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2 Michelin Stars

Noma: The Nordic Food Revolution

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Noma: The Nordic Food Revolution

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.

 

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Mostly Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

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Mostly Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

Should you plan to visit Fukuoka for one day or seven?  It is a tough choice.  Fukuoka is a city in the southwest of Japan.  It has a population of about 1.5 million people and is the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu.  It is Japan’s fifth largest city, and probably the most manageable city in Japan that I’ve visited (Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo being the others).  It was the seventh most livable city according to Monocle in 2016.  Not many people speak English and I only know a few words of Japanese, but after only a few days in Fukuoka I could easily manage the subway and the buses on my own.  I knew the major sections of the city and had found the 24 hour Ichiran, thankfully only a half mile from my hotel as I made many trips there.  Fukuoka is a city of food and shopping.  There is a park containing the ruins of the samurai compound, the ocean and associated fishing industry, and a few notable temples.  But it isn’t the wonderland of activities like the bigger Japanese cities.  There is no Disneyland, no Harry Potter Universal Studios, no giant robots walking the streets.  But there is ramen.  And that might just be enough for an entire week.

Fukuoka and Hakata are two cities that merged into one and the official name of the city is now Fukuoka, but Hakata is still often used to refer to the city and the main train station is called Hakata Station.  Hakata ramen is famous worldwide as rich, pork based tonkotsu ramen.  This is the type of ramen that is popping up on every other corner in major cities around the US and the world.  And this is may be the only type of ramen most people around the world have eaten.  In Japan there is ramen based on fish, miso, and chicken.  In most of the world there is only tonkotsu ramen.  It has taken over the world because it is so delicious.  

I managed to fit in eight bowls in three and a half days. They were all so good that it was on my last night in Fukuoka at the two Michelin star Tempura Tenko where I hit the wall, not any of the ramen joints.  It’s a good thing I walked ten miles a day while I was there.  

Ramen, in order of preference:

Ichiran - This is a global chain and for good reason.  At most locations you get your own small booth to slurp your noodles with only your ramen for company.  They make a pork broth, but it also has garlic, their special red spicy sauce, and I venture to say some other aromatics and something mildly acidic.  Every bowl is customized because you get to choose the intensity and richness of the broth, level of spice, amount of garlic, addition of green and/or white onions, addition of chashu (roasted pork), and firmness of the noodles.  The noodles in Fukuoka are a bit different than ramen noodles known to most people.  They are thin and straight.  And delicious.  Three of my eight bowls were from Ichiran, partly because I loved it and partly because the restaurant at their global headquarters is open 24 hours and I ate ramen for breakfast.  Most ramen joints do not open until 11 am and some stay open very late.  

Mengekijo Genei - Unlike many ramen restaurants where you are expected to file in, sit or stand at a crowded counter, eat quickly and get out, Mengekijo Genei is built like a stadium with the ramen chef on center stage so that everyone can watch the show.  We were early to avoid the crowd and got a front row seat.  The chef was incredibly friendly and came out to speak to us.  I was with a Japanese guide so was able to talk with him a bit and learn more about his ramen.  It is made with dried shrimp, scallops and abalone, and pork or course.  We tried their standard house ramen and a spicy version with minced pork topping.  Their house ramen was the best of the two.  It had the standard topics of chashu, mushrooms and green onions and nothing more was needed.  The noodles and broth were amazing and that’s all that really matters.  This broth was more complex than many of the others I had in Fukuoka and one of the best.

Hide-chan - Canal city is one of the shopping meccas in Fukuoka.  My dream food court is on the fifth floor and is called Ramen Stadium.  It is filled with the best ramen shops from the Fukuoka region.  My hotel was attached to this mall and it is the one and only reason I chose to stay there.  Hide-chan is very well known and has many locations world wide.  I ventured out a bit while there and chose their special fatty pork neck rather than the standard chashu.  The bowl was simple and contained only the pork, green onions and noodles.  The broth was on the complex side, which I found that I enjoy more than the simpler broths.  The pork neck was delicious and very tender.  It went perfectly with the broth.  All in all a great bowl of ramen, surrounded by seven other ramen restaurants plus Ichiran in the basement.  If only I'd been hungrier!  Heaven.  

Ganso Nagahama - This is a classic ramen shop near the fish market.  It opened right after the end of WWII and now has other branches in Fukuoka.  The original restaurant is very industrial and utilitarian.  The workers are dressed in white with rain boots.  Everything behind the counter is stainless steel and clearly built and organized for efficiency.  In the eating area there are large communal tables with stools.  There is a giant pot of warm tea on each table, a bucket of mugs, and a tub of red pickled ginger.  The ramen ticket machine outside has the fewest number of options I’ve seen.  You could choose to buy extra noodles or extra chashu and that was it.  It was also the cheapest bowl of ramen at only 500 yen (about $4.75).  This was a simple and straightforward bowl.  Noodles, paper thin chashu and a generous helping of green onions.  That’s it and really no other options.  The noodles were very good and cooked perfectly.  The broth was simple, but delicious.  I would guess that it was almost completely pork broth, but with a small bit of something else to give it slightly more complexity.   

