A lunch at noma
“You can’t get a reservation there — and there’s a months-long waiting list!”
“They serve you flowers, leaves, grass, and moss foraged from the countryside.”
“(noma is) overrated —only two Michelin stars and no longer the ‘best restaurant in the world,’ whatever that means.”
The three quotes above pretty much sum up the words we heard used to describe noma, the Copenhagen restaurant famous — or infamous — for ousting Catalonia’s el Bulli from the top of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2010 and remaining there in 2011, 2012, and 2014.
My wife and I are not Michelin star hunters. We do, however, enjoy good food, and even more so the holistic experience of fine dining as a treat for our senses and as a source of creative inspiration. Hence we have used our birthdays and anniversaries as an excuse to splurge at some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s esteemed restaurants since getting married.
So when we started planning our summer vacation in Europe and decided to devote a major portion of the itinerary to Copenhagen to see the city’s cutting edge architecture and urban development projects, noma naturally came up on our radar.
A bit of background on ourselves: my wife is an architect turned urban designer who “does Sim City for real.” I’m merely a business guy who loves startups and appreciates good design— and cooks at home as a creative outlet.
Especially after watching an Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode on Copenhagen that pretty much focused on noma and its chef René Redzepi, we knew we had to at least put our names on the waiting list (we did try making reservations but as expected, there were no openings during our planned stay in Copenhagen). And we did — actually my wife did — while making reservations at another reputable place in the city ran by a “noma alumni” with the hopes of at least “catching a glimpse.”
So it would be a gross understatement to say that we were very surprised when my wife received an email from the restaurant telling us two seats at lunch at the shared table has became available due to a cancellation (perhaps someone cancelled because it was no longer “Number One?”) and the slots were ours to claim — a week before our departure.
First thing I did? Thanked my wife. Next thing we did? Claim that slot, of course.
Did mentioning we were traveling from the U.S. win some sympathy with the reservation staff, or were we just lucky? Most likely the latter, but we were going to dine at noma. And there we were.
On the day of the reservation, we showed up promptly at noon after viewing an exhibit at the nearby Danish Architectural Center— to be exact, 10 minutes earlier, before the restaurant opened. There were a dozen or so people there. I guess most of them were just there taking photos (or asking if there were any last-minute openings?) but we did later recognize a few faces during lunch. We spent 5 minutes or so taking photos ourselves and checking out the exterior but our patience lasted only that long. 5 minutes to noon, we walked up to one of the staff who were out there with us to ask if he’d let us in a bit early — and he did. Turns out they were already letting in people with noon reservations.
Once inside, we were greeted by the entire kitchen staff with an enthusiastic and warm “Welcome!” I noticed Chef Redzepi among them but did not have the nerve to single him out to shake hands or take a photo with him. In retrospect, singling him out as the “star” could’ve gone against the collegial culture of the place — or perhaps I’m overanalyzing. No regrets there, though. We confirmed our reservation, and were briskly taken to the shared table — a table for 8 that in a cozy corner of the restaurant and tastefully furnished. For that matter, the whole restaurant was tastefully decorated and decorated with style.
At the table, we learned that noma had just two services— lunch and dinner, each running 4 to 5 hours. With about just 40 seats in the main dining room and a dozen seats in the upstairs private room, the restaurant can only serve a bit over 100 diners a day. After dining there, I would say that that their rather small service capacity is constrained by the need to prepare and serve the many courses in their prix-fixe menu (substitution due to allergies, etc. are possible but no “upsells”) with high levels of care and attention and not to “maintain exclusivity,” but I’ll hang on to that thought.
Now I hear “Enough of your observations and thoughts! On with the food!” Just bear with me just a for a few more paragraphs, and on with the show.
We shared the table that day with a multinational, eclectic mix of people. A retired flight attendant from SAS who’s flown around the world. A Polish PhD studuying quantum physics at CalTech(!). A Spanish couple who’s traveled far and wide — and have eaten at the world’s renowned restaurants including el Bulli — who rode their bicycles up to noma that day (that’s Copenhagen). A British female duo out of college, one of them soon moving to New York to pursue a career in fashion journalism. And us, a Japanese born couple transplanted in U.S. soil. After a few awkward minutes we naturally settled into conversation — sharing impressions of the dishes in front of us, recounting past dining experiences, and asking and answering innocent “cross-cultural” questions. That truly enriched the experience — and made the ~5 hour lunch feel much shorter and relaxing. If you are eating at noma, I suggest the shared table — and that’s me the introvert saying that.
Service was attentive, informative, warm, friendly, yet professional. English is the common language at noma — as it was the case at our multinational table— and all our servers, regardless of country of origin, spoke it well. Even more impressive was that each and every server had detailed knowledge of every dish and wine being served, and were able to articulate that knowledge. No busboys or runners here.
Now on with the show! From here I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking and stick to brief descriptions — and spare myself the embarrasment of attempting to discuss each dish and the accompanying wine in any detail. Most importantly, I didn’t take any notes. I initially was going to avoid taking photos as well but could not resist. At least I didn’t Instagram them real-time.
