Illustration by Genevieve Santos

A Guide to Lying About Eating at Noma Japan

What the best restaurant in the world’s Japanese tasting menu tastes like based on words and images.


It’s not very difficult nowadays to pretend like you’ve eaten somewhere you haven’t. This isn’t to say it isn’t a pretty shitty—at the very least meaningless—thing to do. Like most lying, it likely is. What I am saying is that restaurants are so meticulously and passionately well-documented today—be it by writing, photos, podcasts and/or video—that if, for whatever reason, you wanted to pretend like you had eaten somewhere you hadn’t, it would not be all that difficult. You could call this a correction—perhaps an overcorrection—spurned on by what we’ve lacked in the past. David Chang, in his more-or-less eulogy for the American ramen phenomenon, gets at this idea:

“What’s happened to ramen in the past decade is a microcosm of the larger food world. In 2003, when I was working at Café Boulud, the other cooks and I used to go down to wd~50 after service just to look at the menu and try to envision what the food might look like. That’s how it used to be before the Internet; you would still go to restaurants, look at their menu, and just imagine.

In this sense, today’s epicurean imagination is dead. There is no need for imagination on the consumer’s part. There’s no need to stare longingly at the menu of the late WD~50 anymore because 1,215 photos of the food and 816 reviews exist on Yelp alone. Deeper dives on Google would undoubtedly produce much more material.


On January 9th of this year, Noma, the Copenhagen based restaurant considered to be the best restaurant in the world, opened its just-over-a-month-long restaurant residency at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, Japan. Last June, over 60,000 people applied to be awarded one of 3,548 lottery-determined reservations to dine there. The cost of the meal would come out to 40,200 yen (~$331 USD).

Early in my following of Noma Japan’s coverage I discovered something interesting: Not many news and media outlets were covering their own writers’ first-hand experiences with Noma Japan. Either they hadn’t been able to obtain a reservation (understandable given the odds) or they were reluctant to pay what it would take to produce a first-hand account of Noma Japan (understandable given the costs entailed).

This is when I began to wonder if any food culture website would post a seemingly original glowing review solely based off other early reviews and social media coverage. Here is the idea I’m getting at:

  • Reviews of restaurants like Noma Japan — high-profile, world-renowned places at which even some of the most ardent foodies will never eat — generate significant interest in internet food culture and would, even as writing, qualify as food porn.
  • Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume there is at least an incentive for food culture websites, looking to generate readership and in some cases revenue, to create their own original-seeming content covering Noma Japan and, for that matter, other high-profile dining experiences.
  • However, it should be noted these dining experiences are pretty much always expensive, not to mention travel-intensive if you are trying to constantly canvas the world’s best restaurants.
  • Therefore, it’s reasonable to imagine that there is at the very least an incentive for food culture websites to come up with more creative, inexpensive ways to create original content covering high-profile dining experiences.
  • Therefore, it’s reasonable to think that food porn based on imagined experiences, without disclosing their imagined experiences could prove viable for food culture websites looking to produce high-performing content at low costs.

As far as I can tell no fake reviews exist (hooray for ethics!). But the idea still persisted.

I wanted to see if it was possible to write a credible-seeming review of Noma Japan without having eaten there.

It’s important to note that what I’m suggesting is different from what went down with Operation Clean Turf, which in 2013 saw 19 “SEO” companies fined for flooding Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch with positive reviews about businesses after being hired by those very businesses to help improve their SEO. What I’m suggesting has nothing to do with a restaurant hiring a company to write glowing reviews in order to improve its business.

What I am suggesting is:

  • Food porn is effective as a means of generating popular internet content.

What I am asking is:

  • Does food porn need to be based on real experiences in order to be effective?
  • If it does not then what is stopping food culture coverage from devolving into a fictional food porn that never discloses itself as being fictional?
  • Obviously the idea of fictional food reviews blatantly betrays journalism’s ethics but does it betray food porn’s ethics?
  • Does food porn have ethics? Is food journalism definitively different from food porn?
  • What is the role of food porn and does it require any sort of rigorous journalistic veracity?
  • Or is food porn free to vacillate dreamily between a superficial truth and fantastical fiction?

#1. Botan ebi with flavours of Nagano forest
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn3GbbFyl4/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. “Flavours of Nagano forest” refers to the ants harvested in Nagano forest. One of Noma’s signature dishes is beef tartare and ants. The reserves of formic acid in the ants produce a citrus-like sourness. BTW, the ants in both dishes are dead.
  2. The botan ebi, however, is alive when it’s served. Jonathan Gold’s botan ebi kicked when he placed it in his mouth.
  3. Here is Rene Redzepi describing his first experience serving live shrimp: “The Cook It Raw in Copenhagen, for example, was the first time I ever served live fjord shrimp. We have done it for years now in Noma, and lots of people expect it, but that idea came out of thinking about rawness and also, “What can we serve that can only happen today?” One way of doing that is taking fjord shrimp, which you can only get once a day, because if you keep them longer they die. They are the way that the ocean tastes on that particular day. At Cook It Raw, I served them in a container that was closed and when people opened them they just saw these animals jumping back and forth. We often eat things that are alive, that you kill by putting in your mouth; the big difference is that you don’t usually have two eyes looking at you. But it gives an amazing sense of camaraderie. “Oh, she ate it, now I have to do it, too…”
  4. What kind of flavor can you expect from live shrimp like this? Flavor-wise, what you’re looking for in a shrimp preparation like this is something 1/3 creamy and 1/3 sweet and 1/3 vaguely brackish enough to let you know it’s seafood. Like with most crustaceans, you’re getting something delicate and a little bit abstract.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Using “Flavors of Nagano forest” in the dish’s title is less about accurately describing the flavor of the ants (which were indeed hand-harvested in Nagano forest) and more of a statement of purpose about what Noma Japan is about: a masterfully balanced vacillation between having a meaningful kind of respect for Japanese food culture AND AT THE SAME TIME expressing the world renown imagination of Rene Redzepi and the Noma.
The best live botan ebi preparations—which this is—offer a surprising sort of creamy sweetness whispered along your palette by a smooth jelly salinity. The ants provide pin pricks of citric sourness which help focus the flavor experience on your palette. Instead of the usual free-form delicateness or fishiness of the seafood at hand, you instead get a more focused presentation of oceanic flavors at their absolute freshest.

