Copenhagen is crazy cool, a frozen city of modern intellectuals in woollen cardigans all drinking natural wine. And everyone appears to be flirting with everyone, eyeing each other up in the bakeries, winking as they pass by on bicycle lanes – now that’s cool. And the restaurants are cool and the people that work in them cool.
Here is a restaurant with perfectly-pitched ponce
Noma has long been cool. A restaurant set in a hipper-than-hip neighbourhood in a city that you wished you lived in, but is far too cool for you, far too cool for me. But then it suddenly shut shop, shifted across town and re-opened in 2018 with the added designation of 2.0. So what can I say about this restaurant institution that hasn’t already been written, tweeted and ‘Grammed’ except that now I have finally been. Finally.
At the backend of last year, during one of the final services of their Game and Forest Menu, I arrived one stormy evening on Refahalevej Island with a journalist friend from Slovenia (who somehow managed to wangle us a reservation via a seat lottery process that Jonathan Gold described as “makes Powerball seem like a sure thing” – thank you, eternally, Kaja!). Both of us were first-timers, both full of expectation, both with friends who claim to have visited numerous times (one thousand dinners; really, Andras Jokuti?). Now, it was our turn.
Here is a restaurant with perfectly-pitched ponce, once ranked number one in the world and in its second incarnation, entered back onto the 50 Best Restaurants list at No.2. Yet despite all of this, it manages not to promote all of the unnecessary pomp and grandiloquence of other restaurants that adorn such fiercely debated lists. Such a reputation, though, with all of the garnered praise from gluttons as diverse as Chang to Bourdain to Gold – “The first act of a meal at Noma passes as a dream” – comes with an overbearing cloud of expectation that can’t possibly be reached, can it?
We’re met by Ali Sonko – the now-infamous dishwasher turned co-owner – who opens my taxi door and holds up an umbrella. It’s the most charming of welcomes. We’re then led into a greenhouse where we meet Arve Krognes (communications manager) and James Spreadbury (restaurant manager), before we’re led into the restaurant proper, through a building besmeared with antlers where Katherine Bont (house-manger) awaits us along with Rene himself. It’s as unified a team and close-knit as any restaurant experience I’ve had, all of those ‘cool’ kids pulling together as one.
But here’s the thing; Rene is decidedly ordinary for a man of his infamy, dressed all in black, thin as a competitive greyhound, and as enthusiastic as a young chef on his first day. There’s that thing about not wanting a fat personal trainer or a toothless dentist, and rightly so. I want the person responsible for cooking my dinner to be a proper fatty, experienced in gluttony and who knows full well what works and doesn’t on the plate, a solid, blokey, beefy, farty, burpy, roly-poly chef who knows good grub. But Rene is, well, he’s like us. What his presence does, along with all of the staff and kitchen team, is put the diner on positive street before they’ve even sat down.
We take our seats, surrounded by contented chatter and gurning guests, no doubt a mix of first-timers and those who’ve lost count. I’m bubbling with excitement, giddy already. Then, from the corner of my eye, I spot them – kitchen staff completing painstaking preparations and handing over plates, plates for me, the first course of actual Noma food, now, on its way to me.
There’s a melange of meat, all reindeer cuts – heart, tongue, sweetbreads, brain. Then a cold pheasant broth with thoroughly pleasing pops of Rossini Danish caviar. There’s another terrific forest broth with varieties of wonderful mushrooms and squirrel garum (fermented fish sauce), that’s a standout, but so too are the slices of cured duck breast, oh, and the electrifyingly yellow sunflower salad. Everything is vivid and inventive. Much of what works here came about after years of failure, of constant trial-and-error. Rene encourages failure; how else will they learn. Can you eat a wasp? Whose brave enough to try. What happens if you deep-fry a mallard’s brain? There’s only one way to find out.
I can’t forget that creepy-looking bug that’s in fact berry-fruit leather
Out comes the head of a mallard, the brain basted in butter and seasoned, a blue-white feather decoratively pinned; a spoon made from the tongue bone to accompany. A second plate then arrives with leg chicharron like some waterfowl skewer kebab. It’s extraordinary, and it’s theatrical, and it’s downright bonkers, incomparable to anything else, skating that razor’s edge between WOW and WTF.
And I can’t forget that creepy-looking bug that’s in fact berry-fruit leather, and the dessert too; a barbecued waffle with cloudberry cream, then a few pine tree caramels and all manner of things from David Zilber’s fermentation lab – come on, what is the wizardry?
I won’t bang on; the Game and Forest Season Menu has passed, and they’re well into the Seafood Menu now (until June 13th; then Vegetable Season between July 7th and September 20th), and what’s more, you’ve heard it all before. But I wanted my moment; so let me say that I smiled throughout dinner, like proper giddy, childlike grinning; I couldn’t stop. It’s difficult to talk about the emotion of food, especially when some experiences go way beyond epicurean pleasure. This was one of those, for sure. Perhaps even, the one. So where on earth do I go from here? C
Noma, Refshalevej 96, 1432 København K, Denmark
noma.dk; +45 32 96 32 97