It all started when the Michelin Snapper (MS) – the man who has eaten in most three-star restaurants and photographed each course – managed to get a table for dinner at Noma in Copenhagen. But how? It’s currently touted by one poll as the world’s best restaurant. It’s thought virtually impossible to obtain a booking. When Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey were on a Danish jaunt their request for a last-minute table was declined. But MS cracked it because he studied the form: online booking windows open periodically, at 10am. Last October he was poised and got his request in within 15 seconds. And MS shrewdly booked a table for eight – those for two and four go faster – enabling the Gourmet Celeb (GC), the Discerning Litigator (DL), the Patisserie Fancier (PF) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP), among others, to tag along.
The poll in question is published in Restaurant magazine. I used to take part and championed Spain’s El Bulli for the first two years it won but then regretted it. Because what they were really asking us was: “what’s the latest sensation in the restaurant world?” On reflection, while enjoying the fireworks at El Bulli, I’d rather eat at, say, Martin Berasategui near San Sebastián. The inspiration behind Noma, chef René Redzepi, worked at El Bulli. On which side of the line between food and fireworks has he come to rest?
We had a 12-course tasting menu preceded by nine rapid-fire amuse-bouches. All were inventive and formed a sort of manifesto for Noma’s guiding philosophy – to only use ingredients native to Scandinavia. But they displayed a playful gimmickry that put me on my guard. Deep-fried moss with a hint of cep: “texture of All-Bran” (DL); “mushrooms – yes, but also a bit of horse” (GP). Fresh radishes “planted” in hazelnut “earth” with a tarragon herb dip: “haute cuisine or market gardening?” (DL). And biodynamic shredded leek roots deep-fried in garlic batter: “held upright it looks like Ken Dodd” (GP). But there were some perfect offerings too. Pickled and twice-smoked quails’ eggs: “gorgeous explosion of soft yolk with suggestion of wood smoke” (GC). And lumpfish roe with smoked cheese, sandwiched between rye bread and fried duck skin. When fresh sourdough bread and goat’s milk butter was put on the table we were at a turning point. Now for the 12 courses of a very serious dinner.
This was both stunningly original and reassuringly designed, moving from fish (scallops, langoustines, oysters) to vegetables (cauliflower, celeriac), then meat (reindeer tongue) and lastly pud (pear, sorbet, sweet porridge). Our favourite courses? Raw sliced chestnuts in a butter and löjrom (caviar) sauce with a walnut and rye bread crumble: “very special” (PF); “crunchy and comforting”(GP). And a langoustine served on a warm stone with droplets of oyster and parsley sauce: “a pure dish of the sea, very intense, iodic sauce” (MS).
We cannot do justice to every course here. The team cooking and serving had that air of belonging to a wonderfully masonic, gastronomic cult, which is the mark of an inspiring chef/patron. We asked our table if this was the best restaurant in the world. Five said “great but not the best”. Three said “maybe, yes it is”. That is a very high accolade.
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12-course tasting menu
£240 a head including wine and service, www.noma.dk