A Dinner at noma – the Snacks

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Having spent a good part of the day visiting noma and getting a behind-the-scenes look at its operations, Chef Scott Boswell and I made it back through the cold Copenhagen rain to relax a little and change before we returned for dinner at 6:30PM. Our wives and my son spent the day sightseeing in the city and on this night would have dinner at Kodbyens Fiskebaren, a seafood oriented restaurant not too far from our hotel. As they would be dining with us at noma the next day for lunch, neither Scott nor I felt too guilty about doing this noma day on our own, especially as Fiskebaren was another restaurant we also wanted to get to. We had to settle this time for a vicarious experience from there.

That Scott and I would be doing both dinner and lunch at noma was a direct inspiration taken from this post by the esteemed Food Snob, a man whose dining experience leaves us in awe. While we were not to follow the exact format of Food Snob's noma marathon, we did keep to the spirit of it. Our dinner was to be taken from the current noma menu, including some brand new dishes. The lunch would be comprised of dishes from over the last three years or so. The snacks were to be the same in each meal and representative of the current menu. This post will focus on the snacks with subsequent posts focusing on the principle plates from each meal.

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By the time the early evening rolled around, the rain had stopped and the weather had become pleasant. While not clear, the sky was reasonably bright, which was fortunate as we were seated comfortably at a table next to a window with plenty of space to set up my camera. Once we sat down, our dinner started promptly with a glass of crisp, non-vintage brut nature Champagne from André Beaufort and the start of the snacks. These proceded to follow one another with a fairly rapid, but not too rapid pace. We were allowed to enjoy each one, but did not have to wait long for the next delight to follow.

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The first snack, Nasturtiums and Snails, were already on the table, comprising a significant part of the floral arrangement. The snail, from Sweden, was embedded in the flower along with some remoulade. Taking the wild foraged nasturtium straight from the centerpiece, we ate it in one bite as instructed. It was a wonderfully clever, whimsical and tasty way to begin this adventure of a meal. 

What initially piqued my interest in noma several years ago, were the descriptions of a chef using ingredients from an area not particularly known for its native cuisine in fascinating new ways, creating a new Nordic culinary style. The nasturtium and the snail as well as the rest of the meal followed that path. 

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Sea Buckthorn Leather and Pickled Hip Roses quickly followed the first snack. This bite was colorful and tasty, sea buckthorn being an ingredient new to me, but reminding me of tutti-frutti chewing gum – in a good way! It was sweet and acidic and combined with the pickled rose petals, pleasantly floral.Rose can be an overpowering flavor, but this one carried just the right nuance. The texture was slightly chewy, but not persistently or annoyingly so. The combination wasn't just a happy accident. Both the sea buckthorn (a berry) and the hip roses grow by each other on the Nordic coast. As the cook who brought them said, "they know each other." The bite left a smile on my lips.

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Fried Leek and garlic also brought smiles to our lips. A leek was brought for each of us. The root end had been dipped in a batter and fried and was served with a bit of garlic puree on the batter-fried roots. We were instructed to pick it up and take a small bite, not too far up the leek, as only the lower part was cooked. The combination of sweet cooked leek and crisp roots along with the flavor of the garlic worked nicely.

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Earlier in the day, as Chef Redzepi was showing us around the workings of the restaurant, he received a shipment from a day-boat fisherman containing live fjord shrimp. He tasted one then and there to assess it's quality. When I asked if I could try one like that, he promised that I would – at dinner. That time had now come. Several of the small, live shrimp were brought out anesthetized on ice in a mason jar. They were to be picked up and dipped in a brown butter emulsion before being dropped whole in the mouth. The sensation of eating a live, wriggling shrimp was an odd one, as tasty as it was. While I had no compunction about it and quite enjoyed it, the next day, at lunch, my young gastronomically inclined son did not have as easy a time with it. He did eventually pop it into his mouth, but he couldn't bring himself to chew it and swallowed it whole, thereby missing its fine and delicate flavor.

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Next out was a savory cookie made with salt instead of sugar. It was served with a slice of "speck," which was described as Danish cured pork fat. It was topped with a black currant paste and a sprig of pine. The presentation of this snack was special. They were brought out in a cookie tin with each cookie sitting in its own little wrapper. A nice little touch though was the presence of empty wrappers in the container, providing a feeling that the cookies were a shared treat of hospitality, which in fact they were, albeit in a restaurant setting. This was also our first experience with pine during the trip, something that would pop up again, both at noma and elsewhere during our Scandinavian odyssey. Pine appears, largely due to Redzepi's influence, to be the "it" ingredient of the moment in Scandinavia.

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Not all of the snacks were new to the menu, even though all were current to it. Our next snack was one that was described as a noma "classic" although the filling changes seasonally. It consisted of a template of crispy rye bread on top and crispy chicken skin on the bottom. The filling served to us consisted of Rygeost, a fresh danish smoked cheese that was blended with lovage leaves and yellow split peas. It was delicate and light, a lovely bite!

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My son's favorite snack when he came to noma in March was the pickled and smoked quail egg. The eggs were brought out in an egg-shaped box that was opened at the table to reveal an egg for each of us sitting upon some lightly smoking hay. It had also been lightly smoked with apple wood and pickled in apple vinegar from the orchard of noma co-owner Claus Meyer. Popping the soft egg in my mouth in one bite and eating it was a delight as it contained a wonderful balance of flavor to go with its soft and gooey texture. I had never had an egg like it before.

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I had tried the next dish before when Redzepi and his crew came to New York in June and cooked at Corton. The radish and carrot with soil and herbs was better for me this time, as I had a better understanding of how to eat the dish, scooping up the yogurt base and crumbly roasted malt "dirt" with the root vegetables,ensuring a more even distribution of flavor and textural contrasts.

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Conceptually similar to the rye bread/chicken skin cookie, the next snack was a "sandwich" of sorts. This one consisted of a base of wavy crisp bread with dots of a cod roe emulsion placed on top of it and with various herbs placed on top of them. This was then dusted with a vinegar powder and the whole thing was covered with a "crispy duck stock" made from the natural film that forms atop a duck stock. The film was skimmed off, then dried. Though difficult to eat gracefully, this take-off on the traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød was a quite unusual and quite extraordinary bite.

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I saw Chef Redzepi make aebleskiver, Danish pancakes, in Madrid in 2008 when he presented at Madrid Fusión. These savory lard-fried pancakes contained cucumber, vinegar powder (vinegars are used to provide acidity to dishes in lieu of citrus, which is used more commonly in southern Europe)and a preserved sardine-like freshwater fish from Finland called muikko, which appeared to be swimming directly through the pancake.

Redzepi has plenty of experience working and learning outside of Copenhagen, including at elBulli for the 1999 season. His use of "snacks" to open the meal bears the stamp of the Adrias' influence, but while Redzepi owes a debt to that experience, he has forged his own identity.Like the snacks at elBulli, this part of the meal  was fast, but appropriately paced,  as the various snacks were generally one or two bite morsels.While all were delicious, they also were fun and playful.  Other than the format and the sense of playfulness, noma's snacks bear little resemblance to those served at the Catalan cove as those from the Adria's had a tendency to represent Mediterranean or other world culinary influences, while Redzepi's focused directly on Scandinavia. Regardless of influence, the snacks made for a marvelous introduction for what was yet to come.


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