Dinner at noma – The Principal Plates

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With the light snacks behind us, we moved into the more substantial dinner plates. While the food was to remain true to the restaurant's Scandinavian roots, we diverged from a pure Nordic experience when we elected the wine pairings to accompany the food. The noma wine list strays from Scandinavia, but it doesn't stray far, as it only lists wines from Europe, with an emphasis on wines from northern Europe.That evening they were focusing on wines from the Loire Valley of France, which also happen to be some of the most food-friendly wines in the world. The choices were superb. Not only did they work beautifully with the food, they were delicious on their own, a trait not always present in wine pairings. I did not complain about the variation in terroir.

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The change in direction of the meal was indicated by the arrival of noma's incredible bread and accompanying spreads. While I do not consider bread to be the sine qua non of a restaurant, I do feel that a restaurant's approach to bread is generally indicative of their approach to food.  Some restaurants don't offer bread at all. I would rather that than receive a half-baked attempt.  Other restaurants offer a variety of breads. I am often tempted to try the gamut, especially if they are good, but I tend to shy away. Usually, though, bread is not something more than a way to fill time and a mouth between courses. While noma did not set out a variety of breads, they did set out what may have been the most perfect bread I have ever eaten. It was still warm with a wonderfully crusty exterior and a light and fluffy crumb. A sourdough with a special flour originally from Sweden called Ølands, but now grown in Denmark, the bread is baked fresh twice daily, before each service. Though it is so good it doesn't need any accompaniment, it came with pork fat spiked with apple aquavit and "virgin" butter from Goteborg, Sweden. The butter , incredibly light and fluffy, is called "virgin" because it still contains the buttermilk along with the butterfat and contains the natural acidity of the buttermilk. If this is how good "light" butter can be, bring it on!

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We had already tasted the small fjord shrimp, which are caught at a depth of only one meter. The next dish highlighted deep-sea shrimp. The shrimp were served raw and cold amongst several large stones on a plate representing a rocky beach. They were laying atop a vinaigrette of fresh, biodynamic unhomogenized cream with dill oil, beach plants and frozen summer urchin. These urchin, low in roe, are juiced, which is then frozen and grated.Chef Redzepi delivered the dish himself and advised us to try some of each element in each bite. The result was a beautiful, refreshing and delicious dish. The urchin played a supporting role here as it was not as assertive as a typical roe-laden example.

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To this point, we had been drinking the champagne that was served with the snacks. From here on, we began the formal pairings with the wines from small family-estate biodynamic producers from the Loire Valley of France. The first formal pairing was the 2007 Cheverny from Domaine Philippe Tessier called "La Charbonnerie" from the eastern Loire Valley.This was a mineral rich half Chardonnay/half Sauvignon Blanc that was paired with a dish familiar to me from Redzepi's dinner at Corton. The Dried Scallops and Watercress with Biodynamic Cereals and Hazel Nut did, in fact, taste different from the one in NY. This time the dish was prepared with Scandinavian ingredients.The scallops were sliced thin and dried at 80ºC for twenty four hours, crisping them and lending them roasted tones as the sugars of the scallops were slowly caramelized. Underneath lay four different varieties of biodynamic grains. The grains were bound with a puree of watercress. In NY, Redzepi used beechnuts to add another crunch, but here used toasted hazelnuts since beechnuts were out of season. A sauce made from squid and a little seaweed finished the dish. The dish was a textural tour de force between the crispness of the scallop, the plush softness of the grains, the crunch of the nuts and the liquidity of the sauce. The flavors were deep and rich with a strong nuttiness. The sour aspect of the dish here was more muted than the one served in New York, but was still present. Though the main protein of this dish was from the sea, the overall effect was one of earthiness.

