How does one best describe a meal at Noma? It is astonishing, and surprising, and a hundred other adjectives that can not quite do it justice. While this may sound like a gross exaggeration, I can confidently state that my experience at the “Best Restaurant in the World” was of the most phenomenal afternoons of my entire life.
Noma, the New-Nordic brainchild of chef Rene Redzepi, is the holder of two Michelin stars and a “Best in the World” title for 4 of the past 5 years. Unsurprisingly, reservations are difficult to come by due to that notoriety, but also due to the tiny size of the establishment– it does only two meal services a day, to a maximum of about 60 people each time. If you want a spot, they become available on the first of the month, for months that are still another three out. And they fill fast. Too fast in my case.
I bemoaned being so close, but still so, so far. I would be travelling 4,000 miles and staying only a 20 minute walk away but they best I would get is a picture outside. When would I get this chance again? I was petulant for a few days. It wasn’t fair!
Thankfully though, I grew up, acted like the adult I am, and realized Noma was not my only option for a Michelin-starred meal. In the last decade Copenhagen has become a mecca for foodies, and has another dozen or so options. So I browsed menus, checked availabilities, and settled on my #2 choice. A reservation was made, I got excited for this new opportunity, and I moved on to planning other aspects of the vacation.
But then a few days before leaving I re-watched the Parts Unknown episode where Bourdain travels to Copenhagen. He states early on that this will not be a show about the city, not in the same way that his other episodes are. No, this was about Noma and the man behind it. And while there were a few brief jaunts into other parts of the Danish capital, the focus was unquestionably about this culinary innovator, and an experience I would be missing out on.
I got bummed out. My inner crabby child returned. But the next morning I went back to the reservation website and noticed for the first time a waiting list option. Was that even there before? And what is this about a communal table? It’s easier to get a spot if you are alright eating with random strangers? Short notice cancellations actually happen? Sign me up!
Monday and Tuesday seemed like decent lunch-time waitlist bets… and then only a few days later, when we had newly landed at the airport, and when we were waiting for our luggage at the carousel, an e-mail arrived. A lunch on Tuesday at noon. The communal table. Write back to accept.
It was a no brainer really. In fact, the only thought was whether or not to go to our original dinner reservation. We ran the numbers… money was not on our side, so the dinner was cancelled.
After a few days of exploring the city, Tuesday arrives. We dress a little fancier than normal, can’t find the bus (construction caused the stop to be moved), and eventually arrive after walking more than half way on foot. The restaurant is located in a renovated warehouse in the Christianshavn Canal district. The outside is landscaped with native flowers and mosses, and two apiaries stand only a few feet from the doors, with honey bees buzzing in the (thankfully) cool wind.
We are the first ones there, but another couple arrives shortly after. We trade off taking pictures for each other, and discover that they too will be dining at the communal table. At 11:45 one of the hostesses invites us in, which was an experience in itself. Noma has anywhere from 60-70 people working on the premises at a given time, and I feel like half that was there to greet us as we walked in the door. I felt like I was someone legitimately important, not a weirdo librarian from Wisconsin.
We are seated and immediately brought Champagne– and not the “champagne” that one typically has in the States, the real, “produced in northern France” deal. This is already the fanciest meal of my life and we haven’t touched any actual food.
After the remaining communal diners arrive (2 couples from Australia, one from New York, and us) we are given the rundown of how the lunch will go– 18 courses, we can choose our drink options after the first few come out, and someone from the staff will describe each meal and how to eat it. That is a huge relief. To call these meals inventive would be an understatement. If left to my own devices who knows how I would’ve tried to consume them.
Courses then begin to arrive– everything is served in unison, to all members of the table. In between, all old utensils or plates are removed, preparing a clean slate for the next presentation.
So here we go :
- Turnip and unripe strawberries marinated in Aquavit – I’ve never had an unripe strawberry before. It actually tasted quite turnip-like. This course was very fresh, and a good palette cleanser for what was to come.
- Sourdough bread with virgin butter – This is probably the best bread I’ve ever had… ever. I’m going to try an avoid overly hyperbolic statements during this writeup, but it’s very, very difficult when it comes to this bread and butter. It is the bread and butter I now dream of. And it was also refilled several times during the meal.
- Asparagus with pine shoots and seaweed – This is my first taste of seaweed outside of a sushi roll, and it is plated in a gorgeous grid-like pattern. I wasn’t planning on taking pictures while I ate, but this breaks my resolve. As with the first dish, it is very cleansing to the senses. It is the final “opener” course.
- The first shoots of the season on a slab of scallop marinade – This course was a unanimous table favorite. The scallop butter was incredible, and the different vegetables had consistencies ranging from raw to charred, and scooping them through that marinade with your fingers was both delicious and fun. At this point we had also selected our beverage options– Jim and I figure that since we’re already there, that we would go all in. Wine pairings it is.