#2. Green strawberries with cheese*

(The *asterisk indicates that this dish and some of the dishes below were not served consistently with every tasting menu but rather were rotated in and out depending on the availability, readiness and quality of the ingredients.)

Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn3g3TFymO/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. The type of cheese used in this dish remains unknown. Not many people who have documented their Noma Japan experience seem to have been served this dish. Meaning, if you’re going to lie about having eaten at Noma Japan (which again, lying for no greater purpose than to seem cool is shitty), you shouldn’t say you’ve had this dish.
  2. Acidity is to green strawberries what sweetness is to red strawberries. They also taste lean and tart and put green strawberries more in the ballpark of kiwis than strawberries, and “with a texture like underripe honeydew melon and cucumber.”
  3. At the Copenhagen restaurant, Redzepi and the Noma team constantly seek out what they call the “perfectly unripe” green strawberry.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

The green strawberries—ones that Redzepi calls “perfectly unripe”—emanate a really pleasant kiwi-adjacent tartness. Each has a circular hole cut out of them and in the these circular holes, lies a piece of cheese. As you can imagine, these flavors never merge but rather battle each other at every bite. The acidity of the strawberries and the richness of the cheese seem alive and autonomous in your mouth, tussling and teasing for flavor supremacy, with you, helpless to influence, just there to receive.

#3. Chilled cucumber, green strawberries, sake and basil flowers*
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/yCb9-HjNCn/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. The dish’s four components are sliced cucumber, green strawberries (they appear to be the same “perfectly unripe” ones from above) and basil flowers in a pool of sauce made from sake lees.
  2. I could only find a photo of the dish on Rene Redzepi’s Instagram which initially led me to believe it was either a dish in progress or part of a staff meal. However, I later discovered this was an actual dish on the menu though not necessarily a dish that everyone got. Tan Hsueh Yun of The Strait Times seems like the only reporter to have eaten the dish.
  3. Basil flowers provide the same flavor you’d expect from basil leaves only lined with an unmistakeable presence of mint.
  4. Sake lees are the leftover remnants from the sake making process. Sake lees is often used in cooking in Japan to accentuate the umami flavor of the food it’s complementing. It’s a demure flavor, a little sweet, a little yeasty, a little funky, very much like sake itself.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

You wouldn’t be wrong to call this tableau a deconstruction of a really good sake. The sauce made from sake lees represents your base for the sake, a faint sweetness somewhere in the distance, a pecking of yeastiness and a shy bit of funkiness. The rest of the components flow together in quite lovely fashion, with the mellow vegetal flavor of the cucumbers, the zinging tartness of the green strawberries and the basil-mint confusion from the basil flowers creating a combination nearly sacred in its sense of balance. This dish has a very modest goal — to express a raw sense of sake — but manages to achieve it flawlessly.

#4. Assorted citrus with Okinawa chili peppers
Photo from the Instagram of Rene Redzepi (https://instagram.com/p/ybfmcPjNLf/)
Photo from the Instagram of Rene Redzepi (https://instagram.com/p/y7GYsujNNo/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. The dish consists of four types of citrus. The citrus sit in a little puddle of oil made by marinating kombu seaweed. Resting atop the citrus are sliced Okinawan long peppers, pine salted sansho leaves and Japanese peppercorn.
  2. The kombu (edible kelp) variety used and roasted for the oil was rishiri kombu. Rishiri kombu is a sweeter and saltier kombu than most other kombu, but the dominating effect of kombu is umami.
  3. I had trouble figuring out what exactly the four types of citrus are. I read in one place: hassuku, kabuosu, mikan, and suntan. I read elsewhere: banpeiyu (pomelo); mikan (mandarin orange); and two types of buntan (from Kōchi). Efforts to parse the difference between the two lists other than in name have failed.
  4. Here’s a breakdown of the different possible citrus in the dish. Banpeiyu: Think of it as an variety of a pomelo, juicy with a nice balance of sweetness and tartness. Buntan: A large sweet type of grapefruit grown in the mild climate of the Kōchi Prefecture. Hassuku: Grapefruit-sized orange-looking fruit that doesn’t taste like grapefruit or oranges. The flavor can be described as being more tart, vaguely sour but still a little sweet and definitely juicy. Kabuosu: A yellow fruit that’s a close relative to yuzu. Its juice has the sharp acidity of a lemon. Its sourness is complimented by a unique fragrance. Mikan: Super sweet and tender like the fruit of a satsuma.
  5. The Okinawan long peppers are apparently pickled in apple vinegar, which I imagine adds a nice heat-tempering shape to the pepper’s heat.
  6. Garnishing the citrus slices are pine salted sansho leaves. These leaves bestow a minty-lemon-like flavor to the dish. When used in Japan, they’re meant to convey an imminent spring season.
  7. The Japanese peppercorn’s sharp citrus-like flavor produces a buzzing, inordinately long-lasting tingling experience. It adds dimensions to the flavor experience at hand.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

This dish takes citrus to new heights. Each type of citrus boasts varying degrees of sweetness, tartness and sourness but they’re all married together by an unavoidable juiciness. The kombu oil supplies a mild umami to set the stage for the peculiar heat of the pickled Okinawan long peppers, the minty lemon luster of the sansho leaves and the electrocuting buzz of the Japanese peppercorns. This chaotic idea results in a three-dimensional citrus flavor within which sweetness, tartness and sourness are beautifully and interestingly interrogated for their worth at every chew.

