A hurried walk through the brisk cold November seaside air of Copenhagen took us from Nyhavn across the water channel and into the Christianhavn warehouse district. It took us some hunting to find the restaurant, Noma, at Strandgade 93. We came up to a large dockside warehouse, the waterside of which was under a large blue tarp with an arctic ice print and seemingly being restored. The street address was Strandgade 89. We knew we must be close, but we could not see Noma. Confused, we searched until we finally realized that the restaurant was actually under the tarp. The building was not being renovated. Copenhagen was hosting the UN climate conference soon after our visit. The arctic ice themed tarp was there for the conference.
Paul, Becky’s nephew, was coming from Sweden to join us. He was delayed on his way. After some hesitation, we decided to go ahead and start the meal without him and entered the modern dining room. The Noma occupies the first floor of the old warehouse and looks across the sea channel towards Nyhavn. With our 1:30 reservation time, we were told that the full tasting menu was not possible. We could have the seven-course menu or smaller segments. Juice matches are available as an alternative to the typical wine pairing. The juice idea was intriguing, but we opted for the wine match instead. Many of the wines served were produced using a biodynamic winemaking process.
The food experience at Noma is quite different than at our previous days meal at The Fat Duck. Noma is not about bells and whistles and science-based food preparation. It is about locally sourced ingredients prepared with simple perfection. Of the top tier restaurants that I have visited, Noma compares most closely to The French Laundry. Both restaurants demonstrate the primacy of the ingredients. There are differences, of course. The French Laundry is Cal-French in style and aims for perfection. At Noma the food has Scandinavian roots and retains a rustic feel.
The most notable dish amongst the starters and perhaps the signature dish for the entire meal is radishes served in a hazelnut mousse soil. This dish arrives at the table with two radishes, leaves intact, planted in a small flowerpot. The “soil” in the pot is a hazelnut mousse. It looks exactly like two radishes growing in a pot of dirt. But, everything short of the clay pot is edible in this dish. (OK, we didn’t actually try eating the clay pot, but we assumed we couldn’t eat it.) It took a little to get used to the idea. Perhaps this Trompe L’oeil dish is more about the presentation than the taste, though the radishes are quite real and exquisite. This opening dish revealed that the star of our meal was going to be the fresh vegetable.
Soon after the starters appeared, Paul arrived. As the kitchen quickly caught him up, we continued on through the meal. Aside from the vegetables and proteins, there were pickled items along the way to remind us that this was, in fact, Scandinavian food. Favorite dishes from meals always make me want to try to repeat the concept later at home later, if the execution seems simple enough. That was definitely the case with this one, “Lamb and horseradish, Fresh salads and pickled ramson onion.” This dish, like most at Noma, is simple in concept. A salty, crisp, and fatty piece of lamb sits amongst wilted salad leaves. It is an easy enough idea and amazingly satisfying. At home, the concept can be repeated, but the result, though enjoyable, is a poor cousin of Noma’s original.
It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between our last two restaurant experiences. The Fat Duck is an over the top example of gastronomic performance art. It is one of those experiences that you savor and enjoy periodically. Is it meal? Is it art? Is it a performance? The Duck is, in the end, all three, I guess. Noma, on the other hand, is a restaurant you can and would want to eat at everyday. With infinite wealth, the staff at Noma would be your perfect private kitchen. The food is fresh. The vegetables are exquisite. The meal is light and it feels good to eat it. All this is quite uncommon amongst the elite restaurants we have visited. Noma doesn’t so much wow as it appeals and satisfies.
Is Noma, a two Michelin starred restaurant, really the third best restaurant in the World, as the San Pellegrino list suggests? I’d say no. It doesn’t have the whole dining experience to qualify or even, really, to come close. It is not sufficiently iconic and distinctive to draw that rating. But we’d make a point of going back. The meal was extremely good. This is the type of food we crave, particularly when traveling.