Dining at noma

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Before I begin, I would like to
introduce myself. I am the eldest of DocSconz’s oft-mentioned sons, and have
learned to harbor a great appreciation for good food as a result of my
upbringing. At school in Hanover, New Hampshire, my options are often limited,
particularly for a student with a small budget. The occasional meal at
Carpenter & Main (briefly mentioned here: http://docsconz.typepad.com/docsconz_the_blog/2009/04/index.html)
serves as a welcome respite from the repetitive dining halls and ill-equipped
kitchens, but its prices prevent more than the occasional visit.

            My
boring diet was one reason why I decided to apply for one of Dartmouth’s vaunted
Foreign Study Programs, the Geography study abroad in Prague. Although the
ability to experience traditional Czech cuisine was appealing, I was more
excited by the opportunity it would present me to do some traveling and dining
before classes began. I first met Chef René Redzepi at a cocktail reception
during the 2008 Star Chefs Conference in New York, where my father introduced
him to me as one of the best chefs in the world. At the time, I was just
learning that a revolutionary culinary scene was emerging in Scandinavia, but I
still had some difficulty accepting that such a thing could occur in the region
that counts lutefisk among its most popular dishes. Still, my curiosity was
piqued, so when I made my plans for my pre-study travel, I made sure to reserve
a table at noma for my travel-buddy Austin and I. My dad, unable to travel to
Copenhagen on such short notice, would live vicariously through me.

            As
it turned out, my travel schedule permitted me only that one night in
Copenhagen, so in effect Austin and I were traveling there exclusively to dine
at noma. I’m glad we made the trip. Although some deception by Google Maps
caused us to take a while to actually find the restaurant, we managed to allow
ourselves enough time to arrive early. noma is beautifully situated at the far
corner of the North Atlantic House, a site dedicated to the preservation of
North Atlantic culture. Its other two sides are surrounded by harbor, making
for a wonderful view of downtown as twilight sets in.

            When
we entered, we found that we were among the only diners there, but others soon
began to fill in the empty tables. One thing that I noticed over the course of
the night was that noma would only fill a table once a night. I think that this
approach makes sense, especially in the context of a restaurant that focuses on
tasting menus. It would simply be a mistake to rush dishes from the kitchen and
people out the door to make room for new customers – like any great restaurant,
Chef Redzepi and the staff at noma recognize that good pacing is key to a good
meal, and as it turns out, the pacing was flawless. Austin and I were brought a
new morsel of food almost every twenty minutes, giving us ample time to savor
our new course, but not enough time for us to grow restless while waiting for
more.

At this point, I would like to
offer my apologies for the lack of gastro-photography – we had a camera, but it
was merely a point-and-shoot. Its photographs do not do justice to the beauty
of each dish.

As we got comfortable at the table,
the friendly and knowledgeable sommelier asked us if we would like anything to
drink before we got started. Austin and I were baffled – should we go for the
homemade fruit or vegetable juices, or maybe a flute of champagne? We ended up
with neither. I hate to reinforce the stereotype of the beer-drinking student,
but Austin and I couldn’t help but opt for the fresh, home-recipe Pilsner-style
beer from noma’s own brewery outside of the city. The beer was served in a wine
glass, and were it not for the foam head I could have mistaken it for a glass
of white. Upon reflection, the flavors of the beer foreshadowed the style of
the meal that we were about to enjoy – it was crisp, refreshing, and pleasantly
aromatic.

            While
I am on the topic of drinks, I suppose now would be a good time to briefly
delve into our pairing dilemma. While I would have liked to opt for the full
pairing to go with the twelve-course tasting menu, our budgets forced us to
restrain ourselves a bit, so I asked the sommelier if he might be able to set
up some pairings so that we could come as close to experiencing the best of the
tasting menu as possible, while not breaking the bank. I have to commend the
man because he did a marvelous job, almost on the fly. The seafood-heavy menu
called for a majority of whites throughout, with the exception of a red to pair
with two turf courses toward the end. Surprisingly, one of my favorite pairings
was a glass of exceptionally flavorful carrot juice, which was served with two earthy
dishes in the middle of the meal.