#5. Shaved monkfish liver
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn36lBlyml/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. This preparation saw the monkfish liver smoked and then frozen and then shaved atop a slice of toast expressing — according to Jonathan Gold — a very strong rye flavor.
  2. When done well, ankimo (monkfish liver) holds the same buttery, mouth-melting promise of foie gras. However, I’ve found it’s got an undeniable funk and a twisted richness to it that makes you really work for the apogee of its flavor experience, more so than your standard rich liver preparation.
  3. “The liver had been brined in salt, lemon thyme, juniper berries, dried coriander seeds and bay leaves, with some kelp salt on top,” diner Kayoubi Desu wrote. “The monkfish liver comes from the only female fish monger in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji market,” Adam Platt of Grub Street noted.
  4. The bread used for the toast was baked by Le Sucre Coeur in Osaka. Le Sucre Coeur is arguably the most famous bakery in Osaka and you can imagine it is either better or at least as good as any bakery in Tokyo given that the restaurant was located in Tokyo yet still sourced its bread from Osaka.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Good ankimo always lives up to its nickname “the foie gras of the sea”. This beautiful preparation produces the same great heights that come with being the foie gras of the sea with more meticulousness along the way. The coldness of the ankimo shavings really accentuates the act of it melting in your mouth. Its brine of salt, lemon thyme, juniper berries, dried coriander seeds and bay leaves produces a faraway herbacious sweetness to give edges and angles to the not-to-be-fucked-with rich livery funk of the ankimo’s flavor. The shavings sit atop a piece of Le Sucre Coeur bread toasted into a perfectly crusty, roaring rye redolence.

#6. Cuttlefish soba with a cold broth of roses
Photo from the Instagram of Rene Redzepi (https://instagram.com/p/yHkcEMjNKJ/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. This dish features cuttlefish that has been alive the morning of the day it’s served. Once killed, they paint the cuttlefish with fermented cuttlefish guts—which, according to Jonathan Gold, had been aged for about six months in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental. Then they cut the cuttlefish so it resembles the shape of soba noodles.
  2. Cuttlefish have more flavor than squid but less flavor and less meatiness than octopus. The fermented cuttlefish guts bring out the salty, fishiness of the fresh cuttlefish.
  3. Accompanying the cuttlefish soba is a bowl of cold pine dashi with several fresh Okinawan rose petals floating on top.
  4. The rose petals I imagine produce a floral vegetal flavor.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Contrast—at its best in food—contrives a magical sense of novelty and a balanced sense of flavor. The cuttlefish soba and pine dashi dish represents this idea in the fullest. Alone, the tender, freshly killed cuttlefish soba sings with the fishy umami stink of the fermented cuttlefish guts with which it was painted. Alone, the accompanying dipping bowl of cold pine dashi with fresh Okinawan rose petals portrays a sense of an edible forest in the fall with just the faintest floral and vegetal perfume. Together, the dashi and rose petals soften the intensity of the cuttlefish soba’s stink and in turn, the cuttlefish soba gives the dashi and rose petals a savory heft, which altogether produces something beyond umami, beyond the forest and the floral, culinary contrast’s best case scenario: a new flavor altogether.

#7. Freshwater clam tart
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn4lm3lynO/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. Probably one of the most talked about dishes from Noma Japan. Look at the picture. Have you ever seen a clam tart before (other than at maybe Noma in Copenhagen)?
  2. A big talking point of the dish are the Shijimi clams. Each tiny clam is apparently incredibly labor-intensive to shuck. With each slice of clam tart boasting anywhere from 40 to 50 clams, you can imagine the hours and intensity it takes to prepare this dish.
  3. Interestingly enough these clams are never really eaten in Japan. Because they’re so hard to shuck and because the meat is so small and on its own unrewarding, they’re instead mostly used to flavor miso soup (with the shell on).
  4. Layering the bottom of the tart’s “filling” is a paste made from kiwi, kaffir lime, parsley and grated fresh wasabi.
  5. Kaffir limes, by the way, aren’t actually limes though they are a citrus. They boast a war of an intense tanginess and a strong unique oily fragrance. It’s generally used with other things to add a tanginess to something perhaps savory or fruity.
  6. The tart’s crust is made from dried kombu seaweed and flour.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Words are great but sometimes a picture will do just fine and then some. In the case of the freshwater clam tart, this applies. Look at it. Tarts and pies are such universal and comforting ideas. Those ideas get suckerpunched and chokeslammed by the intrusion of forty to fifty tiny little glistening freshwater clams instantly becoming the coolest, most next-level pie filling you’ve ever seen. These clams—Shijimi clams—commonly flavor miso soups all over Japan but are rarely if ever eaten raw because of the imbalanced labor-to-reward ratio entailing their shucking. Considering each tart here consists of 40 to 50 clams, you can imagine the tedious lengths the Noma team has to endure to prepare to serve this dish every day.
The clams themselves carry a surreptitious brininess despite being freshwater clams. One alone could seem disappointing but a bite of several at once conjures the ghost of an indistinct sweet seafood flavor to haunt the knifing stabs of the wild kiwi paste sitting below the clams. In addition to wild kiwis, the paste is made from kaffir limes, parsley and grated wasabi, creating a sour-no-it’s-sweet-no-it’s-sour stinging of a flavor bomb. The crust is made from dried kombu seaweed and flour. When consumed all together, the sour-sweetness of the paste and the umami of the crust entertain you and satiate your desire for full-on flavor while the essence of the clams linger and elude, like anything worth truly pursuing.

