14 November 2012

Danish Tasty: dining at the world's best restaurant

In March this year I won one of my most amazing prizes: dinner at the world's best restaurant. For the last three years, RenĂ© Redzepi's NOMA has topped Restaurant magazine's list of the fifty top restaurants in the world. I was lucky enough to win Foodie.fm's competition and was rewarded with a €600 tab at NOMA, flights to Copenhagen and a night's stay at the Scandic Hotel. The only problem I had was booking - with thousands of people competing for just 12 tables, this could be tricky!

After five months of trying to book, we finally got ourselves a Thursday night table for two in November. The flights and hotel were booked by Foodie.fm and we eagerly awaited our toddler-free break in Denmark.

Copenhagen is a great city; the locals seem relaxed and happy pottering about on their bikes and it has a lovely relaxed vibe about it. As Graphic Designers, Rob and I are also totally in love with Danish style – from wooden toys and oversized sideboards to quirky textiles and practical chairs – so it definitely felt like somewhere we could spend a couple of days. Actually, we could probably live there – but maybe there's not much of a comping scene...?

After a super easy train ride from the airport to Central Station, we checked into the very white and very modern Scandic Copenhagen, collected a brolly and headed straight out to Tante T for a pot of Assam and (naturally) a Danish pastry. Candlelit and cosy, it was the perfect place to relax until our big night out…


You know there's something very special about Noma the moment you step inside.

The restaurant is welcoming and cosy, and the warmth and humour of the friendly young team is infectious. RenĂ© himself is at the door to greet us and we're shown to our table by the charming Kat. There are no crisp white tablecloths here – just furry bearskins on the chairs and romantic candles.


Noma is famous for foraging locally for the ingredients of its innovative and epic meals, and the wines and champagnes too are natural so the whole experience is rather wild and Nordic. A meal here is full of surprises: some of them wonderful, some of them odd, some of them shocking. It's certainly a night I'll never forget...

The menu at Noma comprises two parts: the 'small servings' (I call them 'snacks') and then the main meal. In total, there were an incredible 24 dishes served, well over three hours of culinary entertainment. The snacks are brought out quickly and it's hard to keep track of it all – it's a blur of excitement.

Our first snack is a vase of foliage: buried in it are two malt flatbreads disguised as twigs. Once eaten, the vase is left on the table as a decoration: nice touch!


Next up is fried reindeer moss which is mushroomy and much tastier than it sounds. A pair of crispy porkskin snacks topped with a tart berry mix quickly follow and are like a fabulous scratching/seaweed cracker mash-up.


Next is a plate of mussel shells topped with two blue mussels - the top shells are removed and everything underneath is edible. They're remarkably tasty and meaty: a far cry from the Moules Frites at my local French restaurant. The chef delivers a tin to our table – inside are Swedish cheese cookies topped with a mix of chopped herb stems and rocket. Then, a mini potato rosti with duck liver is like a posh crisp - these are most definitely my kind of snacks.


The next course isn't quite as appealing - raw shrimp served in a jar on ice, and chef informs us we can eat the whole thing dipped in brown butter sauce. Fair enough, I've eaten whole shrimp and raw shrimp before in Japan - no worries there. We open the jar and I pop the shrimp onto my plate. Then it jumps up and starts wriggling all over the place: ah, no one told me it was alive! It's just not my thing at all I'm afraid (fifteen years as a vegetarian have left their mark) so the little fellow was promptly sent back to the kitchen. I started to regret that I didn't do a little googling prior to our meal so my lively snack could have remained in the sea for a little longer!


Momentarily freaked out by our little surprise, we move on to a much more familiar snack of crudities and dip; Noma style of course, so these were dehydrated carrots with a sorrel cream. A cod liver crisp was next on the agenda, and then a dish that's often copied - a foursome of carrots and radishes planted in a pot of edible hazelnut 'soil' and herb cream 'grass'. It's crunchy and fun, and I find myself scrabbling around in the pot with my fingers for more - there's definitely a 'waste not, want not' policy at Noma, and nothing goes to waste. Next, two smoked quails eggs are served on a bed of smoking hay which smells amazing, and they properly melt-in-the-mouth.


The next snack was my favourite: quirky and cute, and something I would love to pack for a picnic: the head and tail of a little fish poking out of a savoury donut. And in the middle of the donut? Not jam, but a ball of cucumber! Pure genius. Next was a chilly bowl of frozen sorrel and cricket paste: it sounds odd but it was pretty good. We mopped it up with leaves: I have a feeling this particular 'small serving' is pretty low on the calories, so I wash it down with more champagne. Our final snack certainly didn't pack a punch visually. Two blackened leeks were slit open and the insides mixed with cod roe and fermented peas. They're big on fermentation at Noma, just as the Japanese are - but luckily the fermented food here isn't quite as pungent as Japanese natto.


