If you’ve eaten at a restaurant anywhere in the world in the last 10 years and been offered something foraged, something smoked in hay or moss, or something flavored with hearty greens or pine, it's because of Noma—a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark.
If you've eaten at a vegetable-forward restaurant or eaten something that is usually thrown away (like the fish head below), it's because of Noma.
If you've eaten at a restaurant where everything on the menu comes from less than 100 miles away and is likely fermented, it's because of Noma.
If you've been to a restaurant that's been influenced by or is a part of the Nordic movement, it's because of Noma.
Under the direction of chef and owner René Redzepi, Noma has arguably had the biggest impact on the world of food in the last decade.
I ate at Noma in February 2014 with my friend Jen, who is incredibly knowledgeable about the restaurant world. At the time, Jen was only was acquaintance. A mutual friend told Jen that I was the kind of crazy, obsessive foodie who would trek halfway around the world with her to spend the weekend in Copenhagen to eat at Noma. After a jam-packed food itinerary that included meals at Geranium, Relæ, Radio, a castle, and a bunch of smørrebrød, we were great friends. Poorer friends, but great friends.
While the farm-to-table philosophy seems very Bay Area, it’s Noma that started the hyper local food trend. Chef Redzepi actually employs the extreme constraints of using only Danish, and sometimes Nordic, ingredients to push the creativity of the restaurant. He has a specific theory that extreme constraints drive creativity. In the 2013 recipe and journal collection René Redzepi: A Work in Progress, he spends a year keeping a journal focused on the restaurant, pushing himself and his staff to be more creative and trying to stay sane and centered through the pressures of being the #1 restaurant in the world for four years in a row. It's a fascinating window into obsessive creativity, and I came away from both this journal and my meal at Noma thinking that this level of perfection and creativity requires a certain level of madness. In the right profession (a chef, a sculptor, an architect, etc.) and a sufficiently high level of notoriety, madness is also known as genius.
Was Noma my favorite meal ever? No. Athough it's certainly in the top 10 (and it’s a great top 10 list). The main reason may be that it was winter in Denmark. The only non-Nordic items used at Noma are chocolate,wine and coffee, and they are used sparingly. That means that most of what’s served in February are hearty greens, root vegetables, preserved items, fish and game. For such a vegetable-forward restaurant, that means that the palate of the meal is tarter and more bitter than I prefer. Nonetheless, I was blown away by the meal .
My favorite courses were the fish head, caramelized milk and monk fish liver, urchin toast, and caramelized bread. The fish head was served on the stick that is used to grill it, with no other utensils. It is covered in an incredibly savory seaweed-based wet rub, and Jen and I used our hands to eat it. I ate the eyeball, too. I was glad I did because tasted great—like a rush of the best savory broth. But cultural norms die hard, and I almost gagged. The caramelized milk and monkfish liver was brilliant. Dairy is plentiful in Denmark, and Noma finds many different uses for milk. In this case, milk is slowly caramelized until is becomes a solid, and it is used as a cracker base for the dish. Monkfish liver is like the foie gras of the sea, so the dish was rich, savory and meaty. The urchin was served on a small piece of charred bread, and it was covered by a duck "skin." A rich duck broth is cooked until a thick skin of protein forms on the surface, which is then removed and dried. It tastes like the best parts of duck, but unimaginably concentrated. I would never have thought to combine urchin and duck, but it was brilliant.
The wines were natural, often orange—and funkier than I had ever tasted before. The juice pairing was a collection of vegetable and fruit juices, often fermented and always refreshing. At least 80% of the menu was either something I had never eaten before, or never prepared in that way before.
Noma is currently closed, with the intention of opening again sometime this year. Their new space will be a farm within the city, allowing them more space to grow their own ingredients and enough space to house their extensive research and development activities. Noma has done a series of pop-ups in Japan, Australia and Mexico, and all of them have received rave reviews. It's hard to imagine that they can continue to grow and push the boundaries of creativity, but I have no doubt that they will. If I have the chance to go again, I certainly will. Hopefully in August this time.