- Sweet peas, milk curd, and sliced kelp – I’m not generally a huge fan of pea soups, but I’d eat this pea soup every day. This was another table favorite. The curd added a fresh creaminess, while the kelp brought a touch of texture.
- A tart with pesto and fresh flowers – This was probably the most beautiful dish of the bunch. The colors of the flowers were just amazing, and they tasted really good too!
- New Danish Potatoes with Horseradish – If course #4 was a party to eat, then this one was an out of control blowout. Before the potatoes arrived everyone was given a small treebranch, complete with leaves attached. The dish itself then comes, potatoes surrounded by the yeasts that they cooked with. How is this eaten? Stab potato with branch! Dip in cream! Repeat!
- Sweet shrimps wrapped in ramson leaves – These were essentially tiny shrimp-filled raviolis. They are a deep sea crustacean, which leads to their incredibly creamy texture.
- Cabbage and rose sandwiches – This was a nice bit of crunch after the smoothness of the shrimp. Also, another flower to eat!
- 100 Year Old Mahogany Clam and Grains – These clams were hand dove by a crazy man off of the coast of Norway. (Paraphrased by one of the staff members)
- Monkfish liver on a toasted slice of sourdough – This was probably the least favorite dish among the table. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t my preference. Very slimy tasting, but the bread was, of course, spot on.
- White asparagus, goosefoot, and barley – Another palate cleansing dish that broke up the string of seafood courses.
- Lobster with nasturtium – A gorgeously presented meal, with the meat covered in small green leaves. You get the lobster tail, but then also a refined and condensed mix of other lobster parts. It is not a great deal of lobster by volume, but the taste was as intense as consuming an entire animal.
- Vegetable Flower – This had a texture that no one expected– what appeared to be a leaf with smaller plants on it ended up like a fruit rollup!
- Roasted Bone Marrow with cabbage leaves and lemon and flower broth – This was our only non-seafood meat of the day (since the food is so locally sourced and seasonal, the more meat heavy menus aren’t offered until later in the year). The plates were set up to allow you to make cabbage leaf wraps using the marrow. My only complaint is that I could’ve used one more leaf. Maybe two.
- Berries and greens soaked in vinegar for one year – This was a board of different fruits and vegetables that had a variety of different consistencies. The vinegar added an interesting flavor to every option.
- Rhubarb and sheep milk yogurt – I am forever a fan of rhubarb AND sheep milk anything, so this was great.
- Forest flavors, chocolate and egg nog – Ever had chocolate flavored moss? Well that was an option on this final course! Along with the moss were several smaller, more traditional chocolates. Also included were small flasks of egg nog.
During the meal we also had about half a dozen different white and orange wines. Though I generally prefer reds, I found no fault with any of the offerings. The “orange” wines were particularly interesting, but I won’t even pretend to be a wine connoisseur.
There is one major thing I want to address about the wine though, and that is the sheer volume. When I’ve done wine pairings at past meals, I’ve gotten one glass per course (or per 2-3 courses if it’s a large prix fix like in this case). At Noma, however, the servers would repeatedly top you off. If a particular wine was your pairing for courses 4-6, you would get seemingly unlimited glasses of that wine during that course range. It required some very careful pacing.
Anyway, the entire lunch took around 3 hours, and following the final course we were ushered to the lounge for coffees and schnapps. Due to the aforementioned wine amounts, I passed on additional alcohol, but did sample the espresso, which was from Ethiopia and had a very unusual flavor that I find difficult to describe. I’ve never had anything quite like it, and I drink a lot of coffee.
After some time in the lounge our host (whose name I desperately wish I could remember!) offered us a kitchen tour, which we had not expected but wholeheartedly welcomed. We moved through the first floor kitchens, the outdoor grilling areas (where they cook on the tiny little Weber Grills that you use for camping), and the second floor which has additional kitchens, a private dinings area, and a large staff hall. We saw interns sharpening the tree branches that you used for the potato dish. We saw cooks preparing the dinner that all of the employees eat at 5PM each night. During the tour our host answered just about any question we would throw out, and allowed us to sample some of the foods being prepared, as well as the different growing herbs and plants. Overall we spent nearly an hour asking and exploring, which was an amazing experience all on its own. One of the couples at the communal table had to leave early, and they certainly missed out!
On our way out, we were each presented with a menu of the day’s courses and wines, as well as a to-go bag with a loaf of bread and a cup of butter (as our table raved endlessly about how amazing it was!). Our host also gave us several recommendations for other eateries around town, a handful of which we were able to make it to in the next few days.
It was an expensive meal, and the longest lunch I’ve ever had, but the entire afternoon was without-a-doubt worth it. The food, the wine, the hospitality, the tour, everything. The service was incredible, the food was inventive and astounding, and the experience was unlike any culinary outing I have ever had. I hope to go back someday, during another season to try another menu, but until then I have some incredible memories. And I encourage anyone who has the chance to go there and experience it all first hand!