Noma Is Still A Work In Progress

Noma in Copenhagen, "the world's best restaurant," is in the news this weekend, as its chef-proprietor, René Redzepi, prepares to host his second annual MAD Symposium, the ultimate cutting-edge food even, taking place this Sunday and Monday. Copenhagen-based food writer and blogger Evelyn J. Kim, a former historian and sociologist of science, reports here on Noma's evolution over the past half-dozen years. She will be covering MAD for The Daily Meal.

When I first went to Noma — the name is a portmanteau abbreviation of the phrase Nordisk mad ("Nordic food") — in 2007, I realized that something was brewing in René Redzepi's head long before the wood sorrel even hit the plate.

By now, the origin story of Noma is fairly well established. BN ("Before Noma") in Scandinavia, there was only a revolving door of pork, potatoes, herring, and grumpy Protestants. And AN ("After Noma"), every restaurant in Denmark is busy foraging for herbs spelled with funny letters and killing moose with their bare hands.

But as with any origin myth, the truth is far more complicated. Yes, Denmark for years was not what anyone would call a "dining destination." Beyond the famed smørrebrød, all you could find in terms of fine dining was from Italy and France. And outside Denmark? Interest in Scandinavian food was a novelty — but mainly of the IKEA and butter cookie-kind (granted, Marcus Samuelsson did Scandinavia a huge favor by elevating Scandinavian food to fine dining in the early aughts with Aquavit in New York City, but he was an exception).

In 2003, Claus Meyer, the Danish restaurateur, approached a bunch of chefs about opening a high-end restaurant that highlighted Nordic ingredients. Most chefs passed. Except a young chef named René Redzepi. After having done stints at Pierre André in Copenhagen, Jardin des Sens in France, elBulli in Catalonia, and the French Laundry in California, Redzepi, then working as a sous-chef at Copenhagen's Kong Hans restaurant, agreed and a partnership was born.

René Redzepi / Photo: Getty Images

But the beginning was not easy. Sourcing was a bit of a problem: No one just had piles of wood sorrel at the grocery store. But that was the least of Noma's worries: How do you convince diners, much less chefs, that there was any worth in Nordic food? Chefs were the easy bunch. Ten months after Noma opened, Redzepi and Meyer did a Lars Von Trier. Working with area chefs, they created the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen.

But as Molière once said, "I live on good soup, not on fine words." The proof was ultimately in the pudding. After reading several reviews of Noma, I decided on a whim to go there for lunch in 2007. Having eaten at many of the world's top fine-dining establishments, including WD~50, Charlie Trotter's, and the French Laundry, I was frankly not expecting to be surprised.

How wrong I was. Starting with a couple of amuse-bouches of root crisps and egg cream, beef tartar with wood sorrel and a juniper vinaigrette, and an æbleskiver (a donut-like pastry made with batter) filled with pork and dusted with vinegar powder, I realized that this was not your typical Nordic farmer's food.

The mains didn't disappoint, either. Instead of the ubiquitous pork, there was seafood abounding. Squid was served with unripe strawberries, cream, and dill. Razor clams came in an edible shell of parsley gelatin with a dill-mustard sauce, garnished with a mound of horseradish powder. Tender reindeer had ramsons (ramps), woodruff, and celery. This was food that broke all the rules, yet maintained a rigor in taste. I tried to convince my friends of the ingenuity of the food I was eating, but I mainly faced deer-in-headlights expressions. They didn't get it, and to a certain extent, neither did I. It wasn't that the food wasn't delicious. It was fantastic. What I couldn't get my head around was the juxtaposition of radically local ingredients with classical technique. It was if someone put a chef on Mars and asked him to go crazy.

The beef tartar is served with wood sorrel and a juniper vinaigrette. Photo: Ditte Isager

But it just wasn't the food. Who decided that an old ship warehouse could be repurposed to a fine dining destination? Who has the chef greet you like you were his neighbor? And shouldn't chefs be cooking the food and not serving it? And since when did fine dining destinations look like a hunting lodge? And it still gets Michelin stars?!

