So, it’s been a while since I’ve last posted. It isn’t often that the main site gets outposted by the Darkroom, but it’s finally happened. Of course, the fact that I’ve recently returned from Mongolia (a destination more photogenic than write-o-genic) has nothing to do with that. Anyway, two weeks ago I visited a little restaurant in Denmark called “Noma” whose main claim to fame is that it is apparently the best restaurant in the world.
Anyone who knows a little bit about me knows that I enjoy my food. That can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from me simply enjoying copious amounts of food, all the way to me enjoying expensive haute cuisine where many very small courses are brought to the diner on pretentious large plates by waiters with French accents. If you’re wondering which end of this spectrum I gravitate towards, my answer is “yes”.
My most recent proper fine dining experience was on the event of my birthday, courtesy of restaurant A.O.C. in Copenhagen. Although the restaurant is the holder of a Michelin star, I did not feel compelled to write at length about it, mostly because earlier in the year I had visited De Librije and The Fat Duck, which are not only 3-star establishments (3 is the maximum number, and rarely awarded), but heavyweights in their own right in the world of fine dining. It surprised me though, that the city of Copenhagen with its small population, in the country of Denmark which not only has a small population, but is also not exactly famous for its fine dining scene, was able to muster up such an experience.
Noma itself is a curiosity in that the Michelin guide has only awarded it two stars, yet has now stood at the top of the world restaurant ranking for the second year in a row. The rankings are of course, calculated very differently – the Michelin guide sends reviewers in secret to all restaurants being considered and restaurants being considered for Michelin stars are often visited by many reviewers who then meet in secret in the following months to discuss their experiences. The Restaurant Magazine ranking is decided by surveying industry experts, insiders, and the chefs themselves. In such circumstances, it might be easy for a restaurant to gain an unusually high position by fluke for a short while.
However, this year Noma hit the number 1 spot for the second year in a row. During the previous year, members of the restauranting world, shocked at Noma’s surprise ascendancy to the top spot, probably went to great lengths to get a reservation (yes, it takes a special kind of persistence to get one of these) and see for themselves if its place at the top of the restauranting podium is deserved or not. Naturally, since I have dined at far too many places listed in the top 100 and eaten more Michelin stars than exist in all of Denmark, I decided that I too should “check” to see whether Noma was truly deserving of the accolade.
(click on the pictures for enlargement)
Noma is headed by charismatic head chef Rene Redzepi who earned his wings working at the famous (and now closed) El Bulli in Spain – the previous occupant of the number 1 position (The Fat Duck and the French Laundry occasionally displaced it in the 9 years of the ranking’s existence). What’s hot in fine dining these days is the art of “molecular gastronomy” pioneered by Ferran Adria of El Bulli and it involves innovative and often very unconventional techniques of food preparation. The other well-known restaurant to practice molecular gastronomy is The Fat Duck, where my dining experience there began with a dish prepared in a vat of liquid nitrogen (you just can’t make this stuff up).
One of the many intriguing things about molecular gastronomy is that chefs are no longer constrained by traditional parameters, like the shape of their ingredients. Indeed our first course, cunningly disguised as a table decoration consisted of a malt flatbread. The latitude for creativity in designing the courses makes for a very theatrical eating experience. Modern fine dining now expects more than simply good tastes and smells. Every sensory input imaginable is being used to enhance the experience of the food, and to great effect.
Perhaps one of the things that separates Noma from the “crowd”, even the very small crowd of a handful of restaurants who dare the molecular gastronomy, is that there is an emphasis on local ingredients. Fine dining has always existed, it seems, to serve the very wealthy, and the very wealthy have a habit of demanding the very best ingredients from around the world. Redzepi bucks this trend by basically serving up ingredients sourced from the local area – almost all of the ingredients come from within a circle that extends about fifty miles from the restaurant. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for a restaurant of this calibre, the ingredients also have to be in season (I really must try dining here in the Scandinavian winter).
The result of working within these considerable constraints is an experimentation and innovation level that is unusually high. This, I believe, is the real reason that this restaurant is held in such high regard. Every saturday night, all the chefs get together after the end of the service, and have a little show-and-tell. Here they present what is essentially a food-brainstorming session where new dishes are examined and tested. For those readers with twitter, @ReneRedzepiNoma is Rene’s twitter feed and he will often post pictures of promising projects to his feed (and making this Author very hungry in the process).