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The essence of the sea can be elusive. It is easy to suggest the sea, especially when it comes to food, but it is not always so easy to truly evoke it, to make it real right in front of the diner. I've experienced it in restaurants before, but not very often. I have yet to dine at The Fat Duck, so I haven't experienced Heston Blumenthal's ode to the sea, in which he utilizes an ipod to add an aural element to his dish. Earlier in this very meal, Redzepi's shrimp dish on the rocks visually evoked the sea, but the dish, while wonderful in many respects, including deliciousness, didn't fully transport me right to the very ocean. His next dish, however, did, and without any props, but the food itself. The dish could not have been any more accurately titled, The Oyster and the Sea. The magnificent, wild-harvested oyster itself came from the west coast of Denmark, from a large fjord, called Limfjord that extends across most of the northern part of the country. This essentiall oyster was lightly steamed over sea rocks and seaweed. Inside the shell, the oyster was joined by pickled elderberry capers, tapioca pearls and some herbs. The elderberries were picked unripe and pickled for a year in salt and vinegar. The ones in our oysters were picked a year ago. The elderberries for next year's capers, it turns out, had been picked that very morning.The net effect of the dish was to transport me directly to the primal sea, such that if I closed my eyes, I felt as if I was there.

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This oceanic dish was followed soon after by another very earthy dish, Cauliflower and Pine. We had first experienced Redzepi's use of pine during our snacks when he used a little as a component of a savory cookie. In this dish, spruce boughs were used as a flavoring element for cauliflower. The cauliflower was surrounded by the spruce in an enameled cast iron pot and steamed slowly for an hour and a half with some caramelization occurring on the bottom surface of the cauliflower. After an initial presentation to us, it was brought back to the kitchen for plating. When it returned , a sauce of whey and spruce oil was poured over the cauliflower while a dollop of whipped cream with horseradish was spooned onto the plate. Redzepi encouraged us to dig right in, emphasizing that temperature was essential to the dish. It's funny how specific dishes can trigger certain memories. The dish reminded Scott of Euell Gibbons, a well known proponent of natural diets, who in a 1974 ad for Grape-Nuts cereal, asked "Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible." In many respects, Gibbons was before his time. Redzepi and his friends from Cook it Raw are direct descendants of his approach. Of course, cauliflower, is not ostentatious when it comes to flavor and can be easily overwhelmed. I might have thought that the pine would have done just that, but it didn't. It gave enough flavor to color the vegetable, but not drown it. The same was true for the horseradish. This particular dish was subtle. It was paired with a dry Vouvray, "Les Grenouilles" 2007 from Domaine du Petit Coteau.

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In New York, we were treated to a very special carrot. In Copenhagen, it was celeriac that was served with black truffle and garden sorrel. Upon its initial presentation, I thought it was a baby chicken. The young celeriac was roasted for about two hours in goat butter along with wild sorrel that grows around the celeriac. The celeriac was started upon our arrival and turned often throughout the roasting process. The flavor had intensified over that time. The sauce was made with Swedish black truffles from Gotland. This was a dish that did not initially knock me over the head, but grew on me as I ate it, to the point that I enjoyed it very much. It was paired with a tasty and very interesting chenin blanc "Vin de France" called "La Lune"  made in Anjou by Mark Angeli at his La Ferme de la Sansonniére.

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The quality of the service at noma has been amply described elsewhere. The dishes are served by the cooks themselves, which provides a depth of knowledge to the delivery that simply can't be duplicated elsewhere. It provides yet a closer connection to the food itself. It is interesting to note a similar model now being incorporated into the service at NYC's Eleven Madison Park. Yet, the cooks are not the only servers. The dedicated front of the house staff also does an extraordinary job handling the wines as well as some of the more mundane aspects of good service such as bussing, replenishing liquids and providing fresh napkins. The attitude is warm and friendly without being overly familiar, which to me is the ideal. This provides a level of comfort that at noma is magnified by the room itself. With plenty of wood and warm wood tones, it is relaxing, yet still surprisingly elegant. The latter part is most definitely helped by the generous spacing of chairs and tables as well as the sheepskins on the backs of the chairs and the focused lighting. One thing the room is not is pretentious.

