First was the release of the 2022 Michelin guide. Besides my usual little chuckle at the food writers who throughout the year will drop Michelin into their reviews to add a bit of gravitas, but then cry foul when the stars do not align with their predictions, I normally couldn’t care too much about the release of the revered guide, but I was delighted to see Liath get recognized for the consistent improvement it continues to show – it is a more accomplished restaurant than it was when it was Heron & Gray, and it was pretty good then.
A couple of days after the Michelin stars were announced, we were boarding a flight to Copenhagen. The build-up to this jaunt was fraught with anxiety. First is that modern-day, lingering background worry that one of the four of us will get covid and be unable to travel. Then there was the looming Storm Eunice which was threatening all week to hit hardest at the time we were due to take-off. But, we got there, a bit late for our dinner reservation in Kodyens Fiskebar, which turned out to be terrible.
Our primary reason for travelling to Copenhagen was for a meal in Noma. We ate in Noma three times previously, the last being in 2015, and it is where we had the two best gastronomic experiences of our lives. Since then, Noma has moved home and changed their approach. Now they are hyper-focused on the season, even more so than they were before, and change their menu three times a year to reflect the best the climate has to offer. In Summer, they focus solely on vegetation, and you will get no seafood or meat. In the autumn the menu is everything from the forest, such as game and mushrooms. And winter and spring, the season we went for, is strictly based around the ocean, when the cold water brings out the best of it.
We were a bit apprehensive going back. Could this approach match the experiences we had before, with so many of the dishes still etched in our brain and still, to this day, a regular talking point around our kitchen table? Would we miss the diversity of having different seasonal offerings, instead of just a whole menu focused on one genre? What if it just didn’t live up to our, probably untenable, expectations that the restaurant themselves set for us previously?
Noma has won the World’s Best Restaurant Award five times now, more than any other restaurant, including as recently as October, so surely it must be as good as ever, right? Maybe, just maybe, it’s even better. Can there really be such thing as the best restaurant in the world? It seems puerile to grant a title of “best” to anything that is so subjective and down to individual experiences and tastes. Notice above, we said we had the best experiences of our lives in Noma, we are not saying that they are the best restaurant in the world. I am always wary of any critic who tells you that a certain restaurant is “the best” in the world, a country or even a city. What they probably mean, if they are not just trying to seduce us with an attention-grabbing headline, is they had their best experience in this restaurant. Also, to declare anything as the “best” would require that the critic has recently ate in all other restaurants that may be vying for that title.
The World’s Best 50 Awards, for all its silliness, does draw attention to the industry and, at times, can recognize a chef and restaurant who are pushing the envelope and give that restaurant the opportunity to push it forward even more. Without the World’s Best 50, restaurants like Noma, and previously elBulli, would not have had the same influence on the culinary world as they went on to have.
Noma was not the first restaurant to diligently focus on the season and the provenance of the local landscape, but because of their success, and, it must be said their brilliance, they have had a profound influence, not just on many chefs and restaurants around the world, who started to centre their food more around their immediate environment and local food producers, but also on what we eat at home. In recent years there has been a greater push by supermarkets to source local ingredients and support local, small, farm producers. This, in part, is down to the influence that Noma has had.
There are many examples in history of a chef that has had a major influence on the food offerings in restaurants worldwide (Careme, Escoffier, Bocuse, Bras, Keller, Adria, Waters to name a few) and Noma’s Rene Redzepi has possibly had as big an influence as any in modern times. Even in Ireland, many of our most lauded restaurants are influenced by what has been named as the New Nordic food movement, which Redzepi unknowingly started when he setup Noma.
Just like after elBulli’s success some years earlier, some chefs, eager to jump on to a trend, created perverse manifestations of this New Nordic philosophy. While after elBulli’s rise to fame, some ill-guided chefs started to put foams, airs, spherification on every dish, since Noma there are chefs putting flowers and grass from their local vicinity on everything that left their kitchen, sometimes to laughable effect.
But, the New Nordic wave, even when misinterpreted, has strengthened relationships between the chef and the farmer, has made us look around our own neighbourhood for what is delicious and, consequently, has reduced food miles. This, overall, must be a good thing.
Possibly the biggest impact Noma has had has been on the Nordic region. This region, whilst having traditional food, had no compelling food culture like the French, Spanish or Italians. Noma changed that and the Nordic region, with the identity of provenance and food that represents the season always being at the fore, is now a world-class culinary food destination. This is thanks, in no small part, to the Noma alumni who have gone on to open some formidable restaurants of their own.
So, what of Noma in 2022? Could it match our experience of seven years previous? Would it be worth the high price tag (and a meal in Noma comes with a feckin’ eye-watering price tag)? In a word: Yes. But that doesn’t paint the whole picture. Noma 2.0 felt like a different restaurant than Noma 1.0 and it was different in ways I wasn’t expecting.
Dishes in Noma 1.0 focused on an earthy feeling, with dishes having their subtlety shine through with brilliant use of acidity. This may sound abstract, but the food managed to taste like a reflection of the season, of the time and place. Many of the Ocean dishes on our Noma 2.0 tasting menu were bolder and they were accentuated with spice and heat that played no part in Noma 1.0. I suspect this change came out of Noma’s popups in Australia, Japan and Mexico. This spice and heat were deftly and expertly used, and it had the effect of bringing out the best of the seafood component on the dish.
When we visited Noma in 2014 and 2015 there were many dishes that blew us away. These are the sort of dishes that you don’t talk about at the time, but instead they would throw you into a savouring silence and only a glance at each other is needed to know we are both engrossed in something we will never forget. These are not only 10 out of 10 dishes, but 11 out of 10 as they have that factor of being immortal in our memory. On this same menu, there were some dishes that were excellent, but I would probably only give them 8 or 9 out of 10.
On our 2022 Ocean menu, while there may have been less of those silence-inducing 11 out of 10s, there was no dish that would get less than 9 and giving any dish a 9 would be harsh. The consistent brilliance across the whole menu was astounding.
Each dish is based around a piece of fish or shellfish. A blue mussel filled with a quail egg was complexity masquerading as delectable simplicity. I have never had squid as good as that was cooked with koji spores, simply amazing. I could go on, but I reckon you get the impression by now that the food was bloody great. But allow me to just mention the one dish that may have been the most astonishing: a dessert made with oyster – yes you read that correctly. The taste of oyster came across stronger than you expect, but with the addition of quince amazake to balance it out into the perfect dessert, which in the wrong hands could be a calamity. We were left speechless and shaking our heads at the awesomeness of this dish.
In Noma 2.0, Redzepi has managed to add extra layers to the food, still managing to represent the Nordic season, while focusing each dish on one superbly sourced ocean offering. The components in each dish complement each other, but are still identifiable in their own right and there is a minimalist restraint with each dish, with ingredients only added if really needed.
The wine pairings were perfectly matched, with a lot of natural wine and the occasional skin contact wine thrown in. They were generous with the vino too, constantly topping up our glasses.
The service this time around had slightly changed from Noma 1.0. Previously each dish would be presented to the diner with a detailed story of its development and makeup. Now, the dish is served with a brief outline of what is on the plate and you are left to your own devices to eat as you wish. Either way, we always found the service in Noma faultless, and this time was no exception.
Best Restaurant in The World? Who Knows? Who Cares? All I know is that Noma is our favourite restaurant in the world, and we are already planning when we can get back for the summer and autumn menus.