            It
has now come time to get to the main event, the food. Our meal began with a
series of seven “snacks”, which lived up to their name quite well. These were
not included on the tasting menu, but it appeared as though other tables were
getting a similar treatment. The concept behind noma’s snacks is that they are
bite-size pieces that stand on their own, and that the diner is supposed to eat
with his hands. Some of our favorite tastes were served as snacks, and Austin
and I reached a consensus that the pickled and smoked quail egg was our
favorite snack of the bunch. It was served without its shell and prepared so
that the white functioned as the solid outer section and the yolk exploded into
an incredibly rich and buttery sensation as I popped it in my mouth. To
reference my childhood, it felt like a tiny Jell-O Easter Egg in my hand, and it
blew up like a Gusher fruit-snack as I bit down on it.

            The
other snacks were all phenomenal, but none of them stood out from the rest like
the quail egg did. In addition to the egg, we were treated to snacks like a
Speck-flavored cookie on top of an elderberry one, home-grown radishes served
in a pot, with edible malt soil and yogurt, and a veritable garden placed on
top of home-baked crisps. Along with the snacks, we were served some of the
crustiest yet tender bread that I’ve ever eaten. It was made with special
Danish wheat, and had a nice, hearty flavor. We were given rendered pork fat
with bacon salt and some rich butter to spread. It’s not surprising that they
take their bread seriously. Unfortunately, time has taken my memory of some of
the other snacks and their ingredients, though if I think hard enough I can
still taste them.

            Although
the snacks were delicious, they were not substantial. With impeccable timing,
the noma staff brought us the first course of the “real” menu just as Austin
and I devoured the rest of the bread. Entitled “Razor Clam and Parsley, Dill
and Mussel Juice”, the dish highlighted each of its ingredients in different
ways. The clam was served raw, encased in a parsley gel with yogurt powder
lined up next to it. In the bowl was a small pool of mussel juice, with dill
oil forming little droplets in the juice. The eating got messy, but the clam
was supremely tender – this course was a phenomenal start to the meal, and its
clean flavors refreshed the palate nicely. It set the stage for the plates to
come.

Next up was the “Beetroots and
Sorrel, with Malt Flat Bread.” It served as an earthy contrast to the fresh,
almost green-tasting plate that we were served before. The texture was also a
nice contrast to the fresh clam.

            Upon
tasting the following dish, I was able to tell almost immediately that it would
be my favorite of the night, although I wouldn’t have known it by looking at
the menu. Unlike my father, I’ve never been a huge fan of uni – despite trying
it multiple times, there’s usually something about the texture that bugs me. So
when the “Sea Urchin and Grilled Cucumber, Dill and Cream” was served, the
brilliant green and yellow-orange hues were appealing, but the knowledge of
what was on the plate was not. That all changed once I took my first bite; the
sweetness and crunch of the grilled cucumber was married with the rich uni
flavor, while reducing the intensity of its texture. The dill complemented this
almost-perfect union quite nicely, and the cream served to enhance the smooth
flavor of the entire course. I was absolutely wowed by this course, in a way
that was not quite replicated again through the meal. The following courses were
fantastic, but I think the dish’s refusal to play to my expectations enhanced
my experience two-fold.

            Indeed,
the cucumber and uni dish is a tough act to follow, which may be why the
“Chestnuts and Bleak Roe, Walnuts and Cress Shoots” was one of my least
favorite dishes. Keep in mind that this is all relative, but the water
chestnuts seemed to dominate the course and it came off as rather bland in
comparison to the previous dish. Perhaps contrast was the point, but it was not
so memorable as some other plates I enjoyed.