#8. Uni tart*
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/x4HknUDNKE/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. Diner feedback for the clam tart (above) was not positive enough to merit the labor that went into that dish so they began, towards the end of Noma Japan’s run, substituting the clam tart dish with an uni tart, according to diner Kenneth Tiong. I also believe even when they were serving the clam tart, they were only serving the clam tart to select and VIP customers. Jonathan Gold tells a funny story of how a woman became offended when she realized she was the only person at her table who was served a clam tart (while others at her table were served the uni tart), failing to realize that the clam tart was supposed to be the dish more greatly appreciated.
  2. The dish uses a type of Hokkaido uni called bafun uni. “The uni from Hokkaido is the most prized because of the kombu, or kelp, that they feed on, and the clean water where they live.” Bafun uni bears a darker orange coloration than other uni and in concert with its deeper color, offers a sweeter, more umami-rich flavor than other unis. Bafun uni isn’t in season until the summer so I’m not sure what kind of arrangement they had in obtaining it. I did read in the Guardian article that covered the behind the scenes lead up to Noma Japan’s opening that there was some disappointment about the uni they were using but it doesn’t say whether Redzepi and the Noma team found better uni. For what it’s worth, the uni pictured above looks perfect.
  3. It features the same paste of wild kiwi, kafir lime, parsley and grated fresh wasabi and the same kombu-flour crust as the clam tart (above).
  4. I do have my questions about how well uni and the paste pair together. I’m a pretty big advocate of eating uni as simply as possible, like uni nigiri is all you really need (also full disclosure, I really don’t like kiwis). That strong-flavored paste seems perfect for complimenting the subtle and accommodating flavor of the Shijimi clams. But uni is really not subtle, at least comparatively speaking.
  5. I suppose the basic question I always like to ask of more complex uni dishes is: How are you going to improve the uni? Probably the best non-simplistic uni dish I’ve had is the Uni Dynamite dish at Roy Choi’s POT, a dish that is undeniably tasty but also barely an uni dish. It’d be like using Lebron James as a spot-up three-point shooter. It “working” or “tasting good” is not the point.
  6. All that being said, I could see Redzepi’s use of uni being a little less obfuscated than I’m thinking—or perhaps overthinking.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Anybody who eats sushi can attest to the transcendent pleasures provided by one mere piece of uni nigiri. Uni at its best manages to be both milky and oceanic, producing a flavor experience unlike anything else. There is a seemingly impossible, extremely tiny window to make sweet dairy flavors and briny seafood flavors work in concert and the point you need to make to any and all uni doubters is that uni is pretty much the only thing on planet Earth that accomplishes this. The idea of having 10 pieces of uni in one dish is unimaginable.
While uni is best enjoyed in its more simplistic preparations, the expertise of the wild kiwi paste and the kombu-flavored crust performs somewhat of a culinary miracle here: it manages to enhance the flavor of the uni while leaving room for its own flavors to be appreciated. It’s probably not as harmonious as it could be but who cares: it’s ten pieces of beautiful bafun uni, the sweetest and richest type of uni. This is apex decadence. It’s opulence incarnate.

#9. Tofu and shaved wild walnuts
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn40atlynf/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. If the freshwater clam pie dish was the most talked about dish, the tofu and shaved wild walnuts dish seemed to be the consensus best dish at Noma Japan.
  2. “Even René’s take on tofu is a revelation. Freshly ground from organic beans, the soy milk is set with a special coagulant, steamed for 20 minutes and topped with dainty white morsels of walnut collected last fall from wild trees. There was a layer of miso and parsley sauce at the very bottom. Tofu will always taste like tofu. But this is some of the sweetest in all Japan.” — Robbie Swinnerton, food reviewer for Japan Times
  3. “There’s no question that my first meal at Kikunoi was an eye-opening experience. That was, if you will, my virginity taken. It was fall in Kyoto. The leaves were falling and everything was red. I remember steamed tofu and the yuzu-miso sauce. They make their own tofu, with fresh soy milk using a wooden spoon. You know when you’ve never had tofu like that before, which I hadn’t — it’s revelatory.” — Rene Redezepi responding to a question about which restaurants in Japan had made an impression on him
  4. The three components of the dish are (1) the aforementioned tofu, (2) shaved wild walnuts, which can have a a creamy, buttery flavor, (3) a sauce made from housemade miso, yuzu and parsley. While the flavor of miso can vary wildly depending on the variety, I’ve seen this miso described as sweet and salty. Yuzu has a sort of rounded tartness to it as opposed to say the piquant tartness of a lemon. Parsley usually has a mist of herbal aromas to it if you focus on it enough but if not, it is kind of weightless and forgettable.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Inspired by a housemade tofu and yuzu course at Kikunoi in Kyoto, Rene Redzepi has created here a masterful dish of his own. You get the sense that we don’t talk about the high-level gustatory experience of tofu because we assume all tofu is tasteless or mild and inoffensive. It’s true great tofu tends to defy productive articulation but not because it lacks taste but rather because its taste is ineffable. It’s something we know is good but can’t quite put into words.
The housemade steamed tofu here melts with barely a provocation. Its utter silkiness contrasts brilliantly with the shavings of wild walnuts, whose creaminess and butteriness massage the tofu—which is great on its own—into something greater. The sauce of housemade miso textured with yuzu and parsley envelopes the already amazing tofu and walnuts with an unholy threeway volley of sweet and salty and umami. This is a best case scenario dish. It can be something that just tastes really freaking good and that’s that, but it can also be something that bears an admirable complexity and something that through some good cognition helps us reason why it’s worth pursuing loftier levels of things that taste good.

#10. Scallops dried for two days with beech nuts and kelp
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn4SejFym6/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. One of the descriptions people frequently used to describe the dish was “scallop fudge”. Apparently, scallop fudge is used at Noma in Copenhagen.
  2. “Scallops dried for two days are made into a thick fudge, with beeswax “and a little bit of butter” (as served in CPH). But the Japan version gets an extra treatment: it gets aerated into a light, spongey texture. Underneath this there were crunchy little beech nuts (foraged in the autumn) and kombu seaweed oil, this one darker and richer than the kombu oil served with the citrus earlier. What a dish. This one blew us all away!” — Robbie Swinnerton (I found Swinnerton’s review of Noma Japan to be the best of any I read. This is the last time in this piece where I’ll quote him so if you’re interested, control-click this link here.)
  3. Beech nuts are starchy and kind of meaty in the way nuts can be meaty, also accompanied with, depending on the freshness of the nut, a woody sweetness.
  4. My guess is the richer version of Noma Japan’s kombu seaweed oil here offers a stronger sense of umami.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

With food stuff that would probably be labeled — right or wrong, good or bad — “molecular gastronomy”, you always hope the novelty and extra effort produce a better and/or newer version of the food stuff in question; not simply a redesign of the form that produces the same (or inferior) flavor. The scallop dish — which has been referred to as scallop fudge — justifies its unique form here with its heightened scallop flavor. This heightened flavor comes from the process of drying the scallops out for two whole days at which point, some beeswax and some butter help turn them into a fudge ready to be aerated into something lighter and less intimidating. The final product has a fine grain texture and an explosive scallop flavor feebly reined in by the woody sweetness of the beech nuts and the umami-forward wetness of the dark kombu seaweed oil.

