  In a frustratingly beautiful way, its true nature can seem inscrutable.

Danish supermarkets aren’t much easier so far.  This is the fifth one we’ve been to in Copenhagen tonight.  My girlfriend and I have just eaten lunch — two days in a row — at noma, the restaurant some rank above every other one on the planet, and she is agonizing over which gummy candies to have for dinner.  It turns out that she is to gelatin and sugar what Robert Parker is to wine or Roger Ebert to movies, a connoisseur of the highest ilk, an unequivocal arbiter of quality.

I poke fun, but it’s actually quite fetching.  I’ve always had a thing for Sour Patch Kids, so the match was meant to be.

I also think she and I were meant to experience noma together. It’s been probably three years since René Redzepi popped up on my radar, thanks in no small part to a girl named Trine and a guy named David.  But back then I couldn’t have pointed to Denmark on a world map.  A neophyte in the world of fine dining, I was stupid and near-sighted.

Fast-forward to a year ago and we were at el Bulli, eating hare brains and sea anemone while our friends and family gorged themselves on turkey to celebrate the most gluttonous American holiday.  To this day I don’t have a clue how I snagged that reservation, but it set the bar awfully high for our future dates.

So, too, did the live fjord shrimp we were served the first day at noma.  My girlfriend shuddered and looked away in disgust, a sure sign that the date was going well.  Otherwise she’d have shuddered, got up, and left.

But there were many reasons to stay — thirty-five of them, including all the different snacks surrounding both twelve-course menus.  I regret that I’ll only be able to tell you about the most compelling of them.

Fruit leathers made with a crazy sour Scandinavian berry called sea-buckthorn made me think of my four-year-old niece. As a baby she would ask me for “froo yeh-yers” every time she came over, and I’d gladly comply.  That’s love, too, isn’t it?  We devoured these in her honor.

Redzepi taught us about æbleskiver (“apple slices”) when he brought two over. Traditionally these balls of dough are pan-fried in cast-iron molds and eaten as a sweet snack in Denmark around Christmastime. But did I know of takoyaki, he asked? Noma’s are savory like that — with tiny smoked-and-pickled fish from Finland called muikko swimming through the center — but interestingly the Danish treat predates the Japanese version altogether.

Deep-fried reindeer moss was easily the most obscure of the snacks.  But with a sprinkle of porcini powder and a careful dip in crème frâiche, it was enticing, even familiar.  Within the walls of noma, esoterica seemed to dissolve.

It’s all so open and comfortable, the dialogue here between diner and chef.  It is, to my mind at least, just about perfect. Redzepi and his clan of sous chefs deliver and explain the food.  They’ve foraged for much of it, studied and then rewritten its history, and poured themselves into its preparation. It’s written all over their faces — they believe in what they serve.

The first day — when Redzepi was not in the kitchen but instead in noma’s houseboat/research lab — brought a more protein-centric progression, and a smattering of noma classics.

Day two held more flora than fauna, more restraint, and, for me, more intrigue.

It was on day one that a razor clam wearing a sleeve of parsley gel got rained and then snowed on by clarified mussel juices and a frozen fluff of buttermilk and horseradish. The snow melted on my tongue and left a sour, lingering heat in its wake. Combined with the masked mollusk, its effect was to push the reset button on my taste buds.

There is something truly primal about noma’s beef tartare.  Cut by hand, it is eaten with the hands. We dragged the bright red meat through juniper powder and a tarragon emulsion. Wood sorrel and horseradish punctuated with a pop.

Succulent Danish langoustines washed up on huge stones in front of us.  Dotted around them, an emulsion of raw oysters, seawater, and parsley, like mayonnaise on a mean streak. Again using our fingers we dabbed the crustaceans in the sauce and then through powdered söl, an Icelandic seaweed.

These last two were paired with pine juice a.k.a. liquid Christmas tree.  We had the juice pairing both days at noma, and enjoyed it immensely. The progressions were different but the lineup the same: sea buckthorn, lingonberry, pine, elderflower, pear-verbena, beet, cucumber, and carrot, all made in-house and, it goes without saying, with local ingredients.

The opening move on day two was raw squid with crispy rye bread, white currant granité, and dill oil.  The texture of the squid was not to be believed — firm but yielding, scraped perfectly smooth and diced into uniform little cubes — a testament to both the freshness of the product and the meticulousness of those who prepared it.  Each mouthful of this dish played out a most exciting crescendo and decrescendo — sour and herbal for an instant, but fading off smoothly with the touch of cream at the base of the plate.  I was enraptured.