Following the chestnut dish was one
of the most fun dishes Austin and I enjoyed, the  “Langoustine and Söl, Parsley and Seawater”. In its
preparation, the langoustine was placed clean on a scorching-hot rock, so when
it was brought out only one side had been cooked. It was up to us to roll it
over and dip it in the spots of parsley flavor that dotted the remaining
landscape of the rock, thereby cooking and flavoring it further. This dish was
quite unforgettable, and the memory of the experience has preserved the flavor
in my head for later enjoyment.

            The
“Salsify and Truffle from Gotland, Milk Skin and Rape Seed Oil” was an
interesting addition to the lineup. The menu had previously been following a
pattern of alternating seafood and earthy dishes, and this plate did not
disrupt it. The salsify did a better job of contrasting the langoustine than
the chestnuts did for the sea urchin, so I think that lead to my greater
enjoyment of this dish – it felt very clean in the mouth, and the texture of
the milk skin was quite unlike anything I’ve consumed before. It complemented
the texture of salsify and the sauce, making for a very delicious and
texturally interesting combination.

The next dish, “Vintage Potato and
Whey, Lovage and Prästost” disrupted the aforementioned pattern, but it was
delectable all the same. The tiny potatoes were bursting with pure, unpretentious
potato flavor, and the greens and cream in the dish worked well to elicit a
feeling of eating straight from the farm. I could taste the care that went into
growing and preparing this dish, so that it made it my favorite earth-based
dish till now.

            At
this point, we began to enter into the heart of the menu, signaled by the
arrival of “King Crab and Mussels, Leeks and Ashes”. This, too, married
disparate elements and was served with minimalism in mind – it was served as
two pairs of rolls, alternating on the plate, surrounded by mussel foam and
flakes. One roll was leek rolled in ash, and the other a piece of king crab. It
looked and tasted simple, but the flavors were clear. I consider crab to be my
favorite crustacean, so the elementary presentation and flavor only enhanced
experience. Although the implementation of ash was surprising, its perfect
execution was not, and it made what would have otherwise been a good dish
great.

After the crab came the “Pickled
Vegetables and Bone Marrow, Herbs and Bouillon,” which I think was my favorite
rustic dish. I’m not sure Austin knew what to expect with the bone marrow, but
after scooping marrow straight from the bone at the Boston tapas bar, Toro
(discussed here: 
http://docsconz.typepad.com/docsconz_the_blog/2009/05/toro-tasty-tapas-in-boston.html),
I knew that I was in for a treat. The acidity of the pickled vegetables foiled
the creamy marrow quite nicely, and altogether made for an incredibly delicious
package. It was simultaneously rich and acidic, and to be honest, just writing
about it is making my mouth water.

            The
peak of the tasting menu manifested itself in the form of “Ox Cheek and Endive,
Pickled Pear and Verbena”. Its presentation was hardly so minimal as that of
the crab and leek. The ox and endive was distributed around the plate in small
pieces, each piece topped with a thin sheet of pickled pear and a verbena leaf.
It was a fantastic end to the savory portion of the meal. The cheek was
phenomenally tender, and the endive had a slight crispness to it. The pickled
pear complemented the richness of the ox very well, and the endive served as a
neutral balance between the two. Despite its powerful flavors, this dish
managed to strike a wonderful balance.

            The
dessert portions began with a full-on carrot dish, the “Carrots, Buttermilk and
Anis”. Slices of differently prepared carrots, some pickled, some roasted, were
arranged around a central globe of buttermilk, which in turn housed carrot ice
cream. A bite of all three preparations together with the buttermilk set off an
explosion on my taste buds, as the sublime sweetness of the ice cream set
itself against the creamy-yet-sour buttermilk, while the pickled and roasted
carrots each added hints of their respective preparations to the mix. Aside
from carrot cake, I’ve never had a carrot dessert, nor do I expect to desire
one again – I am perfectly content with remembering this dish as a substitute.