#11. Uni, maitake and cabbage*
Photo from the Instagram of restaurant_hunter (https://instagram.com/p/zFxTwQHN-W/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. The cabbage leaf simmers for two days in water infused with wild mushrooms.
  2. It looks like the uni is painted on its underside with a sauce. Several people have noted the sauce tastes of maitake mushrooms and miso. If it’s the housemade miso from the tofu dish, it’s got a sweet-salty balance. The maitake mushrooms should merge well with the miso and impart a barely fruit, rightfully earthy flavor.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

There’s nothing ever REALLY wrong with gyoza. Good gyoza is great and bad gyoza is still pretty good. I suppose you could say what I like about gyoza and for that matter, all forms of dumplings is how you can take in the flavor experience on your own terms as opposed to trying to mouth-wrangle disparate pieces of food into a cohesive flavor experience. This applies very well to the modified gyoza here. The cabbage — which has been simmered for two days straight in wild-mushroom-infused water — hugs in both the uni and the brushstroke of miso and maitake mushroom sauce that lies below the uni. In a more separated arrangement, the dish could come off as too loose and consequently imbalanced when eaten. However, in gyoza form, you get two or three supremely balanced bites of the sweet earthy aromatics of the mushrooms breathing a heavy, meaty air of umami into the milky oceanic confluence of the uni.

#12. Hokkori pumpkin with cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn4-GHlynl/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. What you have here are slivers of Hokkori pumpkin decorated with thin twigs of roasted seaweed topped with salt-dried cherry blossoms and sitting in dots of cherry wood oil and a milky sauce of fermented barley koji and butter.
  2. Hokkori pumpkin generally offers a very rich, nutty, sweet flavor. This pumpkin has been simmered with katsuobushi. Katsuobushi (also known as bonito flakes) is dried, fermented, smoked skipjack tuna. Despite how intense this sounds, the overall flavor of katsuobushi is pretty subtle. I imagine it gives a nice light wash of umami flavor to the pumpkin.
  3. I’m not sure what the effects of salt-drying the cherry blossoms are, given that in most food-related cases, cherry blossoms are preserved in salt before being ready for consumption. It seems common for the flavor of cherry blossoms to be described as lightly sweet and lightly sour amidst a general flowery fragrance. However, I do get the sense the blossoms themselves here were somewhat ornamental. Also, for what it’s worth, I also saw this dish with Japanese caviar replacing the cherry blossoms.
  4. Koji is steamed rice or, in this dish’s case, steamed barley with koji mold spores cultivated on it. It is the essential ingredient in making sake. It has also been used to make soy sauce, miso and other traditional Japanese foods. The goal in using koji, especially in sauce like the one here, is to enhance the umami and really rouse the savoriness out of whatever it’s complementing.
  5. If the cherry wood oil is anything like using cherry wood to smoke meats, you can expect a very mild and vaguely sweet, smoky flavor. Nothing overwhelming. Just enough to make you aware it’s there.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Since this is probably the prettiest plating of the meal, it’s worth pausing for a moment to admire the overall plating at Noma Japan. Plating isn’t easy. Achieving simultaneous art and function often proves elusive. You want the plate of food to stimulate the diner’s imagination to such an extent that the diner more thoughtfully consumes the food. But you don’t want this artistic intent to obscure the diner’s ability to consume the food in the way it was intended to be consumed. For the most part, the plating at Noma Japan nails this idea of balancing art with function.
Well-executed plating really helps with a dish like the Hokkori pumpkin dish. If you’re not paying attention, the nuances of its flavor could move right past you without notice. This is fine because even without thinking about it, the dish is a beautifully nutty and sweet and smokey squash dish. But upon closer, more thoughtful inspection, you get so much more. Sure, the Hokkori pumpkin is rich, nutty and sweet. But it also has, what I can only describe, as a strong sort of tongue-paralyzing umami to it, induced by the katsuobushi it was simmered in and the milky somewhat sour sauce of butter and fermented barley koji that it sits in. Sure the cherry wood oil adds a beautifully sweet, smokiness. But it also transforms everything else, when consumed altogether in balance, into a having a kind of fresh woodsy flavor. What you miss when you don’t think about it is not just a tasty squash dish but the gustatory equivalent of a beautiful autumnal scene painted with perfect light.

#13. Fermented black garlic leather
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn5IHwlynx/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. Black garlic is just regular garlic that undergoes an intense caramelization process. Whole bulbs of garlic are put in extreme heat within a fermentation process that lasts a month, after which, it is cooled and dried. The flavor has been described as “sweet and syrupy with hints of balsamic vinegar and tamarind,” which, based off my experience with it, is a spot-on description.
  2. Normally, black garlic has a soft dried fruit texture. According to many of the Noma Japan reviews, however, this black garlic preparation has a leathery texture. This is possibly due to this dish being made from a housemade black garlic paste that was dehydrated at a low temperature so that they could fold the final product into these origami-inspired petals.
  3. The black garlic petals here are brushed with rose oil, juniper berries and dusted with ant powder.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Everything in culture is vulnerable to “The Emperor’s New Clothes” critiques but only food and art seem constantly and perhaps, at times, rightfully threatened. When the rubric for quality exists as subjectively as it does in food and in art, liking something and disliking something become equally easy and at times, equally capable of being valid. So when confronted with black garlic in leaf form, more or less unadorned, on the ~$331 tasting menu of the best restaurant in the world, it can feel a little like a blank canvas hanging on the wall. Is this a flagrant abuse of our willingness to believe in something we don’t quite 100% understand? Has the artist taken advantage of our vulnerable sense of quality?
Luckily for food, you can, you know, like, eat it. While consensus notions about what is good food and what is bad food remain as elusive as they do for art, the individual experience of consuming and tasting food offers comfort in consumption that even the greatest contemplation of art cannot. Which helps here because black garlic is delicious. The black garlic here— shaped like leaves with the playful leather texture of a fine dining fruit roll-up — is rubbed with some rose oil for floral fragrance and some ant powder for acidity and some juniper berries for both floral fragrance and acidity. The cumulative effect is a nice delicate accent for the utter largeness of the stomping balsamic-vinegar-and-tamarind dance of the black garlic. It’s a very easy flavor. But this easy flavor just tastes really good. Sometimes there’s no need to overthink that.

