The first thing I ate at Noma, a restaurant that currently holds the #1 spot in rankings of the World’s Best, was a shrimp. To be specific, it was a shrimp the the size of my pinkie, still alive and fighting back.
It arrived in a mason jar packed with ice and hosting three other doomed crustaceans. One by one, the sea bugs were plucked and carried without protest into the mouths of my companions. My shrimp was different and did not go gentle into the bite. He opted to rage, squirming out of my hand and prompting a shameful little squeak. I grabbed again, but he whapped me with his tail and spattered meltwater across the table. After four failed attempts, I felt a presence behind my shoulder and looked up into the face of René Redzepi. His expression hung somewhere between smile and smirk as he waited for the inevitable conclusion. “You want the truth?” it seemed to say. “You can’t handle the truth!” I jumped a little when the fist of my tablemate came down on the shrimp’s tiny head. Stunned and half-conscious, the body barely twitched as I laid it upon my tongue. The mass dissolved between my molars into a clump of sea-scented hay. The shrimp went south with a slug of Champagne and the chef returned to his post in the kitchen.
I had come to Copenhagen for no other reason than to eat this meal. The sheer absurdity of this – of traveling to eat – was matched by Redzepi’s opening act. The shrimp disarmed me, made me forget my fancy dress and the fact that I had flown on a plane for lunch. I realized with that first swallow that I was really on a trip – one that would last for hours, create a bond within our group, and leave me altered and exhausted. How often does that happen without hallucinogens?
The group itself was a weird one. I knew Barbra well and had met Emmanuel once, but I only knew Yves-Marie from a series of portraits that featured lots of beef and little clothing. These two men had become close years ago when Emmanuel, then a fellow at the Villa Medici in Rome, reenacted the Banquet of Trimalchio from The Satyricon. Yves-Marie flew in to help with the meat, which was eaten off the bodies of naked women.
They were delighted, unsurprisingly, by Redzepi’s own take on beef tartare. At first glance, we saw a trail of peppery crumbs, a plot of bright green wood sorrel and a smear of tarragon cream. There was no cutlery and we were instructed to eat with our hands, grabbing hunks of raw beef (these were hidden beneath the sorrel) and dragging them across the forest floor. Having already been broken by the shrimp, I was able to dive in and really enjoy this sanctioned mess. A bowl with wet towels arrived to clean us afterward, but my stained cuticles bore a visceral reminder of the dish for many days to come.
Next up: a large langoustine had washed up on a warm stone set before each diner. We were again using our hands – grabbing the monster with our fingers, dragging it through sharp dollops of oyster emulsion and chomping undaintily at the mass. Slightly euphoric from the wine and theatrics, Emmanuel began to enact, upon the stage of one stone, an attack of the sea monsters. He assailed me with his langoustine and accompanying cries of “yar!” all while wearing a flouncy ascot.
I expected Noma to be good, but I didn’t count on it being this fun. Gastronomic meals are not generally fun. The most that one can hope for from a normal restaurant is to be delighted. And that’s not nothing. But Noma, in this particular moment, was something more - something that would more rightly be called a “happening” than a meal. Sheer pleasure balanced out the provocation and kept it from descending into Lars von Trier territory. But without that provocation – stripping the gastronomes of silverware and shoving their noses in “the freshest possible seafood” – there wouldn’t have been the same possibility for exhileration.
I’m writing about this meal more than a year after it happened. This feels less like a review (because how could it be?) than the recounting of a brief affair. I remember Noma as the Viking who grabbed me on a dock, made out with me roughly, and left me quivering and changed. Noma has long since forgotten my name (if he even knew it to begin with) but remains the filter through which I view every other restaurant.
A few details
Bouquet of snails, affixed with jerusalem artichoke paste to nasturtium blossoms.
Ceramic egg containing a bed of smoking hay and two trembling quail eggs.
A sandwich made from “the scum that rises to the surface when we are making duck stock, dried.”
Raw vegetables from reclaimed land in edible soil.
Slim leeks with fried whiskers.
Sandwich of seabuckhorn and chicken skin with rye bread, yellow split peas and lovage.
Appeskeur – sweet apple and salty fish.
Pork fat with aquavit and scratchings.
Virgin cow butter: a partial churn for a looser texture.
Frozen seascape with sea urchin foam, cold shrimp and other bits to forage between the rocks.
Dried sea scallop with grains (barley, spelt, kamut) and hazelnuts in watercress emulsion and squid ink.
Beef tartare à la Viking with wood sorrel, bread crumbs and tarragon cream.
Langoustine with oyster emulsion. The stone is hot.
Oyster with horseradish tapioca, served in its own (inedible) ecosystem.
Celery root with Swedish truffle. The least successful dish of the day.
DIY egg with fresh herbs and hay oil. Not every egg made it into the pan.
Young deer dressed in beet petals with seeds and fruits from the forest floor – “the diet of the deer.”
Dessert 1: malt shortbread, apple disks, Jerusalem artichoke ice cream
Dessert 2: pine ice cream, blueberry sorbet, pine granita, fresh blueberries.
Mignardises, taken outside on the dock: smoked marrow caramels.
The Noma team, who happened to assemble for another photographer as we were leaving.
The surrounding neighborhood of Christianshavn in Copenhagen.
You might also like:
Barbra Austin’s account of the same meal.
An early and very detailed report by Food Snob.