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What it's like at the pop-up version of Noma, the world's best restaurant

The Copenhagen pop-up “Noma under the Bridge”.

Name-dropping Noma

North & South’s occasional very fine diner, Paul Little, finds himself under a bridge in Copenhagen at the pop-up version of the world’s best restaurant.

There are two kinds of fussy eater: those who are particular about what they eat, preferring only to consume foods of the highest quality, and those with a long list of foods they won’t eat. Think of the two groups as the gourmet and the gorblimey.

I’m a bit of both. As for the latter, the list of foods I dislike includes (but is not limited to) such relatively innocuous items as: oysters, asparagus, corn, yoghurt, cucumber, eggplant, tomatoes (unless cooked), beetroot, feta, smelly cheeses and olives. Any kind of gourmet eating, therefore, is the culinary equivalent of base jumping blindfolded for me. However, I’ve learnt over the years that if it’s pretentious and expensive enough, I’ll eat just about anything.

Theoretically, Noma, the Danish restaurant often cited as the world’s best, should not really be my cup of licorice-infused wild boar consommé, but when an opportunity arose to eat there, it was too good to pass up.

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To be completely transparent: this wasn’t the original Noma that established the brand but a version set up and run by 30 of the staff, who needed something to do while the mothership was closed and a new location was being organised. Rather than deprive visitors to Copenhagen of any opportunity to eat at something called Noma, the sous chefs and restaurant managers decided to open a pop-up, which luckily would still be running when my wife and I were in Copenhagen for a week.

She was way ahead of me. It turned out she had been corresponding with Noma without my knowledge for quite some time. The email trail went back to 2014, so we were well in time when the first announcement that bookings were open was made. It’s almost impossible to get into the real thing; only slightly less difficult to snaffle a place in the junior version.

Sited under the city’s Knippelsbro bridge, the pop-up was called Noma under the Bridge. That’s only logical, if you think about it – as is well known, Noma is an island.

How people with an interest in food react to the news that you are going/have been to Noma is a test of character. Prior to our departure, the mere mention of the name drew strong reactions from acquaintances who were obviously much more familiar with the whole Noma thing than I had been. I came to think of it as “dropping the N bomb”.

The most common response was murderous envy covered over with an affectation of mild interest: “Oh, yes – we didn’t get around to going when we were there.” When I forwarded a copy of the menu to a restaurateur friend, he sent a reply claiming there was no attachment.  Another said the action indicated a hitherto unsuspected vicious streak.

Fried shrimps, leaves of cabbage, cod roe and flowers served with chili de arbol oil, green gooseberry, herbs and habanero.
For something so flash and fancy, once you got past the very strict instructions about being present at 7pm sharp so the food could be efficiently served to everyone at once, the whole experience was surprisingly friendly and informal. Where some top-end restaurants will cancel your booking with no warning if you don’t confirm, Noma gave us a friendly phone call on the day to make sure we were still coming and double-check the allergy situation.

There was just one very long table for about 60 people, set up in a version of those marquees with the clear plastic windows that people hire for weddings. Much of the cooking was done on portable gas barbecues. There were Portaloos.

When describing what was on our plates (there were no choices and we had to request a menu by email), the international staff made even the most outré offering – “almond cake with dried berries and wood ants” – sound no more threatening than a ham and cheese toasted sandwich.

Couples were seated facing each other across the table. The demographic in our immediate vicinity reflected the restaurant’s international reputation and pulling power. To my left were two brothers from Florence, next to them a Thai couple; to my right sat a Brazilian couple and next to them two Copenhagen locals.

Any assembly of food enthusiasts is an invitation to blatant onanism, but this was a surprisingly unpretentious and convivial group. The uniqueness of the occasion meant that everyone had at least one shared interest they could talk about, and the pop-up nature of the event discouraged any displays of hauteur or conspicuous connoisseurship.

And then there was the food, an elaborate and elegant degustation with matched wine.

According to one of the early emails, the staff would be creating “simple delicious food that they would eat themselves on a summer night”. So what was this “simple delicious food”? The bill of fare, almost as much a poem as a menu, easily speaks for itself, but there are a few annotations worth making.

Even the bread, for instance – “baked by Richard Hart” – was in a class of its own. It looked like regular bread but tasted like none I had ever eaten. It arrived on its own, and so full of anticipation was everyone that we treated it like a first course and it had long gone by the time the broth arrived. It even had a back story – Hart is a former head baker at San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery who was lending his services to Noma while preparing to open his own Copenhagen bakery.

