What It’s Like to Dine at Noma
Nothing will quite prepare you for the deluge of sensations once you enter the light-filled space of Noma’s dining room. Not even 4 months of waiting. However, the staggering mind-altering experience begins not at the first amuse bouche, but the moment you push down the door handle to alight from your cab. “Ms Lee, welcome to Noma. We’ve been expecting you,” an affectionate exclamation floats above the eerie quietude surrounding the Refshaleøen island. Ali Sonko is the voice, the ‘heart and soul’ of the restaurant, and has been toiling in the Noma kitchens since 2003 when the restaurant opened as a dishwasher. These days, he is your first point of contact and also a co-owner of the world famous Danish restaurant. Almost like a real-life Heimdall, gatekeeper of Asgard who stands on the rainbow bridge Bifröst. Fancy that.
I mosey down a picturesque grass-lined path, lake on your left, powerhouses in the background chuffing up smoke. It’s idyllic and helps buy time for a quick pep talk with the butterflies in my stomach. It’s 5pm in early April and the Nordic winds still prove a little frosty at the edges, or maybe it’s just from trepidation, I jam my frigid hands into my coat pockets and power on.
The door to what seems like a huge barnyard swings open. A melodious “Ms Lee and guests, we are ready for you,” chimes, assured smiles all around. Agog with anticipation, I pick up my skirt and strut into the unknown.
It is at this juncture that I’m only going to say this once, listen up—be prepared and get your phones ready. What happens in the next split second, cannot be replicated (oh trust me, we tried in vain).
“Hello and welcome to Noma!” Chanted the gathered staff, of about a dozen, at the end of the wide corridor. One man stood out from the pack, a face that I recognised instantly. Pastry Chef Mohamed Al-Matin, a schoolmate of mine from my days in Le Cordon Bleu Sydney. Boy, had he come a long way from under Chef Andre Chiang’s tutelage. He leans in for a handshake and I grab it firmly as if to stable myself in this moment of stupefaction. It continues, the service coming to a halt as what seems like every single member of the kitchen line—the invisible trail leading up to your table, greeting you with the signature “Noma hello”. Maybe they are trying to hide prying eyes from the views of the pre-game kitchen. What a silly thought to entertain, seeing that the kitchen ran like the royal brigade a little later on. My eyes fluttered with new-found enthusiasm as if attempting to commit the scene to memory. Then, as quickly as they appear, they scamper back to their respective stations, leaving me tucked into my oak wood chair, high strung and with bated breath.
“Did you record that?” My friend asks, looking a little shell-shocked. Stripped of words, I shook my head. This meal is panning out hyperbolically with many ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. I fear for my anxiety issues.
It was, I am told, very difficult to get a table. Much less for a party of four who decided autonomously to convene on the opposite side of the globe for a meal. Privy to discussion, the suggestion is that I’m very fortunate to be dining here. If you’re like most people, you probably have zero patience for much of anything these days. Noma, on the contrary, is worth subjecting yourself to interminable waits, online that is. And reservations have to made with a resolved mind, seeing that their vegetable season menu running from June 25th to September 21st was snapped up like hotcakes at the moment of release. (Tip: Reservations for Game and Forest Season opens on July 2nd, 4pm CEST. Get your clicking fingers ready.) Also, there is the mini fortune one has to invest upfront, a table of four, costing a little over S$2,000 four months before actually eating. Then there’s the imbibe options one would have to deal with later. One that would eventually lead to one too many uncorked bottles and the cheeky alcoholic digestifs seeing that a fortuitous repeat visit is quickly becoming a pipe dream.
With 20 items to run through and 3 hours before your table is turned, the kitchen runs a tight schedule but never at one point do you feel rushed. I even found time in between bites to admire the restaurant interiors—expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, timber walls tiled with scallop shells and wooden overhead beams accented by the occasional string of dried seaweed. The rustic modernism of the space syncs up flawlessly with the restaurant’s Scandinavian roots.
The first course is rolled out on a red carpet, figuratively, since it comes with the bells of whistles of René Redzepi himself, annotating the Norwegian scallop. Once again, I missed out on documenting the rare sighting. I blame it on my butter fingers. An important protagonist in the history of modern gastronomy and ‘New Nordic Cuisine’, it was pivotal that he sets the tone for the meal that drew from his philosophies. Pity that splendid encounter occurred at breakneck speed, we all would have loved to bask in his company for a little while longer.
