Noma: Going to Ground
The grazing maw of food snobs has over the past several years reached pastoral Denmark. Those who treasure lists note that the “we’re number one” restaurant has been Noma, even prior to the closure of perennial favorite, El Bulli. And number 49 is Noma’s cross-town rival Geranium. The two restaurants stand in contrast with Bulli, recognizing commonalities.
Within the restaurant biz there are three components of greatness: technique, ingredients, and vision. All astonishing restaurants do well on these three dimensions, of course, and vision is primary. But beyond creativity some styles of cuisine emphasize technique and others emphasize ingredients. Not short in its technique, Noma treasures ingredients. The more humble the plant, the better Rene Redzepi likes it. Weeds are us.
But those who live by ingredients, especially novel ones, can also die by them. I am not referring to toxic plants, although – god knows! – these foodstuffs do not have a long-track record. Noma customers have not been known to keel over, but who can say what we will face in twenty years. But the more relevant issue for gourmets is whether the taste of the ingredient can equal the idea of having gathered it. The danger with farm-to-table restaurants is that the food from a treasured family or boutique farm may taste no better than an industrial product if a critic was forced to taste while blindfolded. Often precisely the same ingredients are served – chicken, potatoes, carrots, lettuce. Close one’s eyes and can one tell what is what? But food in New Nordic Cuisine – gatherer’s cuisine – does not have the safety net of being no worse; it can be worse. Bleech!
Noma with its food lab and guiding vision of Chef-Proprietor Redzepi and his Head Chef Matt Orlando have only rare missteps, but one can only fear for when other, less insightful visionaries follow in their footsteps. As with the followers of chefs devoted to technique, such as El Bulli’s Ferran Adria, there is much that can go wrong.
The great restaurants – and however we rank restaurants – Noma is a grand one, are able to combine ingredients, technique, and vision, and they have the customer support to permit them to do so. As I was chowing down on sorrel, wild berries, beach herbs, snails, and Danish ants, I mused about food costs. The restaurant employs a troupe of gatherers. Yes, they are paid, but do their finds suggest that there is such a thing as a free lunch?
But enough theory. How was the food?
It was about as delicious as it could possibly be, considering. In this essay I do not provide a dish by dish rundown (the pictures provide a part of the story), however, the food was very green, very herbal. The flavors were subtle, often surprising, even as they often lacked the savory punch found in more standard ingredients. Despite the sense that a gatherer’s cuisine has the whole world from which to select, it also gives up on a variety of more conventional flavors. Still, this limited register provides surprises and pleasures. No beef (only sweetbreads), no pork (only skin), no duck (only liver). Proteins are pushed to the side in a grazing diet. Still a smart chef can accomplish much with knives and roasting pans hidden from view.
Dried carrots, verbena, egg yolks, rocket, caramelized milk can be inspiring. Of the dishes, my favorites, the ones that I remember with the greatest fondness were the moss with mushroom powder; the cheese biscuit with rocket and parsley stems; the berries and cucumber; the brown crab with egg yolk and herbs; and the pike perch with cabbage, verbena and dill. Culinary modesty becomes Noma.
But what was most impressive was the vision thing. I truly could not say that any of these dishes were the greatest dish of the year, even if the meal was as impressive as any that I have had in many harvests. Like the food at Blaine Wetzel’s Willows Inn on Lummi Island (a modified gatherer’s cuisine, a step closer to traditional canons and two steps closer to farm-to-table dining), there is a sensibility: the recognition that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Here was one of the greatest meals I have had which lacked a dish that I thought was among the greatest. And this is Noma’s triumph and its limitation. Rene Redzepi’s cuisine is so thoughtful, so engaged, so environmentally noble that it is in the experience of seeing the ground through the plate that one learns about the possibilities of dining.
And now here are the photos:
Flatbred with Malt Flour and Juniper (in vase)
Sauteed Raindeer Moss with Mushroom Powder
Blue Mussel and Celery (one edible mussel)
Crispy Pork Skin and Black Currant (I think)
Apple, Smoked and Dried Cucumber
Cheese Biscuit, Rocket and Herb Stems
Potato Sandwich with Duck Liver Mousse and Black Trumpet Mushrooms
Grilled Dried Carrot on Ash and Sorrel Emulsion
Caramelized Milk and Shaved Cod Liver
Pickled and Smoked Quail Egg
Radish, Soil, and Grass
Aebleskiver and Muikku (Finnish Fermented Fish)
Sorrel Leaf and Cricket Paste (inside the leaf) with Nasturium
Glazed Snails with Parsley and Watercress
Danish Potato with Butter Sauce with Peashoots and Sorrel Leaves
Sous Vide Fava Beans and Beach Herbs
Wild Berries and Cucumber Salad
Stone Crab with Parsley Puree, Verbena and Seaweed Broth and Egg Yolk
Pike Perch with Butter Foam and Cabbage, Verbena and Dill
The Hen and the Egg, cooked with Hay Oil, Spinach, Nasturium, Oxalis, and Parsley Sauce
Sweetbreads and Bitter Greens, Celeriac and Chantrelles, Juniper Root
Open Ice Cream Sandwich with Ant Puree
Ice Cream Sandwich with Blueberry Sorbet and Ant Puree with Nasturium Leaves
Gammel Dansk (Bitter Danish Liquor) with Sorrel and Dried Milk
1401 Kobenhavn K, Denmark