Is the world's best restaurant really that good? Shaney Hudson finds out.
I'M EATING with my hands, I've left a dish almost untouched, I've just cooked myself an egg and there's green goop down the front of my dress. Would you believe me if I told you I was eating at the world's best restaurant? If you've heard of Noma, you just might.
Opened in 2004, the impact of Restaurant Noma on the world dining scene has been nothing less than spectacular.
The celebrated Copenhagen restaurant has been voted S. Pellegrino Best Restaurant in the World two years running and has shepherded in a new era of Nordic cuisine (and, on a lesser scale, provided the focus for the MasterChef Australia finale).
But once you've sliced through the hype, what is it actually like to eat there?
A few weeks ago, I found out.
So much has been written about the restaurant, the philosophy behind the food and its signature dishes that it was hard to manage my expectations. At first I was ecstatic with anticipation, later sure it wouldn't live up to the hype. In the end, the restaurant surprised me in the best possible way.
Located at the end of a windswept pier, the understated dining area is framed by low exposed beams and lit by candles, with a view to the swollen blue of the harbour - but there is little time to take it in; Noma offers a hit-the-ground-running food experience, with our first appetiser of nasturtium flowers dotted with a snail already waiting in the vase on the table for us to pluck with our hands.
Before I've finished chewing the petals and been able to wash it down with a champagne aperitif, lightly fried reindeer moss is placed in front of us. Dipped in creme fraiche, the fragile structure first crumbles, then dissolves in my mouth.
All 12 courses, from the sea buckthorn leather and pickled rose hips to the leeks lightly fried in seaweed butter and the cookie with lardo and currant served in an old cookie tin, are eaten by hand, allowing a deeper sense of pleasure as well as connection with what's on the plate.
The small terracotta pots stuffed with young carrots and radishes in a soil of malt give me my first goose- bump moment.
The juxtaposition of textures and subtle flavours, along with the discovery of an emulsion of grass underneath, has our party of five utterly intrigued.
We're not entirely sure what we're eating but we like it.
The philosophy behind Noma is based on foraging and regional Nordic cuisine sourced as locally as possible. I hadn't expected it but as the meal progresses I begin to feel as if I'm eating directly from the earth, the flavours are so fresh and wild.
At Noma, wild can also translate to still kicking. The arrival of two cookie jars filled with ice signals the one dish I had read about and was hoping I wouldn't encounter: live fiord shrimp. We all stare at the wiggling shrimp in silence.
Supposedly they taste like fresh sushi but we can't seem to get past the squirm factor. Or the fact they're actually squirming.
"I'm all for pushing my boundaries," my American friend says, leaning back. "But flying all this way just to eat here has already done that."
I decide to give it a go, reaching for the tail of a shrimp that has stopped kicking, reasoning it's already drifted into an icy coma. As soon as I touch the tail, however, it wakes up. The shrimp jumps two inches to the other side of the jar; I jump two feet back with a shriek, much to the amusement of the entire restaurant and the staff. With that, I'm done, and the jars of ice return to the kitchen untouched.
Luckily, I'm not the only one to make a faux-pas; the table behind ours somehow manage to smash their alarm clock across the floor when they are served Noma's signature dish, the Hen and the Egg.
The dish is the most deceptively simple on the menu and also one of the most fun, involving cooking your own egg and zucchini flowers in chive butter with foraged greens on a personal hotplate drizzled with hay oil.
A paired wine course is available for both the seven- and 12-course degustation menus; however, we decide to drink by the bottle as we want to focus on the flavours in the food and not the wine.
The restaurant has a comprehensive 32-page wine menu which changes monthly, but we leave it to the sommelier to pick something for us.
He returns with a 2009 Monzinger Halenberg GG from Nahe in Germany and, on request, a bottle of Noma's Birkebryg beer, the house ale brewed with birch sap and nettles.
