Food News

Fifty-four things that went through my mind while eating dinner at Noma Mexico

I'm now sitting at Noma with no shoes on. I feel like a toddler in a sandpit.

Noma Mexico

Jason Loucas Photography

I flew to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to eat at Noma’s latest international pop-up, which is open for seven weeks at Tulum. There were ferns, grasshoppers and lots of Birkenstocks. This is what ran through my mind while I was there.

1. To get to Noma Mexico’s front gate (and by gate I mean “rope between two trees”) I bought flights from Sydney, paid for overpriced accommodation at the only yoga retreat not already booked out (it being the Easter long weekend) and paid $US600 for dinner.

2. Gosh, what a lot of money. I hope it’s good.

3. Wandering along Tulum’s main coastal drag towards said front gate, my dining companions and I stumble across a group of smiley people all wearing white T-shirts, grey aprons and Birkenstocks.

4. Turns out these are the Noma people. A handful of the 145 employees and family members who were flown over from Copenhagen for the pop-up. Lucky bastards.

5. And they’re standing in front of a Mexican jungle.

6. Someone breaks off from the group and leads us around trees, ferns and bushes to our table.

7. Whoa! This floor is made of sand!

8. Don’t staff get sand in their German sandals?

9. I ask and am told yes, they do, and the Scandinavian team members wear socks under them to counter this.

10. A guest at our table asks if they may remove their sand-filled shoes.

11. “Of course!”

12. I’m now sitting at Noma with no shoes on. I feel like a toddler in a sandpit.

13. To help us forget our lack of sophistication we’re handed flutes of 2009 Louis Roederer. Much better.

14. The first dish arrives at the table – it’s a woven basket filled with ice and topped with four plants I couldn’t name if you paid me.

15. Luckily, it’s the other way round and it’s me that’s paying, so, they tell me: a pink flor de mayo (a frangipani-like flower) filled with ginger; a long tart fruit called a piñuela, with tamarind and coriander flowers; a beetroot-coloured spring cactus topped with bitter ant paste; and a seaweed-looking thing, which turns out to be kelp filled with mussel Michelada – a take on the Mexican classic of beer with lime juice and spices.

16. The staff here aren’t, in fact, called staff – or waiters or servers – but nerds. Nerds!

17. A second dish arrives, also in a basket, also on ice (will this continue for all 14 courses?). It’s a raw melon clam from the Sea of Cortez with half a sour orange to squeeze over the top. With dried local lime, it makes for a tart take on a ceviche.

Melon clam

18. We’re also served mead, fermented honey, made just west of Mexico City. It immediately transports me to the world of Game of Thrones. But, it’s hot and muggy; I don’t think winter is coming any time soon.

19. But then maybe we’re in Meereen. Or possibly Yunkai. There’s more to Game of Thrones than Westeros, after all.

20. Deep-fried tortillas, or salbute, are dropped at the table (they’re not served in a basket or on ice!) and we’re told they’re topped with grasshoppers.

21. Will they be crunchy? Bitter, like ants? Will I hate them and want to awkwardly spit them into my custom-made napkin?

22. It’s my favourite dish yet. No spitting necessary.

23. The crunchy tortilla is topped with dried tomatoes and chile de árbol. You can barely taste the grasshoppers – they’ve been roasted in garlic and mashed into a smooth white paste.

Tomato salbute

24. A nerd mentions that we’re not drinking our water very quickly and suggests we have mezcal instead.

25. Mezcal? This will just taste like tequila but better, right?

26. Wrong. This one, made in Oaxaca, is rich and intensely salty.

27. Now there’s a bowl of flowers in front of me. I cautiously nibble the petals at first, then dive in, embracing my inner squirrel (or chipmunk – I can’t quite decide).

28. Two gentlemen arrive at the table but they’re not wearing Birkenstocks. Who are they? How did they get out of wearing them?

29. They’re in charge of the barbecue and they get to wear headbands, black T-shirts and Crocs instead. They probably don’t want hot coals or chunks of suckling pig, like the one they’re carrying on a bed of palm fronds, landing on their sandy toes.

30. We’re yet to use the daggers sitting on our table. They might not be out of place in Game of Thrones. A leaf falls on the table, breaking my reverie, and I remember I’m eating dinner cooked by one of the best teams of chefs in the world, not running from white walkers.

31. Poor Hodor.

32. Mezcal number two arrives. How many drinks down is this? I glance down to my left at my non-existent menu.

33. A nerd warns us that you have to respect mezcal. She said she learnt the hard way. I recall sculling my first one and realise I might, too.

34. Tacos! Finally.

35. But they’re not really tacos. They’re big fat Bahía Falsa (a bay in Baja California) oysters wrapped in chaya leaves.

36. Escamoles, aka ant eggs, appear on our plates. They’re big and white, a bit like swollen grains of rice.

37. These ants must be pretty big.

38. I scan the floor: where are these giant ants? Will they attack my unprotected toes? I for one welcome our new insect overlords.

39. The eggs are silky and creamy, and set on crisp tostadas with thin slices of bean.

40. The men in Crocs arrive again. Where have they been hiding? This time they’re carrying a clay pot containing octopus encased in a crust of masa and wrapped in corn husks. It’s been buried in coals for an hour.

41. A tentacle is placed on my plate atop a puddle of dzikilpak, a sauce made from pumpkin seeds. I’ve never eaten such tender octopus – or used a dagger to do so.

42. I resolve to only use daggers to slice my food from now on. Preferably daggers made of dragonglass.

43. Natural wine! From Mexico! The brand is Bichi and it’s a pinot noir made in Tecate.

44. It’s sweet, juicy and funky and the label features a mostly naked man in a mask. I wonder if they’ve been drinking Pink Pound.

45. Dessert begins. It starts with grilled avocado filled with avocado ice-cream. Warm avocado, in a chicken toastie, say, usually makes my skin crawl. This is a significant improvement.

Avocado dessert

46. A plate of dried pasilla chillies. We’re warned to only eat the one that has been stuffed with native cacao sorbet.

47. This sounds fun, a game of roulette similar to eating a bowl of Padrón peppers, but it’s pretty obvious which one has been stuffed.

48. I spoke too soon. Someone at the table immediately picks up the wrong chilli and starts eating it. “It’s so spicy!”

49. Ha ha. Rookie.

50. Maybe I’m too confident. Maybe it’s the mezcal.

51. To stave off the mezcal haze, we’re handed our closing drink: cold-brewed coffee from the hills of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.

52. It’s delicious, but I think it might be too little, too late.

53. As the night draws to a close at the magical Mexican jungle, guests are floating around barefoot, fending off the buzzing wildlife with one of the many bottles of bug spray on hand and I’m trying to find James, the Australian restaurant manager, to ask where I can find escamoles for my breakfast scram back in Sydney.

54. Me gustas, René Redzepi.

No Noma ticket? No problem. Here’s where else to eat in Tulum, Mexico.

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