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The next dish was Onions in Different Textures. It was as thorough and delicious an exploration of this ingredient as I have ever encountered. On the bottom of the plate was a compote of slowly cooked caramelized onions, that was glazed with a melted cheese from Sweden. Around it were two different types of onion shells. The larger, white ones were from new onions and were lightly cooked in butter. The smaller brown ones had been pickled in beer and honey. This was dressed with an onion bouillon. Atop it all were "air onions," small seeds of wild onions, which had been slightly cooked and mixed in amongst tapioca pearls. The greens on the plate were chickweed – herbs that grow around onions – and also chive flowers and leek. The cheese covered compote was reminiscent of the very best French onion soup. I suppose that this could be considered a "Danish" Onion Soup. The whole dish was simply a knockout, providing a new flavor palate for onion along with much that was familiar. 

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The next dish, accompanied by a rosé, all pinot noir champagne from Olivier Horiot called Séve, involved a little theater and diner participation. Called The Hen and the Egg, it consisted of us frying our own eggs for a precise, predetermined period of time (one minute and thirty seconds) in a hot cast iron pan with hay oil. Once the time is up, a pat of thyme butter is added to the pan along with lovage and spinach leaves for a quick saute. The cook then returns to add sauce and finish the dish with herbs, flowers and crispy potato strands. Aside from being fun, it was also rather tasty!

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Pickled Vegetables is a name that did not fit the glory of the next dish. With a variety of vegetables pickled in their own brine including yellow beets, elderflowers, hip roses, red beets, the dish also included bone marrow and a sauce from roast pork. The dish was both beautiful and deliriously delicious and my favorite of the evening, reminding me of the minestrone dish I had at Town House earlier in the summer in terms of its vegetable base, deliciousness and incredible beauty.

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Red, a visual and gustatory study of the color arrived at the table along with a pouring of our first red wine of the night, a 2005 red Sancerre, "Belle Dame", from Domaine Vacheron. The wine, a pinot noir, was not particularly tannic or heavy. It was excellent and paired well with the evening's final savory course, Deer and Wild Thyme, Red Beets and Red Fruits. The idea behind this dish, as with many of the dishes at noma is to pair the principle ingredients with others with which they coexist in nature. In the case of this dish, the deer exists in the forest and walks on and eats the wild seeds, berries, fennel, parsnips and other elements found in this dish. Though beets aren't really part of that equation, they are included and provide additional color, depth, flavor and a touch of sweetness. The venison,taken from wild roe deer from Sweden, was obviously cooked "red" and was delicious. It blended visually with the beets and berries and gave off a primal air. The deep red was only disrupted by a touch of green from the thyme. It was a marvelous dish on many levels. The venison, excellent on its own was elevated further by the other items on the plate. This dish represents the art and alchemy of cooking on the highest level.

After the venison, we grudgingly moved on away from the savory part of the meal into the sweet. That transition was aided by the arrival of a fascinating and delicious wine, Ze Bulle Zéro. Pointe, a wine that breaks all appellation rules. Made from chenin blanc using biodynamic methods, the gas released during fermentation is captured and placed back with the wine during bottling. Declassified according to the appellation rules of Saumur, the wine is nevertheless delicious, sweet, but balanced with great acidity. 

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Once the first dessert, really an intermezzo, came out, our regrets about moving past the savories completely disintegrated. As delicious as it was beautiful, Hay and Chamomile with Sorrel and Wild Herbs made me fully appreciate anew the conceit of bringing savory elements into the realm of dessert. Hay parfait had been aerated and served with chamomile jelly made from fresh chamomile as well as sorrel juice with rapeseed (canola) oil and a number of different herbs and flowers.