#14. Preserved egg with root vegetables
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn5OJFFyn0/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. This seems like the consensus least favorite dish (which is still better than most restaurant’s best, I imagine). Many people seemed fine reducing it to the description of “roots and starches with ginger.”
  2. The list of the dish’s components varied (though not as much as the citrus dish) from review to review. Here are the things that have been mentioned as having been in this dish: preserved egg yolk cured in beef (I don’t know if this means it bears similarities to a century egg or not), ginger, lotus root, kuwai, mukago, chorogi, gobo, yurine, water chestnut, lily bulbs, ginger and raw peanut milk.
  3. All the root vegetables have been described as having been lightly cooked. Lotus root is crunchy and at its best, it has a nice sweetness and tanginess balance. Chorogi, also known as Chinese artichoke, is crunchy and has an earthy flavor foundation with a nutty sweetness recalling water-chestnut-meets-ripe-apple sweetness of jicama. Gobo, the Japanese name for the taproot of the young perennial burdock plant, conveys a sweet, mild and earth flavor within its crisp texture. Kuwai, also known as three-leafed arrowhead, offers a slightly bitter, sweet and nutty flavor. Its texture is similar to that of potato. Mukagos, a propagule of yama-imo yams, “have a rich flavor and aroma of a Japanese yam.” Japanese yams tend to be dry and super starchy while providing a very slight, demure sweetness. Yurine, a garlic-looking vegetable found in Hokkaido, has a mild potato-like flavor though they do possess the potential for some of the sweet starchiness of Kabocha or Japanese sweet potatoes.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

There has been a lot of talk of this being the worst dish on the menu. From what I gather, this hearty bowl of starches and root vegetables has received some negative attention not necessarily because it tastes bad but rather because of how ill-fitting it is within the overall context of Noma Japan’s tasting menu experience. I’ll grant this is a potentially valid claim. There’s a certain lack of delicateness here that negatively contrasts it with the other dishes.
But on its own, free from the context of being within a tasting menu, this provides some excellent eating. One half of the dish consists of snappy things like the lotus root, chorogi (Chinese artichoke) and gobo (taproot of burdock plant). The other half of the dish consists of soft starchy stuff like the kuwai (like a potato), mukago (like a yam) and yurine (like a mild potato). What you get, at your own pace, is a sequence of contrasting textures and varying nuttiness and subtle starchy sweetness, bequeathed a nutty heft by the light pool of peanut milk within which it sits.
Whether it belongs on Noma Japan’s tasting menu or some special one-dish Noma foodstand at a train station is perhaps the start of an even greater question about whether a great tasting menu should be like one big symphony or should be like a playlist of hit songs. Regardless, alone this is a deeply delicious paean to Japanese vegetables.