From there, subtle flavors seesawed with more assertive ones — shaved fresh chestnut with bleak roe and thyme, slowly caramelized cauliflower with spruce and horseradish whipped cream.  These both reflected a graceful balance which belied the list of ingredients.

So did the pickles, which, of course, weren’t just pickles. They were a kaleidoscope of ten different vegetables, each prepared in a different brine. Smoked bone marrow and an unctuous pork sauce provided garnish for the vegetables, not vice versa.

Desserts are the domain of Rosio Sanchez, and they’re so seamlessly integrated into the noma ethos that it’s hard to believe she’s been there for just over one year.  Her pine “parfait”, as they called it (I called it a half-frozen sponge with personality), might not have worked anyplace but here.  Beer and bread, as wonderful as they both may be individually, may not have snuggled into the same bowl together with such amazing results.  And an edible snowman probably would have seemed downright silly had it not been for the blizzard blanketing the city twenty four hours a day since our arrival.

In trying to tell you everything about noma I have told you nothing.  I neglected to mention the edible branches hidden in our table’s plant arrangement, the fabulous sourdough bread, or the fact that I now have a not-insignificant fondness for elderberry “capers” (i.e. the pickled unripe berries).  But the truth is that no amount of detail can do justice to the comprehensive effect that noma had on me.  It would be futile for me to exalt just one dish or one meal, impossible to explain why if I don’t get involved with a place like this at some point in my career, I will have considered it a failure.  I can only say that noma is the best restaurant I have yet been to by a margin so great as to be immeasurable.

In the end I can only say I loved it, and thank goodness, my girlfriend loved her gummy candies.

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28 Responses to noma

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  3. aaron says:

    The dirty details…

    Champagne: NV ‘Les Vignes des Montguex’ Extra Brut, Jacques Lassaigne, Montguex
    (a) Deep-fried reindeer moss, porcini powder, crème frâiche
    (b) Sea-buckthorn [and carrot] fruit leather, pickled rose hip
    (c) Edible [malt] branches, autumn leaf [juniper/pine] powder, crème frâiche
    (d) Live fjord shrimp, brown butter emulsion
    (e) Biodynamic leeks [shallow fried/blanched], roasted garlic [aioli?]
    (f) [savory] Speck and blackcurrant [powder] cookie
    (g) Rygeost [smoked cheese, purée with lovage/yellow split peas], [crispy] rye, [crispy] chicken skin
    (h) [poached then] Pickled [in apple vinegar] and smoked quail egg
    (i) “Apple slice” cookie [æbleskiver; older version of tako-yaki], pickled cucumber, muikko [smoked and pickled fish from Finland]
    (j) Carrots with edible soil
    (k) Ciabatta [crisp], cod roe, herbs, duck sauce [skimmed and dried, crisp] [most labor-intensive dish on menu]
    (*bread*) [sourdough baked 2x/day, Swedish goat butter, lard with apple aquavit/pork scratchings]
    (1) Hazelnut [fresh & milk], juniper [vinaigrette], spinach [sauce]
    (2a) Cucumber, dill, [cucumber] ash
    (2b) Razor clam [and its clarified juice], parsley [gel], buttermilk-horseradish [snow]
    (PINE JUICE) [with apple juice; Christmas tree]
    (3) Beef tartare, juniper [powder], tarragon [emulsion], wood sorrel, horseradish
    (4) Danish langostine, parsley [emulsion like a mayo with raw oysters and seawater], söl [Icelandic seaweed]
    (5) Lymfjord oyster [steamed over salt water], cream, tapioca, beach herbs [horseradish? and pickled elderberries]
    (LINGONBERRY JUICE) [w/ woodruff]
    (6) Potato [roasted/chips/purée], milk skin, yogurt [sauce w/ whey & lovage sauce]
    (7) Pike perch, beach cabbage, celeriac [sauteed/caramelized & pureed], ramsonberries [pickled] […and fish bone sauce]
    (8) Fried egg [90sec], hay oil, beach herbs […and parsley, butter, spinach, more herbs, salt]
    (9) Duck [15min/156deg C, and sauce], topaz apple [compressed/skin powder/sauteed in smoked butter/malt+H2O “seeds”], herbs [lovage/thyme/cress]
    (10) Pear [burned/fresh/Danish schnapps], wild herbs, pine [parfait]
    (11) Jerusalem artichoke [ice cream], apple [compressed w/ juice & vinegar], malt [chips], marjoram
    (12) “Brown cheese” [Norwegian; ganache], beet [granité], blackcurrant [dried], tarragon