And so... After thirteen small servings, a glass or two of champagne and a scared shrimp, we finally launch into the main event...

The ten course meal is accompanied by wines selected to match the food: they include unusual organic and biodynamic wines, and are perfectly suited to the menu. We're also given a cute felt bag of bread, with a choice of butter or pork fat to spread on it. I try both at once and promise myself I'll never buy Flora again.

The opening course of our meal is almost like a dessert: a palate cleansing plate of milk curd with blueberry and pine oil. Then a dish that again reminds me of Japan: sea urchin served with frozen dill, cucumber balls rolled in cucumber ash, and cream. This is one of my favourite courses: I love the unusual taste and texture of sea urchin. More seafood was to follow: a bowl of super fresh brown crab with herbs and two dainty egg yolks which taste remarkable. I query what they're marinated in and am told it's tea, but it's so floral! I briefly ponder if I could somehow recreate this dish at home, but then I remember the last time I wrestled with a crab it took me an hour to get the meat out.

The next course arrives with a waiter proclaiming simply 'Beetroot and Plums'. It sounds like he's insulting us. But in our little bowl we have fermented plums and rich beetroot with fennel, a combination of flavours that works brilliantly. Then, an oyster, but not the 'down in one' kind I'm used to! This one is a big old chap, cooked for one minute, chopped into bite size pieces and served with gooseberry and buttermilk. It tasted really, really good.


Roasted cauliflower with pine cream and horseradish is next - simple yet exciting. I decide I'm definitely giving this a go at home. To follow, pike perch snuggled into a cabbage leaf and cooked over hot coals. Lemon verbena and dill as an accompaniment is wonderful with the moist fish.

By this point I'd almost forgotten that red meat existed, but the arrival of a glass of Ploussard wine signals that the veal sweetbreads are on their way. On the menu, the meat is accompanied by 'bitter greens' but our cheeky waiter describes them as 'a bunch of weeds'. You'd be surprised how good the weeds tasted though: gardening will never be the same again. Celeriac and mushroom add to the rich flavour of this dish - I am in vegetable heaven tonight!


At this stage we feel a pang of dismay realising that this course is the end of the savouries and we're nearing the end of our feast. Sob!

The 'sweet' courses at Noma aren't exactly what you'd expect - no sugar coated Danish pastries on offer here - but if I'm honest I've not got much of a sweet tooth. The Gammel Dansk (or 'Musk rat ice cream', as one of the chefs likes to call it) comes with milk crisps and sorrel, and our final course is stripes of potato and plum puree with kernel cream. Yup, I've definitely managed my 'five a day' with this meal.


As an after dinner snack, we're brought yeast fudge with skyr and sea buckthorn, which looks like a dainty poached egg in a pot. This is great - skyr reminds me of Reykjavik and sea buckthorn reminds me of our local restaurant Sat Bains! Perfect.

We're whisked away to the bar for a coffee, chocolate crisp and beetroot spliff (well, that's what it looks like...) Kat tells us we should try the Scandinavian spirit Aquavit so we happily knock back a glass of apple flavour.


We're then lucky enough to be taken on a kitchen tour by chef Dan, who also takes us outside to see the 'Big Green Egg' barbecue (one of these is on my prize wishlist!). Noma has 45 staff from all over the world - that's pretty much one team member per diner. All the chefs are expected to take their dishes out to the diners which makes the whole experience very social - they're happy to answer questions and chat, and definitely have a sense of humour.

Above Noma's main restaurant are the office, private dining room, development kitchen and staff areas. At about 11.30pm the staff discuss the dietary requirements and allergies of the next day's guests - tailoring the menus to suit can be a challenge (apparently people with a seafood allergy also can't eat crickets!). I'm impressed by the tidiness, the herb collection and the efficient Tupperware labelling system - the range of ingredients is astonishing. And then... it's time to leave.

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Our few hours spent at Noma were very intense – it really was an incredible experience.

I had a rotten hangover on Friday but I blame that on the Aquavit top-ups Kat was sneaking into my glass… we cured it with a bracing walk round town and a visit to sit on Danish chairs in the Design Museum. By the time we sat down to an organic lunch at BioMio I was more than ready for a Danish beer!


Massive thanks must go to Foodie.fm for offering such a generous prize – from the moment I first spotted the competition I knew the prize had to be mine... and I wasn't disappointed.

One very important tip I've learnt from my Noma experience – when you book a meal and they ask if there's anything you don't or can't eat, think hard before answering 'No' – after all, who knows what might be wriggling across your plate!

(thanks to Rob for all the photos - you'll be able to see more when his own Checkthis post is live at www.robcoke.com)