Tomorrow, I will be turning 30. I am certain that every other 29-year old female out there will attest that this is a big number. Not wanting to get into any bouts of depression or life crisis, I made a very conscious plan of distracting myself with even bigger gifts. So instead of seeing the big 3-0 looming in the horizon, I looked forward to the birthday presents I will receive.
One of them is the big birthday date. Just over a week ago, my fiancé and I flew to Copenhagen to have lunch in Noma, ranked as the No. 1 restaurant in the world for three years running. We flew to København Kastrup Airport on Tuesday night for the Wednesday lunch reservation.
Noma is situated in the dockside of the northern tip of Strangade. Apart from the sign “Noma” and a couple of torches, the place looked quite ordinary from the outside—very simple, no pretensions—a theme that, I soon realized, defined Noma at the very core.
From the moment of entering the front door, we immediately knew we were in for quite an experience. With a clear view of the kitchen from the reception, we were greeted by no less than 20 people. “Welcome.” “How are you?” “Hello there.” “Let me take your coat.” “How’s it going guys?” The greetings came from the hosts, from staff standing by the reception as well as those zipping by with plates of food, and from chefs all the way from the back of the kitchen. No matter where it came from, each greeting was warm and sincere—very typical of the Danes. Apart from the two hosts, there were no penguin suits or double-breasted vests. Instead, aprons abound: blue for the dining staff and brown for the chefs. When we finally sat down, I remember letting out a “Wow,” amazed at how the Noma team, within a matter of minutes, made us feel like they’ve been waiting for us for so long . In truth, it’s the other way around since our reservations were made four months in advance.
Noma is a combination of the words Nordisk and mad (Nordic and food) and have been holding the top spot of the list of the Best Restaurants in the world after grabbing it from El Bulli. Apart from the cuisine, the décor of the restaurant is also very Nordic and Scandinavian. The dining area is minimalist with very simple furniture. No cushions, no paintings, no chandeliers, no carpets, not even a tablecloth. Primarily grey, the only accents are the fur throws that are draped over the back of each chair, wooden beams, and a few candles and flower vases here and there. Surprisingly, despite all the greyness and cues of cold weather, the space still felt cozy and warm—enough to forget Copenhagen’s 8°C October weather.
Seated and ready, our server gave us a quick introduction about the meal ahead. We learned that the first part will feature small, quick dishes that we will be eating using our hands. She gave us a basket with warm towels and proceeded to encourage us to get our hands dirty throughout the meal. After reminding her that my fiancé is vegetarian and ordering a couple of glasses of white wine, she gave us our first meal: the flower vase. Disguising as twigs are several pieces of malt flatbread. A little hesitant at first, we picked out what we thought were the most edible looking twigs, dipped them in the crème fraiche provided, and enjoyed the first of many surprises of the meal.
After the “twigs” came a flurry of small dishes that ranged from inventive, innovative, creative to beyond imagination. Some put me in awe, like the detail and artistry that went into the mussel served with an edible shell made from pasta and squid ink. There were also dishes “in disguise” that did not fail to impress such as the sea buckthorn that looked like leathery meat and the edible “soil” served in an actual plant pot with grass (grass!) and a whole radish buried inside.
One of my favourites from the repertoire is the quail egg served sitting on hay inside what seemed like an ostrich egg. We were encouraged to eat the eggs whole since they were prepared firm on the outside, and liquid inside. I popped it in, started to chew, and expected to taste yolk. Instead, there was an unbelievable explosion of flavour in my mouth. How they got all that flavour inside that tiny, fragile quail egg is absolutely beyond me.
Throughout the first part of the meal, I found myself amazed, amused, impressed, and at one point, almost close to tears. A jar of ice was put down on our table followed by the introduction of the dish: that inside is a fresh prawn that was caught just half an hour away from the restaurant. True enough, inside the jar was a very fresh shrimp—very much alive and still moving its feet and claws. I tried to comprehend what I was expected to do with it between letting out a few soft squeals, heavy breathing and nervous laughter. Apparently, eating live shrimps is common among Danish fishermen who grab one or two to snack on whilst going about their jobs.
Not wanting to be that person who refused a dish from the best restaurant in the world, I contemplated on grabbing the little guy, dipping it in butter, and eating it. We came to the end of the amuse-bouche set after two hours and I simply did not find the courage to eat it or even pick it up (unlike other people). I guess it did not help that (a) the man I love sitting across from me is vegetarian, (b) that the shrimp was waving its claws fighting for its life, and (c) that I started talking to the little arthropod as I took photos and videos of it. The moment I named it “Shrimpy,” I knew that I had to send it back to the kitchen, and in my head, back to the sea.
Opting for the wine pairing with my meal helped a lot in calming me down once the jar of shrimp was out of sight and out of mind. Throughout the whole meal, I had 8 glasses of wine whilst my fiancé opted for the juice pairing that showcased flavours we’ve never come across before. His favourite was apple & pine—apple juice with the flavour of Douglas-fir. He also had cucumber & dill, celery & celeriac, carrot & juniper, beet & lingonberry, pear & verbena and my favourite: elderflower juice.
The bigger main courses started about two hours into the meal. Like the first set, each one was brought over by the chef who prepared it and was accompanied by a short description and at times, instructions on how to eat it. With over 80 people in the team, each dish was practically presented by a different chef or dining staff. Being the most coveted kitchen to work in, it was also no surprise that we heard accents from all over the world—Spain, the US, Japan, Germany, Sweden, among those we heard.
Of the mains, I loved the roasted cauliflower served with pine leaves and the wild duck with bitter greens the most. However, special mention must go to the oyster from Limfjorden. Unlike the usual oyster servings of six, shucked and with a side of lemon wedge or horse radish, this was served by its lonesome, covered, on a bed of sea rocks. I took the top shell off and saw that it was poached, sliced into 6 parts and topped with gooseberry and thin onion films. With no taint of exaggeration and hyperbole, I declare it to be the best dish I’ve ever tasted in my close to 30 years of existence. It tasted like the sea was in my mouth, and Poseidon himself prepped it.
To cap the meal, we were served bitter ice cream made out of Denmark’s Gammel Dansk liqueur, potato and plum “sticks” that are actually purees (and not sticks), Noma’s own tea mix and a couple of slices of caramel pudding.
After four full hours of eating, I was sad that it had to come to an end. Just as we finished up our tea, the kitchen sent out a small birthday cake. “No birthday is complete without a cake,” said the chef. We were the last table in the entire dining area and wrapped up our meal close to 5pm.
As a final treat, we received a tour of the kitchen where we saw how the theme of simplicity is carried out even in Noma’s equipments and utensils. The prep team was cleaning up their stations when went up to second floor kitchen. Apparently, 5pm is when everyone takes a break for dinner before they start prepping again for dinner service. I asked one of the chefs about his schedule, and he said that a typical day will be from 6am to 11pm. Of the 17-hour day, only 6 to 8 hours are spent on service, and the rest is left for prep. Finding this out made the experience even more special to me. Having lunch in Noma is tantamount to experiencing the masterpieces of true artists whose long hours of cooking are fueled by raw unquestionable passion—the same passion that transforms every bite into something magical.
That evening, in the flight back to Amsterdam, I thought that though I came to Noma for my 30th birthday, I knew that what I got was a gift to be treasured for a lifetime.