Saturday, February 19, 2011

Noma (Copenhagen)

(This is a long overdue post to celebrate the 4th anniversary of my website, but I guess this will be a pre-celebration of the 5th anniversary LOL...)

Tucked away in a dimly lit harbor, Noma exhibits the same characteristics that can be found in its food: understated yet charming, unassuming yet whimsical. We could only score a reservation at 10 pm so it was really dark already and it took us forever to find the restaurant, but we were just happy to be there. (We later learned that the restaurant is actually in a restored warehouse on the waterfront and the view is quite nice during the day... I'll just have to come back during the day next time!)

Noma, whose name means Nordisk (Nordic) + Mad (food), is the newly minted "best restaurant in the world" by Restaurant Magazine and knocked off El Bulli, which had held the number one spot for the previous four years. After dining there, I can understand why it's getting showered with accolades. They reinterpret traditional Nordic cuisine by combining high-quality locally-sourced ingredients, harmonious presentation, innovative techniques -- all with a twist that is at the same time surprising and quirky.

When we first got there, our table was not ready, so they invited us to sit in the bar area while they brought out the amuse-bouche. The first amuse-bouche was brought out in a porcelain egg and our server told us that we need to eat it immediately once we open the porcelain egg. When we opened the egg, we found two small quail eggs inside sitting on top of straws. The eggs were marinated in apple vinegar and then smoked over apple wood. When you eat the egg whole, the smoke flavor and the yolk burst into your mouth and blend well together.

The next amuse-bouche they brought was a reinterpretation of the traditional Danish open sandwich. Smoked cheese blended with lumpfish roe sat between their version of the rugbrød and chicken skin crackers (how can you go wrong with chicken skin crackers?) When you bite into it, you at once experience the crispy skin, the bitter rye, the creamy cheese, all contrasting one another yet working well together at the same time.

Then they brought out a third amuse-bouche - in a flower pot. It looked like a real plant, with green leaves sprouting out of a dark soil (okay, it was super dark in the restaurant). We were told that everything was edible in the pot, and we pulled out a radish by its leaves. The mulch was made of malt, beer, and hazelnut, while the cream underneath was sheep's yogurt with tarragon, chives, and chervil. We were digging through the "soil" to make sure we get every last drop of the cream. Hey, who says you can't play with your food?

Then a fourth snack came out. By now, we started to wonder that if we were ever going to get to our table, but then we decided, hey as long as they keep the food coming, we are happy. It was cracker and salmon roe cream and vinegar powder. The sourness of the vinegar provided a nice contrast to the roe, but I think it would have gone even better with the crispy chicken skin crackers LOL!

We had already been in Copenhagen for a couple of days before we came to Noma, and while we thought Copenhagen was very nice, both C and I agreed that it's a city you really only need to visit once. But as we tasted our amuse-bouche (mind you that we haven't even sat down at our table yet), both C and I said that we would come back again to Copenhagen JUST to come back to Noma. In fact, as we were sampling the snacks, C texted her then-boyfriend (now-husband) that he needs to come to Noma. He texted back "book a table - we'll go." She asked the server if she could book a table to come back, and they found a lunch opening for her 6-weeks out (they were completely booked for dinner for the next three months, not surprising). She took the reservation immediately and they flew back 6 weeks later (she didn't even think she would ever come back to Copenhagen just earlier that day LOL...) I was jealous - I wish I lived closer so that I could go back that soon too! (They live in London, so even though it's not that close, it's still a lot closer than SF...)

I digress... back to the food. :)

After the four snacks, they finally invite us to sit down. Promptly they brought out some warm bread in a square felt pouch. There were two kinds of bread: Manitoba sourdough and spelt, accompanied by two spreads: butter and pork fat with pumpkin seeds. Pork fat all the way baby!

It was probably closer to 11 by then, and unfortunately our server informed us that we could only do the shorter 7-course menu (they also have a 12-course menu) since it was so late already. We were disappointed but we were excited to try even just the 7-course. The server told my friend that she could do the long menu the next time she comes back (which she did of course). I guess I will just have to wait until the next time I'm back to Copenhagen...

