19/20 In a ferment – René Redzepi and his team mark out new territory with the old élan. Top, top grub. Top, top service. Top, top price. Topping all round.
‘That was so good,’ I said to the young lady who came to clear away the dishes that had until recently contained a ragout of duck hearts, livers and odds and ends in a broth as rich as brocade, with a small iceberg of sheep’s milk whey floating in it. It had been primal and suave at the same time. ‘“Do you know, I could eat a whole other one.’
‘Would you like to?’ she asked.
‘I would,’ I said.
So we did, my friend, Anders Schonnemann and I.
It was quite right that Anders should have a second helping, as we were celebrating his birthday, and he’d pulled all manner of strings to get a table at the new Noma. I say new Noma, because René Redzepi uprooted his team and moved lock, stock and development kitchen to a purpose-built restaurant looking out on a quiet, little sea inlet on the fringes of Copenhagen. It would feel quite rural and isolated, were it not for the monumental and rather beautiful rubbish incinerator on the further shore.
A sense of theatre governs the experience from the moment your name is checked off at the top of the path that leads past decorative green and purple kales sprouting among grasses on either side and a series of greenhouses in which they grow the vegetables to the airy wood and glass dining room. Push open the door, and there’s the full kitchen and waiting staff drawn up inside, ready to bellow ‘Hello’ or ‘Welcome’ at the tops of their voices like gang of football supporters. It was jolly in a Scandinavia kind of way, if rather disconcerting. I think it supposed to put you in the mood for the menu you’re about to eat. Whatever the intention, you know you’re in for a rather different meal, sitting down to a performance governed by a singular vision.
The menus an Noma change by the season. Fish and shellfish give the backbone to the dishes in spring; vegetables in summer; game and mushrooms in autumn. In winter Rene and his team rest or do whatever they do in winter. So it was game for Anders and I, for which I was very grateful. I’m very partial to a bit of grouse, partridge, hare and muntjac (or roe deer). In this case it was reindeer, a first for me, in the form of heart (raw in tartar), sweetbreads, brain pie and barbecued tongue; pheasant as in pheasant broth; and wild duck as in duck breast, brain, skin, cured, wing with the feathers still on and duck ragout with curd.
Quite a lot of people would find some of this on the challenging side. Look, I’m a paid-up offal aficionado, but even I have never eaten raw reindeer heart (or of another other animal, come to that). Cooked, yes; raw, no. I’m a lover of brains, but had never knowingly gone beyond sheep and calf’s brains. Oh, and rabbit, too. So I was intrigued when a plate appeared with a duck’s head complete with beak appeared in front of me. The head had been trepanned, exposing the (cooked) brain, which we ate with a tiny spoon formed from the duck’s dried tongue – they waste nothing at Noma. For the record, the brain was smooth and creamy, less curdy than calf or sheeps’ brains, more like a delicate custard. It made an elegant variation on the duck theme with the thin slices of cured breast that had the texture of firm cheese, and the superior scratching made of the skin.
There were some of the more expected – not the same as conventional – elements to go with the more unusual animal and bird body parts: airy deep fried moss (with a sweetbread buried on it); a resinous pinecone salad; a stag beetle made from fruit jelly; sharp dried plum; our old friends, the ants; a lively fresh confection of rose hips and quince; a mellow arrangement of pumpkin, autumn morels and pollen and so on and so on. I’m not going to do a mouthful-by-mouthful analysis of each of the 22 courses. Too conventional and boring.
It seemed to me that René Redzepi and his crew had matured a good deal since I last went to Noma. The use of brains, sweetbreads, hearts and skin showed they had lost none of their ethical edge and energy for challenging the polite conventions of restaurant meals. But, whereas formerly you were confronted with a sequence of dishes, each of which might have been remarkable in itself, they did not add up to an intelligible structure. The resinous, salty, yeasty, acidic chords were shocking to a palate schooled in the elegant gastronomic niceties of continental Europe, or India or Asia for that matter, and all the more refreshing and thought provoking. But I felt the menu was long on concept and rather shorter on coherence.
In Noma redux, the menu not only has the twin pillars of the reindeer and the duck that provide two natural sequences of linked flavours, but there are other links provided by less heralded elements. Milk turns up as a crisp skin shell holding the reindeer brain and as a curd plonked in the middle of the ragout of duck heart, liver and bits and bobs of which we ate two helpings. Mushrooms pop up all over the place. Moss, too, cooked and uncooked. And fermented elements in various forms, the individual effects of which were sublimated into the structure of a particular dish rather than being an end in themselves, as might have been the case in the past. So hot broth with squirrel ferment (whatever that may be); wafer of sourdough as the base for a feather made of truffle and mousse of duck’s liver; adding a sour note to pheasant broth and so on. These links in the minor key help give a rhythm to the menu as a whole that makes it feel more of a celebration and less of a lecture in shock and awe.
This sense of pleasure was noticeable at the tables around us. There seemed to be fewer gastro-tourists sitting in silent wonder at the amazing confections put in front of them, and more groups of folk having a very good time. No doubt they were talking about the food, as we were, but they were doing to with a laugh and shout rather than the hushed tones of worshippers. The service keeping the flow of dishes to the fourth or so diners was brilliant – unobstrusive, charming, informative and with uncanny judgement of when to talk to the guests and when to leave them to get on with things.
If I have any reservations, there were moments when I wished that Noma’s ethical vision wasn’t so closely wedded to the rather more variable qualities of natural and orange wines; and each course succeeds the last with such speed and precision, it is in danger of feeling a touch mechanical. There are two sittings to be fitted into each evening, the first beginning at 5pm, and while we weren’t chivvied along in any sense, we were moved off to a kind of after bar as soon as we had finished. Still, I’m prepared to forgive Noma anything because I had a second helping of the divine duck ragout with milk curd. The last time that happened was at Jamin in Paris in 1987. That’s a longtime between second helpings.
Noma, Refshalevej 96, 1432 Copenhagen K, Denmark.
Phone +45 3296 3297