Restaurant News

Noma’s new plant menu: fifty-two notes from day one

Thousands of kroner and 22 courses later, what does our chief restaurant critic have to say about the world's most ambitious vegetarian restaurant?

By Pat Nourse
Sea buckthorn and blackcurrant butterfly
Eats, roots, shoots and leaves? Our chief restaurant critic, Pat Nourse, travelled to Copenhagen last month to dine at the rebooted Noma on the first day of its plant menu, which it serves for the next four months following its seafood season and ahead of its changeover to game. Twenty-two courses later, he collects his thoughts on what roughly AU$450 a head buys you from the plant kingdom.
1. When was the last time I rode a bicycle to a restaurant this fancy? This is great. Someone told me yesterday that some Danes even bike to the airport. Oh, Copenhagen.
2. Good thing I left the kayak at home, though. There's a no-canoe sign by the front entrance. Christiania, the island home to the new Noma might be a freetown, and home to an open-air drug market, but the locals like to look after their waterfowl. We're here for the 5pm sitting and the sun is high in the sky.
3. There's a couple of people standing by the sign. It's Nadine Levy Redzepi and Ali Sonko. Nadine is an author and a sometime Noma server (and is married to René Redzepi, its chef and co-owner) and Ali is one of its longest-serving staffers. He started as a dishwasher in 2003 and now has a stake in the business. These two are the best and sunniest greeters ever. Ali, a Gambian-born 63-year-old father of 12, claps you on the back and tells you with perfect sincerity that you're going to have a fun night.
The staff dining room
4. The path that takes you past the greenhouses to the main compound is wild and weedy, rife with flowers. Open the door and you're welcomed by a room full of staff, René Redzepi and all, standing en tableau, like they're posing for a school picture, or lying in wait at a surprise party. It's a little unsettling.
5. The first course is also designed to throw you off balance, but in a fun way. It's soup served in a flowerpot - a reference to one of Noma's old signature dishes. My pot has a large and thriving thicket of thyme growing in it. Where the soup at? Oh, wait, there's a wide straw fashioned from a hollow plant stem poking down through the soil into the potato and elderflower soup "magma" concealed underneath. The idea is that you stick your head right into the herbs to get at it. Having a snootful of live herbs scents the soup, but perhaps more to the point, it's fun and more than a little silly. Sceptical Max, my date for dinner, who has a hedge of parsley before him, appears sceptical. This is the world's fanciest plant restaurant?
6. Hot on the flowerpot's heels comes evanescence captured in two bites: a tart of barely-there translucent crisps of potato supporting a bloom of dewy nasturtium, rose and lovage petals, and a butterfly fashioned from a ruffle of sea buckthorn and blackcurrant fruit-leather, dotted with pistils of rosemary, perhaps, and tufts of pine, all skewered on a fine twig of lavender, too finely wrought to be kitsch. It's the fanciest Roll-Up since Mugaritz's fake beef fashioned from watermelon.
7. Whoosh, out comes what the staff call "seasonal pickles": a spear of white asparagus preserved from last season with some segments of one kind of pine cone, a half a cone cooked in syrup and a more savoury whole cone. One of the cones is seriously fibrous. I put the chewed wad of pine on my plate; Max discreetly throws his out the window. Speckles of saffron salt make the asparagus sparkle.
Pickled white asparagus and pine cone
8. Now seaweed tarts, possibly even finer than the petal tart from two courses ago - "we recommend you eat this one straight away" - topped with fronds of fresh seaweed and sea lettuce.
9. The room is gorgeous. The stacked timber of the walls and ceiling glows in the early evening sun, its smoothness accentuated by the raw, burnt and jagged edges of the pylons and sleepers used as plant-stands and waiter stations in the centre of the room.
10. The fish-bone decorations from the seafood season have been replaced by vines, climbers, eggs braided into straw and cases of moths and butterflies, some of them collected 80 years ago. Noma does three seasons a year now. Decoratively speaking, game season, which kicks off in the northern autumn, ought to be rife with opportunities for bosky weirdness.
Noma's dining room during seafood season (photography by Jason Loucas)
11. Back on the table, things ramp up with the arrival of a barbecued onion, a big bulb, with roots and several inches of stalk still attached. It's comprehensively blackened on the outside. The sweet insides have been taken out, cut into fork-friendly segments and then surgically implanted back into the burnt skin. This is properly tasty. Outstanding, in fact. Sceptical Max's scepticism appears to be wavering.
12. That's Nazi barbed wire in the woods out the back. It's here from the year of the occupation, René Redzepi explains later, the year the sea froze and you could walk to Sweden. And it's heritage-listed.
13. Cucumber skin and parsley: the skins are long-cooked to a giving, almost gooey texture, tightly rolled around something – the rest of the cucumber, I suppose, plus parsley and thyme - like neat, flowery dolmades. Max likes this.