The first course was a local razor clam wrapped in parsley jelly with horseradish snow. The server then proceeded to pour the juice of clam mixed with dill oil over the plate. The razor clam was tender and sweet while the parsley jelly provided a cool contrast. The horseradish snow was an interesting accompaniment to the dish which is a nod to the traditional horseradish that often comes with shellfish.

We were told that the second course is a Noma classic - steak tartare topped with wood sorrel with pepper and tarragon emulsion. Apparently they used to use musk ox, but now it's just Danish beef but no complaints here. The presentation is supposed to evoke the image of the animal grazing across the green pasture. No utensils were brought to us, and the server instructed us to eat with our hands by grabbing some of the wood sorrel and beef and graze it across the pepper and tarragon. The roughly cut beef was flavorful and the lemony taste of the wood sorrel accentuated the other flavors. I could eat this all day.

Next, they brought out a single langoustine sitting on top of a warm rock for our third course. This is not just any langoustine though - it is the single, most perfectly cooked langoustine, accompanied by a seawater emulsion that is flavored with oyster and parsley and surrounded by a mushroom and seaweed powder. This is in line with the thoughtful presentation in Noma's food: while the steak tartare showcased the beauty of the land, this course exhibited the profoundness of the sea. Again, we were instructed to eat with no hands, and as we smeared the langoustine around in the powder and emulsion, you feel like you can taste all the saltwater and mineral and it was like you are swimming in the ocean and you found a langoustine and just put it in your mouth. This was the most memorable dish for me from the entire night.

Our next dish was the poached baby pike with celery root, roasted celery root puree, celery, mustard green, and elderberry flower capers. The fish was tender and delicate while the vegetables gave it a nice contrast, but for all those who know me, I've never been a big fan of cooked fish (I only like my fish sashimi style :) so this was just an okay dish for me. Or maybe because all the previous dishes were so good, this one paled in comparison. Either way, one "so-so" dish out of many excellent ones is still great in my book.

Then they brought out a cool looking knife in a leather sheath and we were excited because we knew some kind of meat must be coming. Our fifth course was a poached pork belly. It was poached in a 58-degree pot for 8 hours, then glazed in the pan, then topped with onions, potato, capers, and served with a grilled cucumber. The pork belly had the perfect amount of crispy fat on top and it was tender and juicy. The toppings added a nice crisp to the meat and we savored every last bite.

We were sad to know that was the end of our savory courses but we looked forward to dessert. They brought out the cutest dessert that we have ever seen! The theme was winter wonderland and they proudly informed us that this will be the last ones they are serving this season as winter is coming to a close. Sitting amidst a plate of yogurt snow and carrot puree is a snowman, made out of lemon meringue as its bottom, carrot sorbet in the middle, seabuckthorn berry as the head, and a thin sliver of carrot sticking out as its nose. Our server explained to us that the seabuckthorn berry is a tiny berry but it packs as much vitamin C as an orange. It was a bit sour but refreshing. I liked the yogurt snow and the meringue as well, but I think I'm just not a really big fan of carrots, especially when used in dessert. The whole presentation was just too cute to eat though!

Our second dessert was walnut powder with freeze-dried berries and freeze-dried buttermilk. It was light and a good way to end the meal, although I have to admit that by this time I was thinking that there has been a lot of powder on the dishes... :P We did have one last thing: a petit-four that was Noma's salute to a very popular dessert in Denmark, the chocolate-covered marshmallow. Their version was a chocolate-covered beet root meringue, which had an interesting flavor but was a bit too sweet for my taste. It was a good thing that we ordered some tea, and they brought us their house blended infusion which was aromatic and soothing. It was the perfect end to the evening.

But wait, how can we walk away from such an amazing meal without showing our gratitude to the chefs? We asked to see if we could get a tour of the kitchen, and they graciously agreed. They have an open kitchen that you can see from the dining area, but they let us actually walk into the kitchen and showed us the different stations. They were all cleaning up by then, but the chefs still took the time to chat with us and posed for pictures (sorry I'm not posting those pictures because I'm in all of them :). The entire experience was magical for us and I can't wait to go back!