There are very few people who can boast that they’ve eaten at the number-one restaurant in the world. I am not one of those people. When I ate at Noma a few weeks ago, it was number two, after a three-year reign at the top. But after this week’s World’s Best Restaurants Awards, René Redzepi’s wonderful Copenhagen restaurant is back to number one.
Global rankings aside, I can confidently, even tearfully, assert that my Noma meal is the best restaurant meal I’ve ever had. And my great fear is that it’s the best I ever will have. Yes, the food, the experience, the epiphany that is Noma, is so good that you’ll oscillate between wild ecstasy and sunken depression when you remember.
Noma is about the food, indubitably. Twenty-one courses, on the night I was there. The printed menu itself is bare, white, the very antithesis of florid. Here are some of the dishes, exactly as detailed on the menu. Gooseberry and elderflower. Moss and cep. Caramelised milk and cod liver. Urchin toast. Burnt leek. Pike head. Potato and löjrom. Wild duck. But Noma is also about the experience, of course, as if food could ever exist in a vacuum. Molecular gastronomy aside.
In the Noma cookbook – although that’s an inappropriate term for something that is really a book of philosophy expressed as comestibles – Redzepi explains the simplicity of the menu: “The things we do should preferably speak for themselves. The greatest form of gastronomic beauty occurs when the guests themselves have the experience, instead of us taking them by the hand and giving them idealised input. They must create their own image of the experience, so it becomes more than just a nice taste.”
I shared a table with 14 strangers, which exacerbated the sense of surrealism you feel arriving at a square, sparsely lit building in a bleak, freezing corner of the nighttime Christianshavn canal quarter. Walking through the kitchen to get to your table, you are greeted cheerily by the 45 or so staff busily prepping.
Every Mad Hatter’s tea party needs a crazy dormouse. Mine was a Swedo-Lebanese doctor seated on my left, whose companion was a super-tall blonde woman. He introduced her as “the most valuable deaf basketball player in the world”. I checked later, and this turned out to be an entirely accurate description.
At one stage, when the waiters put dangerous-looking, serrated hunting knives on our table, he said: “I bet we’re having venison. This is the identical knife I use when I hunt my moose every year.” He then pulled out his iPhone and showed me a picture of said moose being gutted. Needless to say, it wasn’t moose. Noma is never obvious. It was, I seem to remember, duck.
The wine pairings are as intriguing as the food. It turned out that the good doctor also had his own cellar, and he kept exclaiming things like: “This wine! It is crazy! Who makes wine like this!” Think a 2005 Vin de Voile from Michel Augé, and a 2012 noselut from La Sorga.
“Mad” is Danish for “food” (hence Nordisk Mad, or Noma), and this delightful serendipity seems to permeate the dishes. Moss and cep, for example, is dehydrated reindeer moss coated with a powder made of porcini. You are presented with one delicious burnt leek, braaied outside in the sub-zero moonlight by a burly man in a beanie, the leek slit open and drizzled with caviar. A dessert is crispy pig skin coated with chocolate and topped with berries. Incredible tastes, unexpected and surprising, but never jarring.
A month of so before receiving this year’s accolade as the world’s best restaurant, Redzepi announced on Twitter that Noma is relocating to Tokyo for two months. He has promised that he’ll be leaving the Danish ingredients at home, and instead bring Noma’s “mindset and sensibilities to the best of pristine winter produce from all over Japan”.
Imagine the wonders Redzepi will conjure up with new palette.