14. Another old-Noma reference made new: a peeled soft-boiled quail egg - a gooey, one-bite number – served in a nest topped with a slice of chorizo made of rosehip and plum, caramelised right down to a sticky, jerky-like consistency, a bit like candied kelp.
15. The booze comes thick and fast. Too much and too quickly for me to really get a handle on. I bravely take this in my stride, even as the glasses proliferate around my plate.
Barbecued onion
16. Morels preserved from the spring, stuffed with beech-nut paste, rich and savoury, all the more so for the maitake mushroom broth underneath.
17. Marigold blooms fried crisp with a "whisky eggnog" (like a liquid cured egg) for dipping that some bearded Danish guy who appears to work in the kitchen pours at the table from a small, heavy glass decanter. Excellent.
18. "These are the sweetest peas," comes the introduction to the next course. They're lovely, but I was just in Spain during the barely weeks-long season for guisante lágrima, the famed tear-peas grown by maybe a dozen farmers in the Basque country, and now know what it feels like to spend 40 euros in one hit on "green caviar" and Max lives in China, where they know a thing or two about peas as well. I recognise that this makes us sound like the most insufferable wanker-diners of all time; I have made my peace with it. Anyway, even if they're not quite the sweetest peas ever, they're beautifully handled, "just-cooked" in a variety of ways, including grilling, and some of them are in fact left raw, with a juice of the pea-shells and a teaspoon-quenelle of whipped cream.
19. Berries and favas! Keep the allegedly sweet peas: this is the taste of spring and summer for me. Stunningly fragrant wild strawberries, regular strawberries, slivers of turnip, double-peeled broad beans. And is that sun-dried tomato in there? If anyone can rescue the SDT from culinary purgatory, it's Redzepi.
20. Q: Guess which one of these labels from the Noma dry store I made up:
Beech tree leaves
Dried Alexander pine
Salted strawberries
Quince tea
Dried cucumbers
Ground juniper wood
Roasted koji powder
Ethanol (96%)
Dried ginger skins
Nasturtium pepper
Arctic thyme salt
A: None. They're all real.
Marigold flowers
21. A wild tuft of green leaves with canola and borage flowers and slivers of radish. Served on a big rectangular cracker, with a sauce powered by ground chile de arbol brought back from the Noma Mexico trip. How do people get this in their mouths? The chilli has surprisingly real fire to it.
22. Some books I see on the restaurant shelves as I get "lost" looking for the toilets and wander the halls: Don't Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin, Granta's Exit Strategies, narratives from survivors of Burma's military regime. Plus roughly 23,000 restaurant cookbooks, some serious-looking works of reference on sherry, on weeds, on royal Hyderabadi cooking and Icelandic seafood, and a Lonely Planet guide to Cuba.
23. A flash of journalistic intuition: Could that be A Clue?
24. A cup of mushroom tea. Stupidly delicious. Max approves. I think he's coming around.
25. A black truffle, parsley and milk-skin tart. A feathery, delicate thing, more truffle than tart, it's packed with flavour and overwhelms my questions about why we're being served black truffle on a hot summer night with a texture that is to be relished.
26. A nod to the bees: a beautiful chilled cloudberry soup, covered in flowers, seasoned with rose bee-pollen and served in a cup made of pieces of beeswax, pressed together in a way that preserves the hexagon pattern of the comb. Somehow it's perfumed but not too sweet. (Later when I post a picture of this on Instagram, someone comments that it's "the wankiest food thing" they've ever seen. They clearly haven't been following my feed closely enough.)
Wax broth with pollen
27. Another course of flowers. But these wild rose petals have been barbecued, giving them an unexpectedly meaty quality, a little like grilled radicchio. They'd be amazing with game, but they also happen to wow just with a tofu-like curd made from pumpkin seed and a mole.
28. Are there grasshoppers in this mole? No one said it was vegetarian, I guess.
29. Celeriac and truffle sharwarma. Mette Søberg, Noma's head R&D chef, brings out a two foot-high shawarma made of thin slices of celeriac, spit-roasted to look very like something you'd see at a kebab shop. We're served slices that are beautifully caramelised, and just as I'm thinking we're lucky to be part of the earlier seating and not served the less caramelised and presumably less interesting inside of the shawarma, Søberg explains that the version walked around the dining room is for display, while what's on the plate has been cooked as a slice, to maximise its surface area. Diabolical.
30. (What happens to the show-shawarma? Staff meal? Impressive compost?)
Mette Søberg with the celeriac shawarma
31. Ours, at any rate, is served with a nicely acidic rolled-up beach-herb and leaf parcel, a piece of the apple that was cooked on top of the shawarma (which would make it as much a celeriac al pastor, then, as a shawarma) and a cluster of tart white currants. The truffle-rich gravy poured over it is rich and deeply savoury, given grunt with seaweed and mushroom.
