Noma: New Normal In Perfect Dining
It is important to walk to Noma over city bridges and along waterfront streets to embrace Copenhagen’s bone chilling winter. February Noma meals are miraculously conceived outdoors; natural bounties harvested, pickled, smoked, or dried in step with a harsh Scandinavian winter calendar. Only then are they skillfully nurtured into a series of intellectually compelling courses indoors at the 18th century waterside warehouse restaurant that pays hommage to the building’s historical inhabitants who likewise processed whale and cod yielded by the same aquatic resources. Transporting yourself to Noma insulated by taxi, bus, or metro will just mask half of the Noma story and moderate an otherwise fuller sensory appreciation of Noma’s transformative dining experience.
If you are part of the sensible majority of travelers less compelled to visit Scandinavia in the wintertime, then just doing some research or using common sense tells you its frozen environment is virtually void of gill-bearing aquatic or other animal presence and that even in mountain valleys where snowpack can preserve food, life is a struggle for mammals that man can hunt, harvest, and eat. Yet, Noma accepts the seasonal challenge presenting twenty courses twice each day that includes just harvested foodstuffs like cod liver, brown crab, wild duck, lump fish roe, and more. Noma is both a tightrope of tension in its careful transformation of scarcity to riches, and a featherbed of hospitality cushioning guests from complicated formulas involving thousands of steps the staff of seventy works through every day to produce twenty courses for twelve tables of roughly thirty diners each service.
Maybe that’s why the chefs (not waiters nor runners) present every dish to every guest, leaning physically into the table, sometimes squatting to be nonintrusive, offering a few words of welcome or endearing mid-meal check ins, ready to answer questions or simply chat about their lives at Noma or as twenty-somethings traveling the world circuit of sacred cooking posts. Everyone at Noma can cook everything, which is why the cold course chefs can expertly present the warm courses when those chefs are busy, and why pastry chefs can talk about wine in the most advanced ways. It is also why Noma hires first on personality and second on cooking resume. Seems like Redzepi knows that it is simpler for him to teach his craft of cooking than to develop the people skills that makes Noma feel like you are eating at these accomplished chefs’ homes where tablecloths are banned, stretches of formal cutlery scorned, and relaxed atmosphere required.
Spa-like in feel from muted design palate to calming aromas from Japanese-like warm cloths…sitting down inside Noma is disarming. The discombobulated formation of a gaggle of seven or eight chefs, waiters, sommeliers, and other staff hanging out in the entranceway to calmly welcome you with smiles of warmth followed by an every day, not rushed, soothing table side welcome from your main server is a first hint why the third star should never show up after Noma’s two star Michelin guide listing. Noma has turned ingenious dining without the intimidating intrusive suffocation of classic French three star service de rigueur. Noma earns the permission to shred what we once knew about the service of impeccably skillful cooking through sensory conquest.
There are great cookbooks to take you through a bit of karma and the ton of steps that make Noma food what it is. They give me comfort in abandoning my own attempt, and instead to just share some thoughts and photos. A meal at Noma is presented in two parts; the first part a series of approximately one dozen small plate, often finger food courses and then a second part of a series of slightly larger savory then sweet dishes. Every dish surprises without whiplash. The first half of the meal builds with allegro tempo, the body of work producing a range of flavor that feels just right and quintessentially Nordic even if you have no idea what Nordic winter should taste like. You just know.
The dried, grilled, smoked, pickled, cold, preserved flavors combine with the short list of nature’s fresh winter options in well tested and regimented Noma recipes that makes you say “ah hah, the weather outside in this god forsaken Danish winter city-outpost actually has a beautiful natural core that is loaded with umami and tastes I once knew individually, but never in a Nordic context.” This is the beginning step in appreciating Noma; where simplicity combines with a discipline and surprise to create something superlative. Producing an end result never before imagined, there is a brilliance in Noma’s formula to conquer inhospitable environs and then transform its spoils into something perfect without every abandoning the sense of place it is connected to.
Oh yes, the Noma wine list. I joked with head sommelier Mads Kleppe that he had the best job in wine service in the world. He travels around Europe’s top wine regions every two weeks. Everybody wants their wines on Noma’s list. He shared with me his recent visit to Clos Rougeard a couple weeks ago where he tasted through a series of cellar treasures from dry to sweet. He turned me onto some of Roland Velich’s Moric Blaufränkisch, one of the finest of these Austrian reds I have tasted yet. Mads introduced me to his friend Peter Malberg’s Grüner Veltliner Hochrain, a wine to turn Veltliner doubters into fans. And, when I told him I wanted to drink a bottle of Clos Rougeard Brézè, he returned smiling that while we did not talk vintage, he brought the 2007 to the table, one of my favorite Clos Rougeard vintages.
Mads favors Jura for many reasons that work with the food, and I selected the blend 2010 Côtes du Jura V.V Chardonnay-Savagnin Les Dolomies. You will not find any Bordeaux on this list, and Mads is working the Piedmonts and Northern Rhones out of an inventory inherited from his predecessor, and turning the list into one of the finest natural European wine lists in the world. These wines are built for Noma, and vice versa. The flavors of Noma are herbal, pure, subtle, clean, and natural, and the foods showcase the wines. Or is it the other way around, or does it even really matter? Kleppe says that some bad comes along with the good of his job as current guardian of wine at Noma, but I am having some trouble feeling too badly for him.
In a recent post, I shared the Noma dinner menu for February 20. On February 22nd I returned thinking the only good thing about the conclusion of our dinner was knowing we would return in two days time for lunch. Noma is so much more than singularly dimensioned photos or words can really communicate, so there is good reason to just get up and go pay a visit. Noma is where discipline combines with artistic expression, how tension supports unshackled expression, and the place a casually relaxed aura can veil brilliance and perfection. Here is a one dimensional glimpse of some highlights from lunch:
Malt flatbread and juniper
Moss and cep
Cheese cookie, rocket, and stems
Potato and duck livers
Dried carrot, sorrel and ash
Pickled and smoked quail eggs
Frozen cod liver and caramelized milk
Æbleskiver and muikku
Leek and cod roe
Sorrel and crickets
Fresh milk curd, blueberry, ants
Dried scallops, beech nuts, grains, watercress
Beets and plums
Lump fish roe and apple
Potatoes and bleak fish roe
Pike perch and stems, ramson onion capers
Wild duck, pear, kale, beech leaves
Quince and milk
Potato and plums (middle is mashed potato part of desert)
Pigskin, chocolate. berries
The end, for now…