Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Lunch at Noma

On Friday last week the man and I had lunch at Noma with the lovely J& M - even typing 'had lunch at Noma' sounds unlikely. But so very true... It's an ambition we've chatted about for a very long time - I did think for a while it would simply be a tantalising dream forever unrealised. But things happen and sometimes dreams come true.

Fast forward to a sunny day in Copenhagen, perfect for a stroll down to the water where Noma is housed in an old warehouse. We stepped down into a beautifully understated room and a whole crowd of staff smiling and greeting us, including the extraordinary chef Rene Redzepi. Was astounded to find him there for service. It was the beginning of the thrill that lasted for the next four hours of intensely flavoured food, all of it beautifully plated and explained with great detail by a profusion of charming and well informed staff. I felt incredibly welcome to be there, that everyone was as delighted as us at the prospect of lunch.

There were about 20 courses in all.

We started with champagne - why not? - to accompany a quick succession of glorious little dishes to share. First was Nordic coconut, big fat green kohlrabi that had been hollowed out then filled with a juice mix of crushed unripe strawberries and sea buckthorn, brightly cleansing and vaguely orangey all sucked up through a straw made from one of the stems. This was fun.

There was a vase in the centre of the table with a display of small branches and flowers - pretty but it did seem slightly out of place. There are no tablecloths in sight, soft light spills in all around through the enormous windows, the room is a palely beautiful thing of various soft greys and the staff, too, wear muted shades of grey. A couple of small dishes of home made creme fraiche were set before us - to be used to dip the centre branches of our floral display. Seriously, the branches. They were malt bread fern frond cut outs coated in a fine juniper dust, tasting almost bitter and very dry when I curiously nibbled the end. Hmmm, Nordic I thought, then I dipped it into the creme fraiche and it was silky and intense - ah, wonderful, I thought.

Next was one of my favourite things - moss and cep. Reindeer moss explained the waiter, with a shaving of dried cep. The moss was how I imagine a cloud would be if briefly deep fried - tiny delicate strands of crisp, sort of there and not there, the cep adding a very slight dusting of earthy - a really lovely dish.

After moss there was a triumph of culinary skill - verdantly green pea pods where the inside had been peeled and removed and the remaining fine skin stuffed with peas, pine and chamomile. One each and they were pea perfection. (We had a tour of the kitchens after lunch and saw the  young stager intently peeling a large bowl of pea pods for the evening service, least favourite job in the kitchen by all accounts though he, like everyone else, was remarkably cheerful in his diligence.)

Peas eaten, we were presented with a battered old biscuit tin, the lid off to reveal little tin flan cases - mostly empty I'm sad to report - but the four that weren't had a perfect disc of deeply savoury cheese biscuit topped with the stems of rocket chopped fine to the size of match heads - a glorious mouthful of both flavour and texture. Then there was berry and roses that tasted like the best wine gums the world will ever know followed by a large speckled egg that opened with a whisp of smoke to reveal tiny pickled and smoked warm quail's eggs nestling in a pile of straw.

Next was one of my favourite things - though the degrees of separataion between loving it and favourite are miniscule - this is one that really amazed me. It was a sheet of caramelised milk - ie milk (skin?) that has been reduced down till it is no longer liquid and has formed a thin golden sheet - topped with small, noticeably cold, discs of cod liver the size of a one penny piece that melted into a decadent richness on my tongue. Heaven.

It was followed by a dish that made us laugh out loud as it was set down. Imagine warm fat beignets the size of golfballs, stuffed with cucumber jelly and stuck through with smoked baby herring, head poking out one side, tail the other. It was our very own plate of stargazy donuts! I'm not generally a fan of little fish still with their heads and tails but these were very yum indeed.

Following the couple of fish dishes was a lovely clean tasting sorrel and nasturtium plate, the sorrel leaves stood like sails at the edge of the bowl, to be used to scoop up a sort of grainy nasturtium sea. And then big fat crayfish warm and split, with juicy claws and a small bowl of something indescribably wonderful to dip into. I still don't know what it was.