#15. Wild duck brushed with soy rye with matsubusu berries dipping sauce
Photo from the Instagram of Rene Redzepi (https://instagram.com/p/yUNbbsjNGx/)
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn5ZLkFyn-/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. In 2009, Rene Redzepi co-founded Cook It Raw. Cook It Raw brings together a small group of some of the best chefs from around the world for three days as they each prepare one dish using local ingredients and using as few appliances as possible — ideally only using your hands, a knife and some fire if possible.
  2. In 2011, Cook It Raw — which changes locations every year — was hosted in the Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan. The event was covered by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations (see video above). In preparation for the actual dinner, Bourdain and his crew followed Sean Brock to Katano Kamoike pond in Kaga City as he tried to catch wild duck using a traditional duck hunting method called Sakaami ryo which sees the hunter trying to catch ducks using only a net, shot straight up into the air as if it were part of a very large slingshot (see @24:30 of the video above). Despite Bourdain — both somewhat rhetorically and somewhat genuinely — asking why they couldn’t just capture the ducks via simpler more modern methods, it was never really explained why people still try to catch ducks this way. One person mentioned it doesn’t hurt the ducks but in Noma Japan’s wild duck dish, the duck has indeed been caught via net but apparently the duck is also strangled to ensure no blood loss, so perhaps the part about not hurting the ducks doesn’t apply to this dish.
  3. But then why? Is it for the flavor? In Khoon Choy Lee’s book Japan: Between Myth and Reality, Lee describes an annual event put on by the Imperial Palace at the Imperial Preserves in which people are led to a trench somewhere on the preserves and have an opportunity to catch wild ducks (stored in a tiny house within the trench until the people are ready to catch them). Reading this furthered my understanding of its importance as a tradition within Japanese culture but did little in providing understanding as to the gustatory benefits of catching and killing ducks in this manner, as Lee writes, “After the game, we had lunch at the estate and some delicious ducks were served in a barbecue on a piece of stone, which tasted nice with sake. But they were not the ducks we caught. We had earlier enjoyed another game of letting off the ducks we caught.”
  4. “On a Kaga evening we will head out with the hunters and hide in the sakaba bushes, and witness how they throw their Y shaped net 12 metros into the air just as the ducks take flight. This net combined with the dusk light ensures fair odds for the ducks and no more than 20% are caught each season. This 300 year old technique is preserved intact, and no other form of weapon can be used.” — 2011 Cook It Raw program
  5. Adam Sachs, who covered Cook It Raw 2011 for Travel and Leisure, wrote after spending one evening duck hunting with the Cook It Raw chefs, “One evening, the group joins a traditional duck hunt. Sakaami ryo, as the technique is known, requires quick hands and enduring patience. The hunters, mostly older men with decades of practice, crouch on a ledge in silence as the day’s light fades and winds shift. We wait motionless beside them until, finally, a screaming, jetlike blast of air above our heads announces the ducks’ departure. The hunters hurl their handmade nets up into the darkness. The nets fall back empty. The hunters are stoic, sanguine, quite possibly vegetarian. This whole elaborate business of not catching ducks seems a Japanese lesson of some kind, though I’m not sure about what. When I ask the chefs why they left their businesses and families behind for a feral romp in the woods of Ishikawa, the answers strike a similar note: the final dinner isn’t the point. As Daniel Patterson, of Coi, in San Francisco, says, “The process is the point.” The point, like the best kind of curious, wandering travel, is simply to get out into the world and be inspired by it.”
  6. As for the actual dish at Noma Japan, Adam Platt describes it best: “The main course is a roasted wild duck, caught according to ancient custom, using nets in the marshlands of Akita province, which is just south of Hokkaido. The duck is soaked in barley and mushrooms for days, grilled, then cut into rich, livery slices, plated with a single gnarled claw and a bisected head. Redzepi says it’s the only dish that has been regularly sent back to the kitchen, usually by Chinese guests who are used to Peking duck, which is crisp, fatty, farm-raised, and cooked through.”
  7. Before roasted on the yakitori grill, the duck is brushed with what they’re calling soy rye — a soy-sauce-like sauce but made from rye.
  8. The wild matsubusa berry dipping sauce was commonly described as fiercely tart and someone detected a nice sweetness.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Do intentions get to play a part in determining the value of food? In art, the most off-putting and the most ordinary and the most opaque things can have at least some of their negatively received elements mollified by interesting or intelligent intentions. In food, if something doesn’t taste as good as you think it should taste but the chef who conceived the dish had very admirable intentions, where does that leave your thoughts on the food?
At first, you want to think intentions are intentions and flavors are flavors, each separate from each other. That may suffice on a certain shallow level. But when we talk about something tasting good, what are the terms of our conscious and unconscious rubric of quality? If a chef intends for a dish to taste a certain way and it does in fact taste that way, what does that leave us to do? Do we stay ensconced within our own personal rubric of quality, content to compliment and condemn based on something tasting good or bad to our senses of taste? Or is there some value in attempting to meet the chef closer to their own context? Does calling something good tasting or bad tasting require both our senses and our empathy?
The duck for the wild duck dish is caught using a traditional Japanese technique called Sakaami ryo which sees the hunter trying to catch ducks using only a net, shot straight up into the air as if it were part of a very large slingshot. This seems like one of those things that’s more about the process than the result. A not insignificant amount of diners have expressed some displeasure with this dish. In his review for Grub Street, Adam Platt wrote, “Redzepi says it’s the only dish that has been regularly sent back to the kitchen, usually by Chinese guests who are used to Peking duck, which is crisp, fatty, farm-raised, and cooked through.”
All this isn’t to say this isn’t a good dish. This is very well-prepared, well-cooked duck. It includes virtually every edible piece of the duck, meaning what is eaten varies dramatically in both texture and taste. The breast and thigh taste texturally delicious in their own ways, both rich with meaty, gamey liver-like aromatics, balanced beautifully with the forgiving tarty sweetness of the wild matsubusa berry dipping sauce.
However, in concert with some of the Chinese guests, one or two parts here offer a not-so delicious flavor experience. Does this leave us with a flawed dish? Do we simply say some of the dish tasted fantastic and other parts of the dish tasted bad? Does that suffice or is this somehow us failing to understand or failing to try to understand a sense of quality that is not immediately evident to us?

#16. Yeast and turnip cooked in shiitake
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn5g_vFyoH/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. This dish features a half a turnip that has been poached in shiitake mushroom broth. It sits simply in a broth of toasted yeast, parsley oil and lemon verbena.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Restraint can be masterful. On TV, you can hear a lot of chefs and food TV personalities talk about restraint and how it’s the mark of a great chef when restraint leads to great flavors. Yet in real life, while great chefs certainly abound and increase by the day, restraint is a bit harder to find. This may be because we think of restraint as simple and, at least in the U.S., we don’t like to pay a lot of money for “simple” — as simple as that sounds. Ordering a simple sounding dish can often lead you to wonder whether or not this is some high-margin dish thrown onto the menu for suckers to order.
This is why the delicious instances of restraint on Noma Japan’s menu are beautiful to behold. This can be the ecstasy of tasting menus. No casual diner would order this on a menu that also included an uni tart, scallop fudge and shaved ankimo on toast. But because it’s part of a tasting menu, you are forced to eat it, much to your benefit. This dish features a half a turnip — cooked in shiitake mushroom broth — that comes out to you on its own before having a broth made from toasted yeast, parsley oil and lemon verbena poured over it. The turnip is sweet and soft with its tiptoeing notes of pepper softened by the woodsy umami meatiness of the remnant mushroom broth. The yeast broth bears a strong savory flavor that gives the dish a sense of heft without overwhelming it with actual heft. It is one of those simply great tasting dishes, that for a moment, make you want to become an advocate for culinary minimalism.

#17. Rice and sake lees
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn5qWllyoS/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. At 2011's Cook It Raw in Japan, Rene Redzepi’s dish for the final dinner was a dish that bears a lot of similarities to this dish — the first of three dessert dishes. Here is how Redzepi explains the dessert in 2011: “I was extremely happy with my finished, plated dish. My main idea behind it was to use rice and thus create a dessert based on the local diet. How my sake ice and sake yeast blended perfectly with the juice of the wild plants which I picked from around the rice fields and the crispy rice crackers on top, was extremely satisfying. The plate itself was a pure work of art. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it and I took into account whilst plating all the ingredients together. I tried to work with the artist’s own vision, arranging the thin rice crisps to look like fragments of broken glass and therefore an extension of the plate itself, which was made of broken shards of glass trapped in glass.”
  2. This iteration of the dish at Noma Japan, liked by many, features a sake lees gelato, chunks of vinegar-massaged mochi kome (sweet rice) and light crispy rice wafers in a tiny bath of sorrel juice.
  3. Sake lees is the leftover stuff after sake is made. Sake, which is made from rice, koji (mold) and water, leaves behind a mash after the fermented liquid—which is the finished product—is filtered out. Sake lees is popularly used in Japan to enhance the umami from a product.
  4. Sorrel has been best described as having a tartness reminiscent of sour green apples while sharing some characteristics with fresh lemon essence.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

A traditional kaiseki meal’s main courses always end with a rice dish. Noma’s vision of a kaiseki rice dish — rice wafers, sweet rice and sake lees gelato — has a brilliant monochromatic aesthetic. The sorrel juice adds a fresh green tanginess but my favorite bites were the bites of just the rice-related components. None of these rice-related components stand up on their own but together they form a kind of avant-garde rice flavor — it’s almost as if rice has been marinated in its own ricely essence.

