Review: Noma

When we heard that our friend and rabid foodie Claire Quigley Ward and her husband Wally (fellow Winchester denizens) were off to Noma in Copenhagen – this after it had just been named the “best restaurant in the world” – two thoughts immediately occurred.

One: naked envy is never a pleasant emotion to experience.

And, two: we must get her to record her experiences for the website.

And so, here it us: a much-anticipated review of Noma, where bookings are now as rare as hen’s teeth.

Without wishing to spoil anything, Claire is clearly impressed by the food, but the wine experience leaves her wanting more….

(by Claire Quigley Ward)

Turning 30 is a pretty special occasion in life.

Unlike some of my friends, I wasn’t approaching the day with dread, because turning 30 meant a weekend in Copenhagen and dinner at Noma with my husband Wally.

Rewind three months: Wally was poised at the computer screen waiting for the clock to strike midnight when Noma would open their booking for 11th May.

At that time, Noma was still touted as the world’s 3rd best restaurant, and we were relishing the prospect. We’d already eaten at The Fat Duck (ranked number 2 in the world), and we thought it highly unlikely we would ever be lucky enough to get a table at El Bulli during its microscopic booking window. So Noma looked the best choice: a stylish city, and as good as it was going to gastronomically get for me.  Not a bad way to end my twenties.

That was until very recently, when the 2010 Restaurant awards announced Noma was now number 1 in the world, having overtaken both El Bulli and The Fat Duck.

This changed things. (We also invested in a lottery ticket, given Wally’s form on picking the winning ticket – but it didn’t come off.)

So we found ourselves in the best restaurant in the world.

It’s easy to see why Noma is reputedly so informal and relaxed.

Perched on the harbour overlooking one of Copenhagen’s many canals and beautiful skyline, the industrial brickwork of the warehouse building reflects the evening sun.  Inside, Noma lives up to Copenhagen’s stylish reputation.  Everything is in perfect harmony.  The old building, exposed wooden beams and animal skins on the chairs, blend organically with the wooden furniture and the dark veneer of the kitchen pass.

There is nothing pretentious about Noma.

From the moment you arrive, you become part of the process, as though eating the food is as central to its life, as the preparation.  We were greeted by one of the many chefs as we arrived and from then on every single mouthful, from the amuse bouche (or snacks as they so casually refer to them) to all 12 of the tasting menu courses, is served by the various chefs who created the food on your plate.

The service was exceptional, but then you can’t get better than a chef presenting his creation to you like a proud parent showing off a new baby or a paint-splattered artist revealing his new masterpiece.  Every course was served by its chef who lovingly explained the ingredients, preparation and the way with which it should be eaten.

Throughout our meal, we continuously tried to describe what Noma does; to sum it up in one word.

The closest single word has to be ‘natural’.

Everything is natural, from the décor to the dishes and the ingredients.  At the same time, it’s also very carefully constructed, from the choreographed service (both in the glass-walled service kitchen and at your table), to the craft of creating each dish whilst preserving the natural ingredients and flavours.

There’s a clear synergy between the ingredients and the vessels on which they are served.

Course number 4 was langoustine served on a large rock, dotted with oyster infusion.  This course was eaten with our hands, dipping the langoustine in the infusion to give a taste of the sea and a true sense of going back to basics.  Our main course (number 9) of Braised Ox Cheek was served accompanied by a hunting knife in its horn case, reminding us of Noma’s Nordic hunter-gatherer influences.

Raw, clean and fresh sums up each of the 12 courses on the tasting menu we selected.

All of the ingredients are locally sourced both from Denmark and Sweden.  Many of the herbs (and there were many of them) were freshly foraged early in the morning from Copenhagen’s parks and beaches by the chefs themselves.  Each dish is constructed so as to preserve the ingredient’s natural flavour and environment.

My favourite was course 7: AOC onions from Lœsø served in an onion bouillon.

The chef suggested they hadn’t really done anything to the onions themselves, but quickly corrected himself, saying, “well actually that’s not true”.

Each course is about an ingredient.  What Noma achieves so masterfully is the ability to draw out the strong natural flavour of the key ingredient yet with everything in balance.  And this course achieved just that.  It was all about the onion and the sweetest, most beautiful tasting onion ‘soup’ at that.

If I had one complaint it would be, in my opinion, the overuse of herbs, but then that is personal taste.

At times it felt as though the fresh green chlorophyll flavours of the many herbs used throughout the meal overpowered the essence of the dish rather than balanced it.  On remarking this to one of the young friendly Chefs de Partie (Sam Nutter from Darlington, hoping to move on to a trial at French Laundry) he told me I was not the first to have said so.

We opted to enjoy the wine menu to accompany the tasting menu.  This was one area that let the experience down.

This was by no means a reflection of the wine served but rather the lack of it.

For approximately £125 per person, there was a distinct shortage of wine.  I strongly feel that a glass should never be over-filled, but by the same measure I would like more than a mouthful at a time.

There were times when our glasses should have been refilled as the same wine accompanied two courses, but were left empty.  Then, on one occasion, we had a fresh glass that remained completely empty until the last mouthfuls of one particular course.  When I asked a waitress where our wine was, she apologised and hoped that we “would still have some flavour left in our mouths to complement the wine”.

On both occasions there was no sign of the wine waiter/Maitre D’.  I use both titles here as we were not entirely sure of his true function as he seemed to serve both.  Whilst he was very friendly, he was mostly no where to be seen, perhaps he simply had too much to do.

This aspect really let down the overall Noma experience for me.

The wine menu was certainly not good value or worth the investment.  We could have sunk four bottles for the same price and whilst that would have left me too drunk to remember what I had eaten or write this review, I at least would have enjoyed the celebration of my 30th birthday with a drink in my hand!

To select the 12-course tasting menu is to set off on a magical mystery tour.

The menu blends classic dishes with seasonal specials.  Had we known what delights the 12 course tasting menu would entail at the time of ordering, we would have been more likely to choose a bottle of wine to accompany the meal and this is my one regret.

For reference, the tasting wines were:

  • 2009 Touraine, Le P’tit Blanc du Tue-Boeuf, Loire
  • 2008 Riesling Trocken, Knebel, Mosel
  • NV Dis Vin Secret,Francoise Bedel
  • 2007 Vire-Clesse ‘Thurissey’, Domaine Saint Barbe (Jean-Marie Chaland), Bourgogne
  • NV (2006) Vin de Table Francais ‘Poussiere de Lune’, Maisons Brulees, Touraine
  • 1993 Volnay-Santenots 1.Cru, Domaine Joseph Matrot, Bourgogne
  • 2009 Moscato D’asti, Alexandra Bera, Piemonte
  • 2008 Riesling Auslese, George Breuer, Rheingau

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Copenhagen, Noma is located in the prime canal side area of Christianshavn, an area which is also home to Christiania, Copenhagen’s alternative community, a throw-back from the 1960s when the idea of organic food was deemed hippy in its values.

It therefore seems entirely natural that Noma should share their canal-side home, sharing as it does the same ideologies and principles.  Both are non delightfully conformist, with Noma’s statement made on the plate.

A non-foodie friend of mine asked me how Noma was and I realised that was quite a hard question to answer.

To say it was amazing to her would be to suggest it was like the perfect steak where every mouthful was to be mouth wateringly savoured.

Food at this level becomes an art form in itself.

Reflecting retrospectively, I can admire and value the meal as a finished piece, within which each mouthful forms only a small piece of the jigsaw.

Noma is a gastronomic experience that I will savour forever.

It has certainly set the bar high for Wally’s 30th birthday celebrations.  How can you beat the best restaurant in the world?