The final starter - yes, we are still on the introduction to the meal - was a big fat burnt leek set before us with a waft of barbecue. Our Australian waiter - who was in fact one of the sous chefs as some of the dishes are served by the kitchen staff to add extra depth to explanations making the meal ever more seamless - laughingly suggested the chef could use a few more lessons on cooking over coals. It was the interior we ate - the leeks had been hollowed out then filled with short lengths of baby leek with a creamy cod roe - all of it smokily steamed to melting perfection inside the big leek.

You will no doubt have noticed by now that I wasn't taking lots of photos despite the incredible wit and beauty of every dish. For me it interrupts the pleasure of eating, metaphorically taking me away from the table and I seriously wanted to be immersed in this lunch entirely. Apologies if you miss them. I did, however, take a few...

This was the first of the main courses. Up to this point all the plates had come in really quick succession and were placed in the middle of the table for sharing. This exquisite looking plate was all mine! I will admit I half expected a fat green frog to emerge from under one of these pretty lily pads but no - what we had was raw Skagen shrimp and ramsons, with rhubarb root and flowers and it tasted as delicately beautiful as that bowl looks.

The next plate was thin slices of scallop that had been dried to almost crisp served on grains - barley I think with the peppery bite of watercress and a slight oily crunch of hazelnuts all of it in a coal black slick of squid ink. It stained under my fingernails as I tried to mop up every last drop.

Next up was a deceptively simple looking dish, a medley of soft browns amid translucence - shards of roasted onions and slices of fermented pears - with a scattering of black flecks. The flecks were black ant sauce, said our waiter. We glanced at each other briefly, quick shrug, then tucked right in. Allow me to recommend ant sauce next time you are serving onions with fermented pear.

Possibly the most Nordic looking dish so far followed. Asparagus - a thing I love - here was served with the white stalks roasted, the green pureed and served with cream and pine twice - once for eating, which were the fine pale green new shoots about a centimetre long alongside little branches, there just for decoration.

Next was potato and bleak fish roe. The potato had been rolled in a kind of mould or fungus then roasted - they looked like the chestnuts that get sold round the streets in winter. They were very earthy - I'll admit I was not entirely sure. The bleak fish can find solace at least in the fabulousness of the tiny quenelles of roe that were served alongside, yet another version of wonderful.

Hidden within this beautiful symphony of white and deep green above is a little package of pike perch wrapped in cabbage, grilled to make for richness and delicacy together.  The leaves poking out are verbena and there is a little dill in there too - the whole dish was light as the foam on top, all of it gone in moments.

The empty plates were taken away and replaced with this beef rib. One each.

It was the very last of the savoury dishes and was so beautiful to look at. The ribs are cooked for a week, hence the expanse of clean bone, then topped with lingon berries, tiny tart juicy little fruits that I first ate with J& M one Christmas, my first taste of Sweden. I loved this dish, the incredibly tender meat was richly flavoured and the sharp crisp topping - which looks to me like Christmas on the bone - was perfect with it. We ate it with our hands, no cutlery provided, somehow increasing the pleasure.

Dessert first was gammel dansk, a bitter herbal liqueur made into sort of crisp shards served with a little pile of herbs and toasted bits, very sharp and clean. And lastly, rhubarb and milk with brown cheese and oxalis. (My mother weeds oxalis from her garden in a frenzy every time it pops up) Despite the way it reads this came out looking like a Danish pastry, crowned with a slick of 'chocolate' disc and lovely with it.

And then it was - not quite - over. We were taken through to the bar on the other side for coffee and amazing chocolate crunchy things, utterly blissed out with the pleasure of such an extraordinary meal, chattering happily for the next half hour or so.

This charming woman was one of the many that served us - she was such delightful fun all day

Having written all about it I am left with the sense that I have an insufficiency of language to describe just how much I enjoyed our meal at Noma, the sheer giddy enchantment of it. What can I say?

Go if you can.