Seafood is the superhero of the night and in this blockbuster flick, freshness is key. Noma uses a quartet of its star-studded casts to reaffirm that point in the seafood platter. Carpet clams lay snug below a tapestry of heart-shaped wood sorrel and Venus clams are roused from its slumber with a gentle squeeze of wild quince which trickles like molasses. Then there are hand-dived Mahogany clams from Norway melded together with a pond of fresh cream and pine oil and to its right, razor clams threaded with meticulously placed salted hazelnut slices and mustard seeds. For the Asian in me, used to having most of these fished from tanks and served steamed, assaulted with minced garlic, it’s a roller coaster of spice, funk and texture. I loved it.
Rene brings back his signature whimsical touch with hints of molecular gastronomy technicalities. The shrimps receive some perplexed looks, it’s not actual shrimp, but fruit leather perfumed with carrot and sea buckthorn and then pimped with a tartare of shrimp and flowers. A shiny pillow of sea lettuce teeters on the edge of a rolled up linen napkin. There will be fireworks as the purse explodes into a mess of grey prawn heads, unidentified cholesterol and all things beautiful. My neighbours let out an audible gasp, I chuckle, our gazes locked and we high five in self-congratulatory fashion for those ridiculous foodie miles travelled. It is slightly chewy from the seaweed, and I like it better for it.
Lumpfish roe cured with egg yolk paired with the spring exuberance of fresh cream and littered with a scattering of mirabelle flowers is lifted to your lips with vehicles of ramps basted with scallop sauce. Cured turbot was consumed with more discernment than enthusiasm, as it bore a resemblance to our local fish ball.
A buxom Danish blue mussel with a lip of caviar arrives on a bed of seaweed. You’re advised to eat it before slurping on the soup residing at the base of the vessel. It’s faultless, redolent with wild mushroom and seaweed with a smoky backbone of what seems to be Chinese tea. Bites continued in a steady manner, each one assuming an unostentatious image that delivers layered flavours in swift blows. The same is to be said of the Faroese sea urchin marinated in cured egg yolk and disposed on grilled koji (moulded barley) cakes. It’s a tricky world reimagining the freshest seafood in wayward forms, but it’s clear after the first half of the menu that they’ve got this.
The cod degustation unravels next. I ate the bladder simmered with wild quince and tickled with chili oil and devoured a cracker of milk skin stuffed with salted cod cooked with leeks, plastered with oyster leaf. But it is the Cod Tongue Schnitzel that is the most brilliant. Consumed hot, the nugget is crumbed and therefore laced with a delicate tulle skirt, the gelatinous mass enlivened with schmears of green strawberry paste and a familiar touch of wasabi hailing from Iceland? Noma has certainly weighed in on the geographical part of its sustainability act.
I duck out into cold outside for a quick breathe of fresh air. The slightly warmish late afternoon had given way to frigid temperatures as the bare skies tint themselves a luscious shade of boysenberry and honey. A fire crackled at the entrance and from the outside of the glasshouse looking in, the dining room looked extra charming as it teemed with activity. 2 hours into dinner service, the end was in sight.
Crab makes its debut in a quartet of dishes. Beach crab gel and pinecones are followed swiftly by boiled brown crab on flatbread (shaped like a crab, no less). Then there is hot smoked, then barbecued arctic king crab legs teamed with horseradish juice—it even comes with the QR code for guests to track where their king crab hails from. Thoughtful, if not a little redundant at this stage of debauchery where the only thing remains clear, is the destination—my belly. I pick up the King Crab legs with greedy fingers; it’s flavourful and exquisite. I long for a full plate of it but settled for the final savoury dish of crab salad which to my amazement brings you right back to earth in a most gentle fashion with legs of crab in smoked butter teamed with nasturtiums and other leaves. It’s a labour of love and well-deserving of the extra spoon time.
The space slows as you’re warmly invited to adjourn to glass-fronted and brick-lined lounge for desserts. My friend Matin comes by to present the salted and dried berries from summer steeped in a sauce made of white currants and geranium. Details elevate the dessert such as the thatched cubes of seaweed placed over sheep’s milk cheese. It’s innovative and brings you back to Chef Rene’s obsession with new Nordic cuisine. It’s 830pm and you can hear the build up of activity in the dining room as the next round of eager diners arrive. Dinner cumulates with Cardamon toffee filled sea star scented with saffron and liquorice and chocolate cod skin. There was really no need for any more at this point, but I struggled on in the name of vanity (and that ungodly price tag).
The whole point of the menu at Noma is that you can’t make it at home, nor source seafood or such exclusivity. For that reason alone, I would implore you to stay up for the game season reservation opening—deer hearts anyone? We rounded up the night with a tour of the kitchen, fermentations labs and test kitchen where the preparation for the vegetable season is evident in every nook and cranny. Dining at Noma is a sensory overload, there’s never a dull moment, even when you take a short walk to the bathroom. A dining experience to rule them all.