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Rene Redzepi certainly likes sorrel. Before first encountering the sorrel in his dishes at his NYC dinner, I can't recall more than a handful of dishes that I have had in my life that had featured the herb. The next dessert, "Gammel Dansk", Milk and Woodsorrel, featured it yet again. In lesser hands, this degree of relying so heavily on a single herb family might have come monotonous and cloying, but in Redzepi's hands, new vistas kept opening up to make me appreciate it in  so many different ways. "Gammel Dansk" is a traditional Danish bitters drink. In this dessert it was utilized as the base for an ice cream. The acidic woodsorrel was used to complement the sweetness of the ice cream. The dessert was finished with "milk" crisps on top and "milk" crumbs below.

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We were poured another chenin blanc, this time a Coteaux du Layon "Fleurs D'Erables" from Domaine des Sablonettes. Wonderfully botrytized and acidic, this wine enhanced our final, and yet again, savory based dessert, Jerusalem Artichoke and Marjoram, Apple and Malt. The jerusalem artichoke came in the form of an ice cream.The apples were compressed with French apple juice and there was apple sauce on the bottom of the plate. In addition, there was malt oil, malt cookies and marjoram. Both the apples and the malt cookies were made into equal sized discs that provided visual as well as taste and textural contrast. I initially had doubts about this dish, especially as a dessert, most likely secondary to the presence of the malt, but the dish was fantastic and a suitable ending to the dinner progression. 

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It wasn't , however, quite the end of our meal. As an aquavit neophyte, I asked for a recommendation for a good aquavit with which to complete the meal. The response was that we would be surprised and we were! We were poured a line of different Danish spirits starting with a fruit based spirit made with Danish apples called "Ingrid Marie", then a Danish Schnapps that had been matured with sloe berries for a year, then another with walnuts and yet another made with Icelandic seaweed that was made especially for noma, called "The Sea at noma." We certainly received a grand introduction. Each was delicious with, of course, the noma seaweed schnapps being the most unique.

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The real end of this glorious dinner came with the final mignardises, which included the justifiably famous bone marrow caramel, more salty and smokey than sweet and made with actual veal marrow; a "creme bun" that contained no cream and was not a bun, but is a danish classic (It is actually a small malt biscuit with a meringue flavored with the whey from yogurt to give it acidity and covered with sweet milk chocolate); and finally a bitter chocolate covered potato chip sprinkled with fennel seeds. Naturally, each of these were presented in keeping with the style of noma. The bone marrow caramels were wrapped in butcher's paper and twine while the others were brought in tins.

This was truly an extraordinary tour-de-force meal that confirmed for us all the accolades that have been bestowed upon this revolutionary restaurant in recent years. The ambiance was warm and relaxed. The service was warm and professional, the wine was well thought out, delicious, interesting and extremely well paired and the food was original, delicious and completely of its place. There will not, can not be another noma somewhere else in the world. There may someday be one that will attempt to replicate what is here, but if there is, it will not succeed, for noma is a restaurant of a very specific terroir. noma was good, indeed very, very good at Corton in NYC. That evening was a smash success, but that was as much due to its unique event status as much as the excellent food of both Redzepi and Liebrandt. It was noma, but it was noma NYC, something I could not fully appreciate until I ate some of the same dishes at noma, the one and only, in Copenhagen. That Corton meal was a great introduction to Redzepi and his concepts, but it was not a substitute or a replacement for the original. Certainly the geographic stamp of the food from nearby in Scandinavia has something significant to do with that, but that is only part of the story. Another, perhaps even more important part of the story is the level of comfort of Redzepi and his crew in their home. This is clearly their space and it is a space that they make full use of. By all means, one should experience the food of noma wherever and whenever one can, but one should never let that substitute for the inimitable original.


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8 Responses to Dinner at noma – The Principal Plates

  1. Gerald says:

    Incredible meal–but it is principAL, not principLE!

  2. John Sconzo says:

    You are correct, Gerald. Thank you! I never said I couldnt use a good editor. 🙂

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  5. Chad says:

    Thanks for reposting this! So looking forward to our reservation on September 20th!

  6. Yum, Yum, Yum. This sounds so wonderful. I love your presentation! Your photos are just getting better and better! Keep up the good work!!

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