    Champagne: NV Brut Nature, André Beaufort, Ambonnay
    (*Snacks*) The same as day one minus live shrimp
    (1) Raw squid, [crispy] rye bread, white currant granité, dill oil
    (2) Biodynamic grains, cress, beech nuts [available only every 2-6 years], dried scallop, söl [aka dulse]
    (3) Fresh chestnut, bleek roe [celebratory like caviar], thyme, rye, fresh walnut
    (4) Cauliflower [sauteed 1hr @ low temp], spruce, horseradish whipped cream
    (5) Onion [caramelized then sous vide 15min @ 70deg C/caramelized then pureed under], tapioca, thyme oil, grape juice
    (6) Celery root (sauteed 90min), garden sorrel, [watercress?,] Gotland truffle
    (7) Fresh cheese [made in-house], seaweed butter, cabbage, seaweed, pork belly and seaweed bouillon
    (8) Pickled vegetables [10 diff kinds], veal bone marrow […and a sauce containing pork]
    (9) Beef cheek [braised 24hrs], beet, apple, wood sorrel, bone marrow-beet sauce
    (10) Elderflower snowman [mousse with vinegar powder/sorbet/frozen meringue] with lingonberry
    (11) Soft walnut ice cream, [freeze-dried] blackberries, walnut powder, frozen cream cloud
    (12) “Beer bread” porridge [øllebrød], milk foam, skyr [Icelandic product like crème frâiche] ice cream
    (*Petits Fours*) Smoked bone marrow caramels; chocolate-covered potato chips with fennel seeds; chocolate-covered yogurt mousse and malt cookie [flødeboller]

    • Jane says:

      I am so excited to have a lunch reservation this June. In order to plan, do justice to the wonderful cuisine and savour every moment; could you please comment on the length of time for your lunch?
      Many thanks ….

      • aaron says:

        Hi Jane!
        Congratulations on the reservation. June must be an awesome time of year to eat at Noma. The important thing to note about lunch there is that the kitchen closes at precisely 4pm, no matter what. We booked at 12pm both days, so that wasn’t really a problem for us (though a tour/tea/snacks still kept us there until ~5pm both days). Just something to keep in mind. Have a great trip!

      • Joao says:

        We also got a reservation for lunch at June, 24 🙂 After 3 year in a row dinning at El Bulli I´m expecting to try Noma

  4. Ligeia says:

    The raw squid dish resonates particularly with me. I can picture them having gone and foraged those same herbs from a river bank, the water coming up to play with the dirt (crispy rye) and leaves the way the dill oil does in this dish. An almost photographic reproduction of the source.

  5. Luxeat says:

    I’ve almost forgot how striking some of the Noma dishes are,really unique.
    Thanks for the post!

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  7. Ryan says:

    Awesome writeup. Your pictures are outstanding too.

  8. Laissez Fare says:

    What a wonderful review – and some amazing photos too. Where did you find all that light?! It was quite dark at our table – even at lunch time – in mid-January. Maybe because we were sitting in the middle of the room (?). I wish I could have had two lunches there, but was blown away by my singular experience.

    Maybe they should take a leaf out of David Chang’s book and open a ‘noma bar’ (a la ‘milk bar’) somewhere in CPH and offer a small variety of their snacks to the passing public? That would be awesome.

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  10. Sid Frisjes says:

    We’re of to Noma April 8th. Can’t wait tot go. And indeed, class pictures!

  11. Will says:

    Great pics! I was wondering how hard it was to get the reservation..Did you go online right when it opened?

    • aaron says:

      Anybody who possesses better planning skills than I can secure a reservation at Noma online without much trouble. I just got lucky.

  12. ileana says:

    Amazing that you got to eat here. Thanks for this post!

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  16. Sarah Little says:

    It is my obsession to eat here in the near future. I have only drifted past NOMA on a boat, sadly, not having had the foresight to make a reservation while planning a trip to Copenhagen. And to be perfectly honest, it would be my dream to work there. You said it very well when you lamented “impossible to explain why if I don’t get involved with a place like this at some point in my career, I will have considered it a failure.”

    Bravo on a fantastic written piece about your 2 day experience and riveting, if not long, video!! Thank you for taking us there if only for an impossibly describable moment.

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