Although I like my beer, one sip of my partner's buttery riesling has me asking for a glass of it myself. It's the perfect accompaniment to the more sophisticated dishes such as razor clams and parsley with granulated horseradish and dill.
There comes a point during your meal at Noma where you simply give yourself over to the food and this is the dish that does it for me. The flavours are complex and evoke memories of my partner and I collecting the long narrow clam shells from beaches along the North Sea during winter.
The mound of torn, aged raw beef fibres hiding under a bed of green sorrel is the most aesthetically pleasing dish, gathered by the fingertips and smeared through the artist's brushstroke of tarragon for flavour. It's our table's unanimous favourite - until the sweet plump langoustine with oyster emulsion is served to us on warm river-stones the size of footballs.
Surprisingly, it's the vegetarian dishes, such as the lightly braised pine cauliflower or the onion with thyme and gooseberry juice cooked with just enough sweet softness but with a slight crunch, that have the strongest effect on my palate.
Noma has a united nations of chefs presenting the dishes, including more than a few Australians. When an Australian chef serves up the pike perch and verbena, dill and cabbage, he describes how the cabbage is "barbecued on the Weber - just like you would back home".
The banter and explanation of each dish add a personal touch that breaks down the barrier between guest and kitchen.
It also breaks away from the cult of the celebrity head chef. Much has been written about head chef Rene Redzepi but dining at Noma reinforces that the restaurant works because of the combined effort of all staff. If it takes a whole village to raise a child, when you eat at Noma you realise it takes an entire kitchen to bring you the food on your plate.
What is also striking is the balance created in the restaurant. There are only 40 people seated at each service, yet the atmosphere is lively despite the intimacy.
Service is fluid and attentive, with no trace of the attitude I've occasionally detected in Michelin-starred restaurants.
A frozen bowl filled with granulated, frozen cucumber and elderflower breaks up the meal and readies our palates for the desserts of sweet carrots and sea buckthorn, followed by juniper ice floating in a rhubarb sauce. We're led to a separate lounge for our coffee, tea and sweets, which arrive in two dented cookie tins and wrapped in a paper parcel with butcher's strings.
Inside one tin is a chocolate-dipped potato chip sprinkled with fennel. The other contains a traditional Danish treat called a Flodeboller, an oversized chocolate filled with lightly whipped fresh meringue. The last is like opening a Christmas present from an odd relative. It's Noma's final little quirky surprise; inside the wrapped parcel are round hollow pieces of bone filled with golden caramel, which you pop out of the bone to eat. The chewy caramel has intense bacon flavours and is like nothing I've ever tasted before.
Four hours, 12 courses and three sweets later, I leave the restaurant in a state best described as "food drunk". I return to my hotel to a slew of online queries from friends and colleagues about my meal.
They all ask the same thing, a question I can now answer with complete confidence: yes, Noma really is that good.
The writer travelled with the assistance of VisitCopenhagen.com.
SAS fly from Sydney to Copenhagen, from $2042. 1300 727 707, flySAS.com.au.
The three-star Ibsens Hotel located near the newly opened Copenhagen food market has double rooms from 1258 Danish kroner ($235), +45 3395 7744, ibsenhotel.dk.
Noma is at 93 Strandgade, Copenhagen. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. A seven-course menu starts from 1095 Danish kroner. Our 12-course menu cost 1395 Danish kroner a person. With champagne, two bottles of wine, mineral water, coffee, tea and credit card surcharges, the total bill for five came to 10,822 Danish krone.
Booking a table
Some consider getting a table at Noma winning the culinary lottery. Luck does factor in but perseverance and flexibility play a bigger part in securing a booking and cancellations are frequent. Reservations are taken four months in advance on a designated day once a month, during which as many as 55,000 people try to secure a booking via phone or the web. This author logged 38 phone calls and hit refresh on the browser for 45 minutes before sending a polite email requesting a booking. Within four hours, a reservation was secured. +45 3296 3297, noma.dk.