            Afterwards
came “The Snowman from Jukkasjärvi, Cloudberries and Wild Thyme.” The snowman
was composed of three separate flavors – his head was a small scoop of ice
cream, his torso was cloudberry sorbet, and his bottom portion was a large
piece of sour meringue. He was placed on a “snow-covered” plate, which was
actually cloudberry jam with more of the yogurt powder from the mussel dish.
Taken altogether, the dish was at once sweet, sour and savory – much like the
dish before, except with a fruity tang. Indeed, both dishes carried with them
obvious connotations of the North – the buttermilk orb looked like a snowball,
and the Snowman was set in a winter wonderland. It was the fruity tang, then,
that made all the difference.

            Our
second to last course was actually a savory one, and illustrates a case in
which the defiance of expectations does not necessarily have a better outcome.
Austin and I were expecting another complex and sweet dessert, and although
what we got was complex, it was rather far from sweet. The “Jerusalem Artichoke
and Marjoram, Apple and Malt” seemed to be pretty heavily dominated by the
artichoke’s flavor, which was a bit of a disappointment to us. I do not mean to
say that it was a poor choice to put it on the dessert portion; in fact, it
made me think more about my expectations for what a tasting menu should be, and
what I expect it to be. It was almost a clever trick, and I appreciate the
ingenuity that both the chef and staff had in placing that savory dish where
they did in the menu. Overall, it enhanced the experience, although I did not
appreciate it as much at the time.

            The
final course of ours is a traditional Danish breakfast, if my memory serves
correctly. Called “‘Øllebrød’ and Frothed Milk, Skyr and Toasted Rye Kernels”,
the variety of textures and flavors led to a sweet end to an experience that I
will savor forever. The Øllebrød was a sweet, warm, oatmeal textured component
to the meal, which was complemented by a slightly acidic ice cream. The rye
kernels lent a nice crunch and toasty flavor to the dish, which added some more
complexity to what turned out to be my favorite dessert. Eating this as the
final course really reinforced the authenticity of the meal, and sealed the
legitimacy of Scandinavian cuisine into my frame of mind.

            To
sum up the meal, it is clear to me that chef Redzepi had a lot of fun playing
with contrasting flavors, both within dishes and among them. It seems to me
that he deliberately ordered the menu to emphasize the contrasts between rich
and light, and it seems that he has a fondness for sweet-and-sour flavors. I
can’t fault him for that, as I do, too. As it is any time one goes out for
dinner, the service is an important part of the experience; good service can
make a forgettable meal memorable, and lazy service can make excellent food
taste rotten. The service at noma was impeccable. It seemed as though a
different staff member served us every new dish, and each one of them was eager
to tell me about what I was going to eat, and how to eat it. The staff’s
knowledge, congeniality and genuine enthusiasm served to make my night at noma
even better than I could have imagined. They even managed to fit us into the small
kitchen for an informative tour, too.

            Although
I dined at and thoroughly enjoyed my meal at el Bulli about four years ago, I
savored it under my parents’ careful gaze. At noma, a (perhaps false) sense of
independence pervaded my stay, which magnified my entire experience – I suppose
you could regard this as a coming-of-age tale. Now, instead of learning how to
identify and appreciate complex flavors, I was consulted on wine and courses,
and chef Redzepi even left me a note apologizing for his absence.

As for Austin, he had never been to
an avant garde restaurant before. Now he can say he’s been to the best
restaurant in the world. Based on my experience there, I can say that it is
truly deserving of the title. Simply put, my adventure at noma was
an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I strongly advise you to make the trek. You will not regret it.


This entry was posted in Dartmouth, Family, Food and Drink, LJ Sconzo, Restaurants, Top Restaurant Meals, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Dining at noma

  1. Dmo305 says:

    Awesome post. A student myself (for a few more weeks at least), I have been fortunate enough to have been educated and exposed to lots of amazing food around the world by my parents, for which I am very thankful. Seems like you guys have the same type of thing going on… sweet!

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