First course: fresh berries and lemon thyme “soup.” Tart, slightly bitter, yet refreshing, cleansing our palates for the following dishes.
Bread service: Øland wheat and virgin butter. Essentially a sourdough bread with unpasturized, freshly churned butter. Sufficient to state that I had to fight the urge to eat more than a piece throughout the meal (and happily succumbed).
Second course: cabbage leaves and white currants. The first “leaf” of the day — a crunchy shell that covered a tasty mousselike concoction. Green painting on the plate was a nettle-based sauce that was good with the bread.
Fourth coruse: green shoots of the season with scallop marinade. Another “leaves-and-grass” dish that noma has a reputation for. Each item on the plate had a distinct taste — variations of sour, sweet, and bitter — somehow brought together with the umami of the scallop marinade that covered the plate.
Fifth course: sweet peas, milk curd, and sliced kelp. My first reaction upon seeing the dish was “abalone?” Umami from the kelp reminded me of Japanese kaiseki dishes but the neutral, creamy flavor of the milk curd was definitely… Danish. But the true winner here were the peas. Crunchy and sweet, complementing the silky milk curd.
The first several dishes were paired with an unfiltered and unpasteurized sake (rice wine) from none other than Japan. Made in a town not far from Tokyo but never heard of the producer before. Surprisingly crisp and dry.
Sixth course: grilled onion. I’ve grilled whole spring onions this way before on charcoal myself, but not charred to this extent and with such depth of flavor from the resulting caramelization. The only dish I thought that I might be able to replicate at home — but probably not.
Seventh course: new Danish potato and nettle. The Danish love their potatoes. Served on a bed of baked salt and wrapped in some kind of leaf, we ate these delicious nuggets using a sharpened branch as a skewer. I might be able to do the branch-as-skewer part, but that’s about it.
Eighth course: flower tart. This looked almost too predictable compared to the other courses, but the subtle flavors of the different flowers and the mildly savory and earthy shell made from dried and powdered seaweed was far more complex and rest our tongues for the following courses. And there were still more to come.
I lost track of where we transitioned to this dry, mineral-rich white wine from Austria, but it paired well with the earthiness of the flower tart. “Trauben, Liebe, und Zeit” means “Grapes, love, and time” — what makes wine good.
Ninth course: sweet shrimps wrapped in nasturtium leaves. Nasturtium — a plant of the watercress family — could very well be the signature “leaf” of noma, at least during its season. It has subtle cabbagelike flavors, and in this dish its distinct round shape is used to great effect as a “ravioli shell” wrapping morsels of succulent (I had to use this word at least once) locally caught shrimp. The sauce was a savory broth of — shrimp shells?
At this point in time all the other tables were settled in and service was in full gear. We at the table estimated there were at least a dozen servers serving the 40 seats in the dining room. There appears to be no table assignments — everyone on the staff was serving everybody. No pretentiousness here, still very friendly and professional.
Tenth course: mahogany clam and grains. Sliced and served sashimi-style in cold (I assume shellfish) broth in its own shell. Nice texture with just a bit of chewiness. Sweet and briny taste, complemented by the “green powder stuff” painted on the shell. I really should’ve taken notes here.
The wine pairing had transitioned to a blend of Grenache gris and Grenache blanc — fruity yet mildly dry white wine perfect with the seafood courses above.
Eleventh course: monkfish liver. Chilled (perhaps lightly frozen) and then shaved paper-thin, was literally ethereal — the server asked us to “enjoy immediately as it would melt away.” Served on crusty, tasty toast. We are no strangers to monkfish (anglerfish) liver, which is quite popular in Japan as ankimo and even considered to be superior to foie gras which it resembles in taste and texture, but this was better than any ankimo (or foie gras for that matter) I’ve had.
Twelfth course: pumpkin, rose petals, and barley. Sweet-savory pumpkin and rose petals are obvious to the eye, barley less so — it was used to make the sauce. A temporary respite from the seafood proteins. Did not know rose petals were edible and could taste good.
The richer flavors of the monkfish and the pumpkin were being complemented with this full-bodied white wine from the Pyrénées that had a nice copper hue.
Then we were served, in lieu of the usual palate-cleansing sorbet, another “leaf dish.” The leaves in this one had a mildly sour flavor and had the effect of cutting through the rich flavors of the preceding two dishes...
…and prepared us for first of the “main courses” (probably a concept not applicable at noma, hence in quotes) accompanied by a dry, aromatic Savagnin (Jura white varietal).
Thirteenth course: lobster and nasturtium. Nasturtium strikes again, coupled with another sweet tasting crustacean, yet without revoking the word “repetitive!” in my mind. The crunchy texture of the nasturitum was used to full effect to remind us of the shell of the perfectly poached lobster. Minimal seasoning, perhaps just salt, just enough to bring out the natural flavors.
Fourteenth course: vegetable flower. Garlic transformed. Mild garlic flavor with a hint of sourness provide a nice transition into the only “meat” course of the day…
…paired with a dry, rich, complex Georgian white blend. Yes, no red wines were served this day. I had no issues, and I’m primarily a red wine guy.
