Once in a generation or so there is a chef who completely changes the whole culinary industry; Escoffier, Bocuse, Adria to name a few, and most recently Rene Redzepi, the man behind Noma. Redzepi didn't set out to take on the world, his aim was just to do something different. He decided to explore his own doorstep to discover ingredients that he could use to help him find a taste, an identity and a representation of the Nordic region. This part of the world wasn't known for its abundance of ingredients, especially growing in nature - when we visited last January it was so cold and icy it was hard to imagine anything growing or surviving the winter. He didn't just discover these new ingredients and substitute them into a tarte tatin, or roll them in a ravioli, or any reinvention of a classic. Instead he also wanted the interpretation to be new. Maybe more than any one chef in history Redzepi has transformed a whole region, one which has never been known for gastronomy, and given it a food culture whilst unearthing some great Nordic produce. Copenhagen alone is now littered with really high quality and exciting restaurants as a consequence of Noma's success, with some of their alumni responsible for some of the best.
Due to Noma's success the philosophy has travelled the world with chefs trying, and more often than not failing, to copy it. An ethos copied, but not understood, can sometimes be comically bad - around the world there has been chefs inappropriately throwing any foraged ingredients they can find all over dishes. This can be an unfortunate by-product of a hugely influential restaurant - after El Bulli there were chefs putting foams, airs, emulsions on everything they could find. But a lot of positives have come out of Noma's influence. Chefs are now thinking more about the sourcing of their ingredients, using local produce and exploring their own region. Also chefs are now dealing more with the producers instead of the middle man and that can only be positive.
In a way Redzepi has been a victim of his own success and has to strive hard to stay ahead of the pack of very good chefs who are following in his footsteps and copying his methods. It is a constant battle to push innovation, keep developing new dishes and looking for new tastes. The food is constantly evolving and even looking back at previous Noma cookbooks you can see how the food has changed. To do this they must have to put with a lot of failed attempts and frustration, before getting the eureka moment of a complete dish.
Denmark isn't the obvious place to push boundaries, stand out from the herd and become the biggest restaurant in the world since El Bulli. Standing out, attention seeking or any shred of arrogance is not acceptable under Jante Law (social etiquette in which Scandinavians still adhere to, which basically states that 'you are nothing special'). But this mentality and outlook can be seen in a meal in Noma, as despite being the most sought after restaurant on the planet (they have thousands of people on the waiting list every day for a table), Noma still has humbleness and humility. The welcome is warm and there is a real appreciation that you have travelled to try their food. When the chefs ask did you like a dish they are not just seeking compliments, but instead seem genuinely interested and happy if you liked it. At times they appear unaware of the importance of the restaurant and what they are doing.
All this is irrelevant if the food they serve isn't absolutely delicious though and of course it is. This time we were better prepared and knew what was coming - the dishes come very fast at the beginning and can be slightly overwhelming on the first visit. Maybe what is most remarkable about what we ate in Noma was that there are highly skilled techniques on most dishes, but that isn't what you first notice as dishes are presented beautifully naturally and it is the taste that is the most striking. It is only after eating do you think about the techniques and processes that went into the dish.
Sometimes it is hard to describe something you ate in a restaurant and get across just how good it was. There were times during this meal that while eating we looked at each other and words were not necessary as we both knew we were experiencing something special, something unique. When you love and are passionate about something, as we are with food, and you are experiencing the best it can make you emotional and we certainly felt that with some of the dishes on our meal.
The food manages at times to have a delicate, yet powerful taste in the same mouthful and the balance between the different elements is remarkable. There is also purity in the food, you never feel like you are being tricked, each dish tastes of what it is. Some of the excellent dishes on our meal were: beef tartare with ants; cucumber with a scallop fudge; white cabbage and samphire; sea urchin with crispy duck stock; milk and monkfish liver. However that list doesn't include the best dishes, the ones that had us shaking our head in wonder: burnt onion and walnut oil was sweet with a pure onion taste without the sharpness; shrimp, nasturtium with a broth made from rhubarb root was possibly the best dish of the meal, the rhubarb root nearly having a feint lemongrass taste; an egg yolk that had a wonderful texture served with potato; roast bone marrow that you roll in cabbage leaves was just luxuriously delightful. The sweet offerings were also great: an ice cream with crispy milk and gammel dansk (a Danish bitter) was superb; Aronia berries with söl was rich with a tea and slight tobacco taste.
The service was hospitable, friendly and professional with just the right level of formality. Copenhagen is an expensive city, but when you consider there are as many chefs as diners and the work that goes into the food then Noma is actually very well priced, although the wine menu is quite pricey. In fact they could increase the price of their dinner menu significantly and still easily fill every table. Some people say eating in Noma is a once in a lifetime experience, but we will be back, after all there are still two seasons to try.
We don't know how someone can say one restaurant is the best in the world, but if there is a better meal out there, if there is a restaurant developing and serving better dishes, then we will keep trying to find it, because it will need to be quite something to top this meal in Noma.