Editor-at-large Joshua David Stein pays a first and final visit to Noma to see if the restaurant lives up to the hype
Long before Hamilton was the Hamilton of Broadway, Noma was the Hamilton of food: a mythic place like Valhalla or Shangri-La that was often referenced, perpetually discussed but rarely visited. Not only was it difficult to get in—reportedly 20,000 aspirants vie for a space in the 45-seat dining room every month—but it’s also hard to step foot into an idea. And, for the majority of the world, Noma is just that, an idea, shorthand for the virtuosic execution of a foraging philosophy best embodied by a brown-haired, puppy dog-eyed Dane named René Redzepi.
Ever since Noma was named the best restaurant in the world in 2010, seven years after it opened in an industrial brick building on the far side of Københavns Havn, the restaurant has been the subject of endless admiration and infinite chronicle. There have been thousands of articles, hundreds of interviews (some of which I did), at least three weighty monographs, a slew of television programs and two documentaries, the second one of which, Ants on a Shrimp, will be released on Friday.
One could, if one was so inclined, learn all the material facts concerning Noma as a restaurant and Redzepi as a man from this vast archive. The menu is, at this point, catechism. Nearly every member of the High Church of Foodie can rattle off at least 10 dishes from the restaurant’s archive and even summon the configuration of each stem of smoked hay nestled around a lightly smoked quail egg or crystal of sea buckthorn mousse fashioned into the now-famous “Snowman” dessert. Like the man from whose mind these creations emerged, his biography, too, has become canonical. The discrimination he faced as the son of a Muslim Macedonian immigrant growing up in Copenhagen, how this informed both his brilliant antipathy toward the Nordic hegemony and his Joseph Conrad-like ability to see the beauty others dismissed are just one passage in the Gospels of Noma.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the voluminous exegesis, no one who hasn’t been to Noma is any closer to understanding what exactly made and makes it worthy of such adulation. In fact, much of what is written about the place seems so hyperbolic and hagiographic it incites a certain acidulated cynicism and simmering resentment toward its subject. I felt this ever since the first major book, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, came out in 2010 with an introduction so slavish it made one want to “find René and give him a wedgie, a wet willie and send him on his way.” This has continued for the last six years, unabated in all forms until there’s enough slow-motion footage of Redzepi wandering around the fields and forests of Scandinavia to play on for eternity.
But eternity is exactly what there isn’t at the moment. Last year, Redzepi announced he is closing the restaurant at the end of 2016 and will reincarnate it as an urban farm. The Noma we love from afar will be no more. For those who haven’t eaten there, sadly, the allure will always remain foreign and the regret at not having been might forevermore be tempered by a sour-grapes doubt that it was ever quite as good as everyone said it was. Because really, how could it be?
Well, at least that’s how I felt. Noma was this train making express stops, and I was stuck on the local platform. And then, out of the blue, my friend, the Danish brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø—with whom I recently cowrote a book, Food & Beer, with chef Daniel Burns, and for which Redzepi wrote the introduction—mentioned he was going to Noma one last time, had an extra seat and wondered if I would come. Dear reader, I went.
Noma was this train making express stops, and I was stuck on the local platform.
Of course, I wanted to eat at Noma. I would be a fool and a liar to say I didn’t. As uncool as it is to admit to something everyone else wants to do, too, I wanted to, too. But tinged with just childlike jump-up-and-down excitement, as it is with most things you’ve read about for the last six years as being the bee’s knees, there was a certain allure in finding out if the restaurant did indeed live up the hype.
And the stakes in that area were somewhat higher than simply one meal. For most of us, most of the restaurants in the world (Osteria Francescana, El Celler de Can Roca, Central) will remain something only experienced secondhand, in an indirect form. Our experience will be mitigated by the page or the screen and whoever was behind that page or screen, or perhaps it will simply be ingested from the ether as received wisdom. Express train, local track and you on the platform trying to glimpse inside. Grumbling and sour grapes are really the only ways to stay sane.