Fifteenth course: roasted bone marrow. No description provided on the “sides” (or perhaps I wasn’t paying attention gloating over the marrow) that continue the “flowers, leaves, and grass” theme. Again, I’m not complaining. To be totally honest, I cannot recall what this tasted like with any detail, except for it being rich, decadent, and delicious.
Sixteenth course: berries and greens soaked in vinegar for one year. Pickles for dessert? Yes, pickles for dessert. Usually would expect something like this being served at the beginning of any course meal (if ever) — in some way, however, serves a nice punctuation mark that signalled the begnning of the end.
“Dessert” was paired with a sparkling Chenin blanc from the Loire. Not too bubbly and a hint of sweetness. If you are having bubbly for dessert, this is the kind of bubbly you want.
I cannot reiterate enough how the staff made you feel relaxed. On my way to relive myself before I tackled dessert, I pointed my camera at the service kitchen and the lady there just turned and posed for me — without any prompting.
Seventeenth course: rhubarb and sheep milk yoghurt. I think this is noma’s version of a cheese course before the sweet conclusion. I believe the “leaves” here are there to provide contrasting colors and texture to the creamy yoghurt and sweet-tart rhubarb because they had a very neutral flavor. But perhaps I was feeling the effect of the wonderful wines I’ve had to this point.
Eighteenth course: forest flavours, chocolate, and egg liqueur. Finally, the moss. Not only moss, also leaves, berries, and other tasty bits covered in chocolate and served on a bed of pine needles and rocks. This is their after-meal chocolate. Gimmicky? I’ll take gimmicky if it’s served like this.
This was served with noma’s take on the eggnog. I usually don’t like eggnog, but again, I’ll make an exception for this one.
Before actually consuming the chocolate course, we were invited to a tour of the restaurant — and led upstairs to the prep kitchen where a platoon of chefs were busy prepping for dinner service. Here, the pea-prepping station.
The guy sawing bones in half to expose the bone marrow.
The nasturtium “shrimp ravioli” wrapping team.
After the prep kitchen we were taken to the “lab and office” area where they had an indoor garden with artificial lighting that kept the foraged leaves, etc. alive and fresh.
After touring some outside prep stations and the service kitchen, for which I lack decent photos of, we were led back downstairs to the lounge area where we were served artisanal coffee in pretty glass cups.
There, I succumbed to the temptation of an after-meal sip of aquavit. That almost did me in.
Fully satisfied, left the restaurant and back to the real world shortly before 5pm— albeit to a gorgeous Copenhagen summer evening. Surprisingly, we weren’t feeling the post-meal bloatedness we usually have after consuming multi-course gourmet meals accompanied by alcohol. Must’ve been all those grasses, leaves, berries, and moss. We did, however, felt like going through a rich and intense sensory experience — having little energy left for evening excursions, we crashed immediately after making it back to our lodgings.
We also skipped dinner.
Bear with me just a bit more and I’m done… I’ll spare you from any of my attempts at enlightening, insightful, or provocative commentary.
Now that I’ve eaten at noma, I think I can respond to the three quotes I placed at the beginning of this essay with some substance.
“You can’t get a reservation there…”
I can only say that I’m deeply grateful to my wife’s for her initiative to put our names on the waiting list. We were blessed with luck, but I think this really proves that “luck is made by putting yourself in the right position. Our fellow diners all took much more effort to be there, which made us appreciate the luck we’ve had. Hope you’ll be as fortunate as we were if you are visiting Copenhagen — which turned out to be a city that we loved for its architecture, publich facilities, culture, views, and the (non-noma) food. At least during summertime.
“They serve you flowers, leaves, grass, and moss…”
They did. Very purposefully, going well beyond just to make the dishes look pretty, or to make some kind of culinary/cultural statement. We also did not feel like being subjects in a gastronomic experiment. The texture, the flavors, and the compositional elements that those “flowers, leaves, grass, and moss” brought to the table made our meal tasty, inspirational, and fun. I feel like I was challenged of my preconceived notions on cooking ingredients, and was won over. I won’t be foraging anytime soon, but I’ll be looking out for the unusual in our local markets for sure.
“(noma is) overrated…”
I won’t go into discussing Michelin stars and “World’s best…” rankings here. They do help you discover restaurants, or establish “standards” (for lack of a better word) to measure your dining experiences against. If you find your tastes don’t quite agree with ratings and rankings, that’s quite all right. The cost of the meal, including wine parings, was in the same range as any other “destination restaurant” we’ve been too. Given the strong US Dollar versus the Denmark Kroner at the time of our visit, we may actually have had a good deal. Dining at any remarkable restaurant of this caliber, however, is not about the price-to-value ratio. It’s about having a unique, enjoyable experience that you keep on talking with your dining mate for many years to come — hopefully until your next visit, if you are so lucky — and sharing the story with people you think you’ll find some resonance with.
Dining at noma was without a doubt, that kind of eating experience.
That’s why I wrote this.
Thank you for reading through, and I hope you enjoyed something about it. If you have comments or feedback, I’d love to hear them. If you know me you’ll know where to find me — if you don’t, well, maybe you’ll find me dining somewhere you find remarkable.