René Redzepi has now become the poster boy for the über-locavore and foraging movements, a trend that even has New York's Central Park worried for its plants. Almost as if he predicted a backlash to the chemical warfare of molecular gastronomy, Redzepi's style of cooking has now become a dining meme — to the point that a television show, Portlandia, has done an entire parody of locavore dining practices.

Did two Michelin stars, a Time magazine cover, and three consecutive number ones in San Pellegrino Top 100 Restaurant list change anything? Certainly the restaurant itself has changed. From a kitchen staff of fewer than 10, Redzepi's team has grown to close to 40, including 20 to 30 stagiaires, not to mention the hoard of foragers, farmers, and fishermen supplying the restaurant. Add a completely renovated kitchen, a food laboratory, an actual head chef beyond Redzepi, and it's a wonder that the restaurant is in the same physical location.

But what about the food? Over the course of this year, I was lucky enough to dine at Noma twice, once at lunch and once for dinner, and, well, things have changed. But to use the word "better" would be a misnomer: Noma didn't become "better" or "worse." It just is.

This was evident the minute I sat down to my dinner. The first amuse-bouche of malt flatbread shaped in the form of a tree branch with a dusting of dried pine needle powder set inside a vase of local flora might have proved to be too precious — until I took a bite. The slightly burnt caramel undertones of the malt were offset by the herbal bitterness of the pine powder; it was as if one could capture the Nordic woods in a cracker.

And on and on it went, this series of amuse bouches, each reminiscent of the best Scandinavian holiday you never had: a blue mussel with concentrated mussel juice and celery encased in an edible shell with the taste of Limfjord in the mind's eye; a pot of baby radishes and carrots planted in a "soil" of ground malt bread and a purée of herbs and crème fraîche; a tin of cheese "cookies" topped with chopped arugula and stems taken from an assortment of herbs used in the kitchen that day. Toast topped with smoked cod roe and crisped chicken skin was a summer picnic on the bay.

By the time I finished all the amuse-bouches, I realized the change was there. Yes, some of the "standard" Noma dishes were still on the menu: the beef tartar with sorrel, the marrow salad with pickled vegetables, but others got a new twist, such as the æbleskiver.

While earlier, Noma nibbled on the edges, it was evident in within that first hour that Noma had pushed itself to virtually change the ontology of fine dining. The categories of what were "ingredients," "cooking," and "food" were all challenged, just in 14 bites. Salad? Forget it. René has ants. They tasted like lovage, simply dressed with vinegar. That æbleskiver looked like its generic self — until you noticed the muikku (a small Finnish freshwater fish) speared through it. One bite later revealed a square chunk of piping hot pickled cucumber. And using shaved frozen cod liver, normally destined to omega-3 supplements, as a Nordic answer to foie gras? Huh?

But the push was also in seeing how much work the ingredients and technique could do. Redzepi asked more of his ingredients, geography, and culture. And in turn, Redzepi was asking his diners to take a risk with him. A dish of fresh and fermented peas (or "peaso" as our server joked) used the fermentation techniques of ancient Japan to place vegetable, animal, and mineral all in one dish. A dried scallop, beechnut, and biodynamic grains plate used locally grown grain and herbs to create a "grød" or porridge with dashi-esque freeze-dried scallop chips on top for an umami crunch.

A dessert of poached/grilled pear, seasoned with lemon thyme, sat next to a frozen sponge of thyme and a sauce of thyme oil. The natural sugar in the grilled pear only became more evident with the judicious use of thyme and a sprinkling of salt. A dessert of walnut and berries had no hint of its origins until you took a bite: It was walnut ice cream, but balanced with the tannic notes from a slightly bitter walnut powder and an acid punch of powdered berries.
"Is everything all right?" asked the waiter. It was more than "all right" — it was incredible. But in some ways, this is not really the right question to ask. Nature is as nature does. The genius of Noma is in uncovering the world of nature; nature does not yield her secrets readily. But Noma still persists. Noma, like science, will not resign. It is still becoming.