The exaltation of Noma and the hero worship of its chef are in no way anomalous nor is my skepticism as to whether that esteem could possibly be warranted limited to Noma either. Nothing really could be as magical as we’re told, right? Surely, it’s hot air. But if the experience did indeed manage to excite, delight and otherwise deserve all the breathless panegyrics, well, then, maybe the world wasn’t quite as full of shit as I suspected. Maybe those rows and rows of heavy tomes of faraway restaurants I’ll never get to shouldn’t be used as just an indicator of social status that I can afford pricey cookbooks but as actual indicators for a world much more full of wonder and amazement than I, cynical eye, suspected.
I found myself on the plane to Copenhagen for a 24-hour trip, the sole purpose of which was dinner at Noma. The plan was to arrive in Copenhagen around lunchtime, try to nap, walk over to Noma, eat, sleep a little and return back to JFK in the morning. It would be my first and my last time eating there. Extravagant, to say the least. (Ask my wife, and she would call it irresponsible.) But it was also an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.
We arrived to Noma at 7 p.m. on the dot, crossing over a new bridge from the old harbor that spans the canal, walking past beehives, where honey is made, and the picnic tables, where staff meals are served. We were kinda drunk and happy, a group of Danes and one poofy-haired jet-lagged American. There were eight of us, two of whom had managed to get Pokėmon Go before the rest of the country and, therefore, were cleaning house. We posed in front of the sans-serif Noma sign mounted on the wall, where a game sous chef took our picture. Then we went in. Finally, I was at Noma.
I won’t describe what we actually ate in any real detail. I suppose the point of this entire piece is that it’s futile to try. That’s the same trap and thankless challenge into which many writers much more talented than I am have fallen. At its essence, the experience of Noma—what makes it really, really wonderful—is a physical one, physical both in the sense that it is food one is ingesting and physical in the sense that food being ingested in a specific time and place. Noma is the bunch of blue-aproned chefs who gather to greet you as you walk in, piling on top of each other as in a high school photograph, face beside face above face. It’s the high summer early evening sunlight filtering through the windows, reflected off the water onto the brick interior walls. It’s an almost physical sense of opening, to the experience, to the world, spurred by the knowledge that this sensitivity shall be rewarded.
So there’s hardly anything to be gained either by chronicling in minute detail the menu. For though I can articulate that a poached quail egg arrived tiled with delicate nasturtium leaves facedown, stems out on a bed of moss beside a branch made of beer and mead to which herbs were attached with ant paste, nothing true is thereby communicated.
Metaphor is the only recourse here, because, at its essence, when you collapse all the writing around it, what makes Noma Noma is this small spark of an interaction that happens inside you. Literally, it’s inside you. You ingest it. It is food. And this spark is then amplified and stoked by memory, by the room you’re in, the people you’re with, the time of day, what else is going on in the world that moment, until it’s a cultural contagion. But it all starts with a small bite. In that way, Noma is perhaps uniquely difficult to capture. It depends more explicitly than any other restaurant on time and place, two things that only one person can occupy at once.
So this is true: The flavors of each bite contained more movement than a Merce Cunningham piece. Entire tides of flavor from sour to sweet to herbal ebbed and flowed in each small morsel in a way I’ve never experienced. Eating at Noma had both the reassuring pleasure of a cathedral and the shocking joy of nature. The composition of dishes, not in terms of simply plating, though the moss is cool, but of flavor, were so dynamic I couldn’t help but think of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland in which the hero transcends a flat world of lines for a multidimensional world of spheres, or that dude from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who finally sees the truth of shadows and forms.
Eating at Noma had both the reassuring pleasure of a cathedral and the shocking joy of nature.
Soon, all that will remain from the experience is the menu they gave me when I left. Noma will be gone, my memories will have faded or else become so recalled as to be sapped of vitality, and all the cigarettes I got at duty-free will be smoked. But the lasting and universal takeaway is an appreciation for how futile it is to communicate that which makes a restaurant like Noma so special. Words and images are impotent and imperfect. Time and place are all that matter.