32. The Noma kombu account must be a hotly contested prize among Denmark's providores this season.
33. A poached artichoke is served to the side, broken down into leaves and heart, with a dot of truffle sauce on each heart segment. I could do with less of whatever is providing the truffle-oomph, but that could be said to be a first-class first-world problem. At any rate, it packs a wallop that brings the savoury courses to a powerful close. You can leave the steak you smuggled along with you in your handbag for now.
Celeriac shawarma, beach herb, apple, white currants
34. Berries and petals and some kind of dairy, illuminated by wood sorrel.
35. A taco-like ice-cream sandwich. I wish I could tell you what the ice-cream was - a noyau of cherry pits, perhaps, with a sweet vinegar sauce - but I was too busy reeling at the texture of the tortilla part of the taco - soft and pliable but with the unmistakably powdery feel of mould.
36. I think about the fact that there is a fermentation lab on the site. I think about the idea that when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail. I think about Chekhov's line about any gun appearing on the stage in the first act having better be fired by the next . There have been ferments throughout the meal, some more obvious than others, but this course is so spore-forward it oughta come with a bumper sticker that says HONK IF YOU'RE INTO MICRO-ORGANISMS and a discount code for Noma's new Guide to Fermentation.
37. I take a bite. I am amazed.
38. Another flower-pot. This time the whole pot is edible. We've been out in the wilderness, out in the world, now we're back in domesticity, order and familiarity. Or at least until you're asked to take the dagger (which has a handle shaped like a duck's head, right down to the beak and eyes) and cut the pot clean through the middle, "terracotta" and all, to reveal the layer-cake within. On the side is a little bowl of cherries, still on branch, prepared with loving care by the kitchen's youngest member, Arwen Levy Redzepi.
Rose-scented terracotta
39. We take a walk around the place with René Redzepi. It's huge. And it smells really good. There appear to be many, many more chefs than diners. There's a grilling area, an impressive scullery, a small office and tasting area for the waiters, a room full of tanks for live seafood (currently empty), another empty room which will soon be used for hanging game, a fermentation lab buzzing with activity and a large refectory for the staff equipped with an impressive kitchen of its own. These are joined by a very long, high corridor lined with square shelves.
40. They are stacked with wares and decoration from the previous season (the large cuttlefish in a jar is hard to miss), a great variety of books, and the odd keepsake. (The framed picture of Australian-born Noma COO Ben Liebmann with Justin Timberlake is pointed out with great fondness.) The roof of the main building is being set up for planting berries, while the outbuildings include glasshouses, one of them tropical, a test kitchen, dry storage, and a bakery.
Preserved seafood
41. This place could be the base of a particularly aesthetically minded cult. Might also be a good spot to hole up when the zombie apocalypse hits. I wonder what else that lab could be geared up to produce.
42. The bakery turns out to hold Richard Hart, the former head baker at Tartine in San Francisco. There's something very Noma about having one of the world's most talked-about bakers on hand for a menu that features a single slice of bread, served right at the end. Hart is soon to open a bakery of his own in Copenhagen; there's a packet of Snickers bars on the bench which he assures us is there more for his amusement than any Noma-related business.
43. At one point René Redzepi pauses to gently but very firmly reprimand a chef for placing a Japanese barbecue very close to one of the structures: "Guys! Don't forget, this building is made of charcoal."
44. Max's scepticism has proven to hold up against Redzepi's enthusiasm about as well as gelato stands up to a blowtorch.
The Noma kitchen
45. Even when he's clearly watching 20 things at once, Redzepi has the gift of always seeming generous with his attention. As we circle back to the entrance, his handover to his staff, who guide us into the lounge for a drink and to settle the account, is perfectly seamless.
46. The bill is not small. But it's a long way from the biggest I've had. The value is sound.
47. In the absence of smelling salts with the bill, we're served a Norwegian digestif.
48. Is it ethical to charge this much for dinner in a city where minimum wage is 16 US dollars an hour, I wonder, in a nation that provides extensive benefits and safety nets to even its poor and its vulnerable, and offers free education and free childcare for babies? In a city which sits at the top of the UN's happiness index?
Berries and cream
49. Our fellow diners in the lounge look almost shell-shocked, but in a good way. The lounge is like a decompression chamber in which the guests try to make sense of what they've just seen and eaten. Mads Kleppe, Noma's boss of beverage, swings past with an aquavit made in-house to aid the process. Icy and strong, it's a clean flash of pine, a crisp coda to the evening.
50. Outside, Arwen Levy Redzepi plays in the grass. We compare Fortnite dances. Nadine Levy Redzepi is walking to the road to meet the next wave of guests. Somewhere Ali Sonko is smiling his very big smile.
51. We take our leave.
52. "'Cela est bien dit,' répondit Candide, 'mais il faut cultiver notre jardin'."
Noma, Refshalevej 96, 1432, Copenhagen K, Denmark,
  • undefined: Pat Nourse