Shin Shin - This is also a famous Hakata ramen mainstay with multiple locations.  This was my least favorite of the the five ramen restaurants I visited, but it was still very good.  Before I tried this ramen I didn’t fully understand what was meant when by a silky tonkotsu broth.  This broth had that heaviest mouthfeel of any ramen I’ve ever had.  I can imagine it will start to become a solid mass very quickly as it cools because of the amount of collagen in the broth.   The broth was meaty and full of pork flavor, but was the least complex of the five different places I tried.  It would probably be the best ramen in most cities in the world.  

Other notable Fukuoka finds:

Yatai - Fukuoka is about the only city in Japan with much of a street food culture.  Every night when the sun goes down, tiny, fully functional restaurants called yatai pop up on the street.  They serve ramen (of course!), matsunabe (organ soup), mentaiko (spicy cod roe), oden (boiled meat and vegetables), yakitori and sushi.  They are open until around 2am and are perfect for that last meal after a night of drinking with your friends.

Tempura Tenko - As mentioned above, this is a classic high end Japanese tempura restaurant.  The chef is a very experienced tempura master and provides instructions on how to eat each piece (tempura sauce, lemon, salt or curry salt).  It was the cheapest 2 star restaurant I have been to in quite a while ($150 total with sake).  It was a beautiful space and the chef and the hostess were very gracious.  We got by with my extremely limited Japanese and their slightly better English.  The chef had a list of the ingredients in English, so he would tell me in English or show me the sheet if he was unsure of the pronunciation.  As I mentioned above, after so many bowls of ramen and a meal of fried things, even if they were expertly done and very light, I hit the wall.  I could only take two bites of the last rice dish.  It was a very good experience overall.  I enjoyed the perfection of the restaurant.  The pottery was beautiful.  The restaurant was decorated sparingly and achieved that perfect simple beauty at which the Japanese excel.

Kira Hakata Steakhouse - Kira Hakata is a teppanyaki style steakhouse that is right on the bank of the river.  They serve Saga beef which is wagyu beef from the Saga region (like Kobe beef is wagyu beef from the Kobe region).  My own personal teppanyaki chef  started by cooking giant garlic chips in oil, then saved the oil to cook the subsequent steak, vegetables and fried rice.  The steak was so marbled it was half fat and half meat which makes for incredibly tender and meaty beef.  The chef cooked each bite individually.  The garlic fried rice was so well prepared that the garlic was not overwhelming and every component in the rice came together perfectly.  

Yakitori Masashi is the Japanese restaurant of my dreams.  Delicious salty grilled meats on skewers, sochu (sweet potato liquor), and fun.  The staff was incredibly welcoming to this foreigner.  They made sure I could properly say the name of each item before they served it to me, joked around with us, encouraged me to take all the pictures I wanted, and posed for every picture they caught me taking.  They even brought me a special dish of tiny taro like potatoes that had been grilled with oil and salt.  If I found a yakitori joint like this in the SF Bay Area, I would move next to it so that it could become my favorite neighborhood restaurant.  

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42 grams: Michelin 2 star dinner party

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42 grams: Michelin 2 star dinner party

Recommended: Strongly

Categories: High end dining, Creative, Technique driven, Modernist

Lately there are a few high end restaurants playing with the theme of a dinner party.  Lazy Bear in San Francisco is one of my favorites, and El Ideas in Chicago is also very successful with the model.  42 grams goes in a more intimate direction than either of the other two restaurants and seats only 8 people at a time.  The entire staff consists of two chefs, a dishwasher and one person running front of the house.  Jake Bickelhaupt is the chef and co-owner with his wife Alexa Welsh who is the entire front of the house.  Chef Bickelhaupt worked at Alinea, Schwa, and Charlie Trotter's, so he has a great resume.  Like Schwa and El Ideas in Chicago, 42 grams is BYOB.  They offer still or sparkling water only.  This is not a place that focuses on the traditional aspects of fine dining.  It is comfortable and modern inside, but the neighborhood is not a great one and there is no lounge area inside, so do not come early.  But don't be late either because everyone is served at the same time, like at a dinner party.  Clearly, the focus is on the food and creating a relaxed and friendly environment where people interact with each other.   42 grams is completely successful at this.  The food is amazing and I had a great time with the people next to me.  We shared our wine and chatted the whole night.  Most of the time we were talking about how good the food was.  

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