#18. Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn50BDFyoe/?taken-by=ramenjunkie)

What you should know about the dish

  1. The dish is a yaki imo sweet potato which has been slow cooked all day in raw sugar and is brought out to the table still simmering (see Instagram video above) accompanied by an exotic green dipping sauce made from wild kiwis, coriander and elderflower.
  2. Yaki imo sweet potatoes are creamy and intensely sweet.
  3. Coriander can be floral with discrete whispers of citrus and curry.
  4. In my experience, elderflower has a sweet, syrupy and floral flavor with a sweeping tart wind underneath it.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

It’s not easy being a dessert. A great dessert may be great but it’s still, most of the time, just barely better than say a scoop of well-made ice cream or even say, a candy bar. The concept of sweetness has been — for better or for worse — thoroughly bastardized by the thrift and convenience of candy and other commercialized sweets.
The sweet potato dessert at Noma Japan is a rebuttal of this notion. The sweet potato has been slow cooked for an entire day in sugar. In fact, it comes out to you still simmering in sugar. The overall effect is something blunt and beautiful: a moist starchy sweetness caramelized. Like with the rice and sake dessert, the accompanying sauce provides a nice balanced bite if you so choose. The floral notes of the coriander and elderflower tame the sharper effects of the kiwi in the dipping sauce, giving the whole dish some dimensions. However, like with the rice and sake dessert, I prefer the dessert sans sauce. Complexity only serves to confuse desserts. It often serves to make the dessert seem like it’s not competing in a realm of candy and cartons of ice cream. But when taken in simply, like just eating the caramelized sweet potato, you get something that meets its candy competition at their level and shows just how much better a well-thought-out dessert can be than it’s more convenient competitors.

#19. Wild cinnamon and fermented cepes mushrooms in chocolate
Photo from the Instagram of Ivan Orkin (https://instagram.com/p/xn6JeIFyo2/)

What you should know about the dish

  1. The cepes mushrooms—not cep mushrooms—are shiitake and matsutake mushrooms that have been fermented in salt, soaked in birch syrup and finally covered in chocolate. They are sprinkled with licorice salt and accompanied by cinnamon twigs.
  2. One of the signature dishes at Noma in Copenhagen is a Moss and Cep dish.

What you can say about it in your fictional review

Where do we want our tasting menu to crescendo? In the middle? At the end of the savory dishes? Or at the end of the entire menu? Aesthetically, this is a proper crescendo. The moss in the bowl evokes a moment of peace, a brief quiet landscsape for reflection. However, the dish itself is less a crescendo and more a pleasant hug goodbye. Which is more than fine. All goodbye hugs should be as pleasant as the chocolate covered mushrooms here. The mushrooms are earthy but also a little sour — which is smoothed out a great deal by the chocolate. Flavor-wise, yes, this may not necessarily be a statement but it does taste good and more importantly, it looks good, all of which makes it a great way of solidifying the memory of a great meal.

Writing this guide and review of Noma Japan based on nothing but internet content led to me to the following questions:

  • What if you ran a food culture website and you weren’t able to financially justify paying a writer to review Noma Japan? Meaning, you weren’t able to pay the writer for writing the piece and you weren’t able to cover their airfare, their stay in Japan and the meal at Noma Japan itself. If your writer wrote a positive review of their imaginary Noma Japan experience and tried to pass it off as real, would this be problematic and if so, for whom would this be problematic?
  • Do restaurants have the responsibility to police positive reviews of their food and their dining experience when the reviews are either fabricated or at the very least not obtained from first-hand dining experiences? And if this is problematic, perhaps for readers or perhaps for food culture and the food culture cognoscenti, what could be done to better distinguish real reviews from fake reviews?

I promise you the purpose of this piece is not to denigrate food writing and food coverage. I really like food culture. I’m pretty confident there has never been a better time to have epicurean interests than the present. What I had hoped to discover was the very essence and essentialness of food writing and food coverage. This may be small fry stuff on its own. But a 2013 study by Dimensional Research stated that 90 percent of people base their purchasing decisions on positive reviews they find on the internet. Even in the wake of Operation Clean Turf, the fake review industry continues to grow and to become more sophisticated. There is just a huge, undeniable incentive for fake reviews to be produced. This is a real thing though maybe not a really important thing, not yet at least.

This is why I hoped to discover food writing and food coverage’s essence and essentialness. To promote better ways to lie-proof your own food writing/coverage and to better detect fake reviews. However, in the end, this search only led me to what I already knew: You gotta elaborate. This is mildly reductive because it entails more than just wordiness. It requires critical thinking and interrogating your own aesthetics, the food’s creators’ aesthetics and the culture at large’s aesthetics. Why does something tasting some way have more value than something tasting another way? What does it mean when we say something tastes good or bad? Why is “good tasting” worthwhile and “bad tasting” to be avoided, you know, like deep down? Otherwise, if we remain ensconced in the easy brevity-stricken aesthetics of our times, we’ll continue to be vulnerable to cheats and fakes. The simpler the things we allow to be persuasive, the easier it will be for other people to take advantage of us. Scalability can be overwhelming and thus very effective. The easier the thing, the easier it is to scale. Simply saying something tastes good or something tastes bad is scalable. Elaboration is not. Critical thinking is not. Doing difficult creative things is not. Scalability has been one of the most important technological and cultural concepts of the new century. There isn’t a more human ambition than to scale something but there isn’t really anything with a more dehumanizing effect.

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