Every season when football players return back from a few weeks break and start their pre-season training with their club they are not in their finest form. There might be a new coach, new players, new tactics to assimilate. The first few matches can be excruciating not only for the coach and players themselves but also for the supporters and journalists. The latter have to write about those friendly matches as if they are the final of the Champions League to sate the interest of the supporters.
The reality, however, is that it is way to early to form an opinion or to pass judgement. If you have to watch a team like Real Madrid or Barcelona perform during the pre-season, it will be impossible to assess how they will fare that season on the basis of those early summer friendly matches despite the fact that the teams are born to be great.
The lunch at the new Noma on 23 February forms part of that same category. The food and the service were excellent but this was the start of the ‘pre-season training’, the first steps in what could turn out to be a long campaign.
The Copenhagen restaurant of chef René Redzepi has been at the pinnacle of world gastronomy for many years and had just reopened in a new location. The restaurant has been completely reinvented. That alone is a daunting task for anyone who has changed restaurant location. But this is no normal restaurant, this is one which is and will be in the spotlight for many months to come. We are speaking of one of only a handful of restaurants that have been first in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (four times for Noma).
What we saw in this first outing were the signs of an ‘epic team’ in the making. One that is not satisfied with just winning one championship but rather a team that has the hunger to break records and become legendary.
What René Redzepi has in mind is not something that can be built in a year, let alone a week. As he said, for a creative person, routine can be a killer and that is certainly what he is trying to avoid with the opening of the new Noma where the menu will be completely reinvented three times a year.
Before opening the new Noma, René had said that ‘we are excited for the next 14 years. We will be able to push again, to learn again and it is great to be searching not knowing 100 per cent where we want to go’ so expect this to be just the beginning of what René and his team have in mind.
The first menu which runs till the end of April focuses on the ocean. René and his team have paid homage to the richness of the sea and particularly the bounty that is available in the cold winter months when the produce is at its best. Prior to the opening of the restaurant, he and his team had embarked on a journey visiting the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, Norway and the whole of Denmark.
That research and that knowledge which has been accumulated from these trips is very visible in the first ever menu that is being served at the new Noma as we speak. But there is not just this knowledge but also the pop-up experiences from Japan to Australia and then Mexico which have also been an integral part of the growth of the chef and bis team.
This is not a review of the restaurant but rather a report of that first meal a week after the restaurant opened. To continue with the football analogy, if you have the opportunity to watch your favourite team play just one match during a season, you will not choose a pre-season match but one where the team is in peak form. So does this mean that the food at Noma does not meet the expectations? Far from it. There was nothing flawed in the whole menu with some dishes being memorable, i.e. ones which will remain etched in your memory for a very long time. But you know and have a feeling that this is just the start of a journey and that all things equal, the food and the experience will get better and better.
At Noma, René and his team are serving three distinct menus during a year. The first one is the Ocean menu. The second is the Vegetable menu and this will be following by the Game and Forest menu. To judge Noma over a given year, therefore, it will not be possible to visit once because the menu will change depending on the season. That is likely to create issues for certain guides which require a signature dish that is served throughout the year. How can you judge a restaurant which completely reinvents itself from one day to the next.
Spoiler alert (if you are heading to Noma for the Ocean menu and want to read about the menu you should stop here).
When it comes to fish and shellfish, freshness is of utmost importance and once you have the produce, the least you intervene the better it is. At this level there is the risk that chefs try to complicate matters but René has no qualms with serving shellfish and fish in a simple but perfect form.
When you arrive you are welcomed by a sea snail broth with fermented summer herbs. It is the comforting and prepares the palate for the lunch (or dinner). The sea snails will return in a bees wax container later in the menu.
You are then served venus clams with caramel, best of the mussel (blue mussels) and raw shrimps served with a prawn skin cracker and fermented berries.
This was followed by cured trout roe with egg yolk. The next dish was ‘jellyfish’ served with two different types of seaweed. Its not a jellyfish because to make edible jellyfish will require huge amounts of ethanol which does not make sense but the texture is all there and its a surprising dish.
Then comes a seafood platter made of queen clams, a 150 year old mahogany clam, a Linfjord oyster poached for 20 seconds and served with wasabi leaves and a sea urchin with fresh cream, peeled pumpkin seeds and rose oil.
The next dish was a Japanese delicacy that has been reinterpreted by René following the Noma pop-up in Japan a few years back. He served the sea cucumber in the form of a dehydrated crisp that had been stored at 60C.
What follows is a perfectly cooked boiled king crab served with pumpkin seed oil followed by an exquisite squid dish cooked in seaweed butter.
The sea snails were served with herbs in a bees wax and then came the cod head served with wild garlic and three condiments – ginger and saffron, ant paste and a horse-radish sauce. Just after this dish came the cod tongue served on a seaweed cracker and plankton. So what happens to the rest of the cod, we ask at table. “We only buy the cod head and it requires hours of butchering to serve it,” we were told.
The most surprising part of the menu was the desserts.René and his team continued with the ‘ocean team’. The first thing served was a seaweed icecream. It was followed by cloud berries, yogurt sorbet and pine cones. The next dish was pine with oyster and seaweed and the final dish was a plankton cake which was very sweet but had a taste of the sea.
It is still early days at Noma but the bar has been set very high already. And on Monday at 4pm, tickets for the vegetable season will go on sale. It is likely to be a sell-out.
(For more photos visit out Facebook or Instagram page)