After the initial barrage of small appetisers we settled into a “journey” through the main courses. Something I often ask for at restaurants to “test” them is for them to match each course to a non-alcoholic drink instead of a wine. I first got the idea at Vue de Monde, a very good restaurant in Melbourne, and have done this a few times since (even at Vue, after they stopped doing it. I think their sommelier hates me). At Per Se, after an initial pause from the shock of such an unusual request, the front of house manager proceeded to improvise some very innovative drinks to match my courses. Here at Noma, they pre-empted me by already having the option. The drinks were mostly blends of seasonal fruits and vegetables which matched the courses very well. They also made for a very amusing game of “guess the drink” which we were surprisingly bad at.
The courses were creative and surprising, and it goes without saying that it was unlike anything I have had before. None of the dishes could be called “traditional” in any sense of the word, yet many of them invoked memories of dishes of days gone by, except with a twist. The dishes were delicious, but they were something more. In my many other fine dining experiences, the object seemed to be to take a combination of good tastes and smells and deliver them to the recipient in various different ways. Points would be awarded to good combinations and effective, appropriate delivery methods. Noma was different, it mixed things up and challenged the consumer. For example, I would never think of putting horseradish, clam, dill, and parsley in the same dish… but it worked, and it was weird, and I think it pushed the definition of “eating” for me (in a good way).
In the tradition of molecular gastronomy, it was impossible to tell what you were eating simply by looking at it. The taste would often be a pretty good clue. I think if I had eaten the whole meal, then been told afterwards what was in it, I would have struggled to believe it. The ingredients were, on the whole, quite simple. One of my dining companions was a local and she often would remark “oh, we used to pick those when we were kids” indicating to me that Noma’s reputation for foraging locally for their food was no myth. The food itself was more than a (delicious) challenge for the taste buds, but also an invitation. An invitation to taste Denmark and look at it in a way that you might not have previously. This invitation to “interact” even extended to the food…
Indeed the inevitable finally came – an interactive dish. At The Fat Duck, we were served a seafood dish along with a sea shell with a set of headphones broadcasting sounds of the sea. At Noma we were told to fry an egg, then mix in the various additives according to a certain order and timing (a timer was provided to assist with the timing). I can just imagine the furious diner now standing up and exclaiming “I didn’t come halfway around the globe to the best restaurant in the world just to fry myself an egg!”. The dining experience at Noma reflects a wider philosophy, and that is one where we connect with our food.
“This is the new globalization, where things that are inexpensive to transport, and noncompetitive to share, like knowledge, ideas and creativity, move around the world with ease, while things which are costly to move, both in monetary and environmental terms, such as fresh food, don’t have to move as far – that’s smart.”
Too many people these days, especially fine diners, have forgotten about what food really is. It isn’t just expensive bits of funny-tasting stuff that we cook in a certain way so we can say “yum” then brag to our friends about it later. Its living things, things that grow, things that go through a long process before they end up on your plate. Using local ingredients is just a part of that, but what Redzepi has done is he has made it “cool” again to see food in this way. Perhaps indicative of Noma’s meteoric rise to the top is that, on its debut in the rankings, it was voted chef’s choice.
It is my hope that more restaurants like Noma pop up around the world. Not serving Nordic cuisine – that would be missing the point entirely. But embracing the philosophy of bringing the very best chefs, and techniques to bear on locally-sourced ingredients. Not just because it is better for the environment to eat locally-sourced foods (although that is a pretty good reason), but because it would give each restaurant its own unique character and identity – quite the opposite to the previous movement of carbon-copy big-brand restaurants like “Nobu”, “Pierre Gagnaire”, and “L’Atelier” opening up in big cities all over the world. This is the new globalization, where things that are inexpensive to transport, and noncompetitive to share, like knowledge, ideas and creativity, move around the world with ease, while things which are costly to move, both in monetary and environmental terms, such as fresh food, don’t have to move as far – that’s smart.
And inevitably, some of you are probably wondering about my verdict on the restaurant. This one is difficult, because the experience as a whole was subtly different to what fine diners are used to. We are used to being served, having the tastes and sensations washed over us while we passively experience and savour them. This was different. This was challenging, and interactive (and not only when we had to fry an egg which was both challenging and interactive). I suppose one could cop out and say that the comparison is too difficult, say that it is like comparing apples and oranges. But instead, imagine watching a well-executed blockbuster action movie – where the viewer is relatively passive, but nevertheless very entertained (something like Jurassic Park for example). Now think about a similarly well-executed movie, except that buried in the dialogue and characterizations are not just realistic, moving, and entertaining performances (all the great restaurants I’ve been to definitely have that “wow” factor), but this movie challenges you, nudges you out of your comfort zone, and really makes you think… perhaps a little bit like The Dark Knight. It was daring, it was different, and perhaps Noma really is the best restaurant in the world.