Elsewhere, the taco was reinvented with cabbage leaves instead of corn shells, and fried shrimp as a centrepiece of the filling. By the time we got to the sorbet, it seemed only natural both chocolate and kelp should be involved.

The only items to disappoint slightly were the beef cheeks – not because they weren’t perfect in their way, but because they have become something of a menu cliché in New Zealand in the past few years. “Not beef cheeks again?” However, having them served with rye-bread soy lingonberries, thyme and onion flowers provided the necessary note of novelty.

Everyone wants to know about the ants. Very well: they provided a slightly bitter contrast to the sweetness of the almond cake, as well as bringing “crunch” and eye appeal.

Lighting was dim, but not dark, in a way that seemed calculated to focus the flavours rather than disguise them. Although we recognised the words on the menu and knew what they – or most of them – meant, the combinations and the techniques involved worked a kind of alchemy that made everything unique. If there was one theme to the preparation it was contrast – of flavours and textures within each dish on the menu.

Oh, and the coffee was awful*.

As for the accompanying wines – with top-ups appearing regularly, as if from nowhere – with their over-the-top names, they were natural or unfiltered wines. That designation is vague but can be taken to mean relatively raw, certainly chemical-free and still in the process of developing – “alive”, as it were. They were often cloudy, always delicious and well matched, without any white for seafood/red for meat nonsense. Nor were glasses changed between wines. All this was to be had for the bargain price of $280 each, including wine.

After our experience with Noma under the Bridge, we got an email with a preview of Noma 2.0, which will serve only 40 diners, be open four days a week instead of five and will cost $500 per head not including wine. This rather stern missive announced that bookings could be made for the period from mid-February to the end of April, and advised “we are changing our format to work even more closely with seasonality. In the cold months when few things grow, high season is in the oceans. Weird shells, deep water seaweed, the eyeball of a cod, slivers of fresh lobster – we’re not sure yet what we will serve.” They don’t need to be sure. They know enthusiastic customers would sell the place out in a flash if they were told they’d be served fried cricket bats and slow-cooked child. The other seasons are Vegetable – “our foragers will be working overtime” – and Game and Forest. There will be no substitutions. Don’t even think of booking if your tastes don’t run to what’s on offer.

It’s a truism that a great restaurant meal is about more than just the food. It was certainly true on this occasion, when everything came together to provide an unforgettable experience. Best of all, as you may have noticed, the only thing on the menu that this fussy eater didn’t care for was cucumber. But I’ve added cod eyeball to my list of foods to avoid.

* It appears that when it comes to coffee, we may not know how lucky we are. Four weeks in European capitals failed to turn up any as good as we are used to. When I caught up with a Parisian friend who had returned to that city after some years in Auckland and asked what he missed most about New Zealand, he instantly replied: “The coffee.”

The story of Noma

Danish chef René Redzepi, the mastermind of Noma, which has several times been named best restaurant in world.

Noma opened in Copenhagen in 2003, dedicated to locally sourced, often foraged, unusual ingredients in innovative combinations – a style of cuisine for which it established the vogue. Masterminded by chef René Redzepi, it has several times been named best restaurant in the world and has two Michelin stars. Noma is unusually peripatetic for a restaurant, having popped up with versions in Japan, Mexico and Australia, and spawned several Danish offshoots.

Noma closed at the end of 2016 to revamp itself and planned to reopen at a new location in mid-2017. However, when work on the new building uncovered an ancient stone wall, construction came to a halt while its heritage significance was assessed. This delayed the opening of Noma 2.0 by several months.

The international food world observed all these developments closely, as it does anything to do with Redzepi. Does such attention turn your head? Could it encourage messianic tendencies? It’s hard to say, although it might be significant that he was happy to pose with his staff in a recreation of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” for one newspaper story.

Denmark: The happiest kingdom of them all

Queen Margrethe’s realm is reputed to be the most contented place on Earth. Which is all well and good, but may be responsible for a feeling of blandness about the place. It’s flat and – with the exception of its pretty canals – almost featureless, with bog-standard chocolate-box European architecture.

An unending stream of homogeneous faces rolls past on bicycles, the default form of transport for 50% of the population, it is claimed. The Danes tried Uber for a while, but got rid of it because the ease with which you can walk or cycle around meant no one really needed it.

With everything this organised and orderly, it’s perhaps inevitable that occasional disruptions such as Noma will occur, as a reaction against the monotony. The restaurant, with its creative and experimental approach, stands out in sharp contrast to the meatballs and pickled fish that are local dining staples.

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.