Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The meal of a lifetime at NOMA

Things are beginning to slow down, with a couple of the major Coursera courses coming to an end. I will write up a post when possible about the Natural Language Processing course which has been spectacularly well taught/paced and executed in just about every way.

I've been wanting to write up a post also about my trip to Denmark a week or so ago, on a gastronomic pilgrimage which lead us to the best restaurant in the world (whatever that means). A trip three years or so in the making, with all the possibilities for dire disappointment, but eventually a trip which was with out a doubt the highlight of my life's food experiences so far. Much of this may seem a little Emperor's new clothes, but to be honest I don't mind. If 90% of the enjoyment was in my head, rather than in the tastes themselves, then fine, that still resulted in a great deal of enjoyment.

Noma was the destination, and being my first time in Denmark I planned on making a few days of the trip. We had booked the table at the beginning of the year, having tried and failed for the last 3 years, ever since it took El Bulli's place at the top spot of the gastronomic hierarchy.

I was lucky enough to have hosted a very friendly Dane through Couchsurfing when I was living in Spain and this gave me the perfect chance to crash his place. This worked out fantastically as well as it gave me, as couchsurfing always does, a view of the city which I almost certainly wouldn't have seen had I stayed in a hostel.

Having returned from South Africa to a very sunny Munich, the weather continued to follow me and the first day in Copenhagen was a spectacular 25 degrees. We spent the afternoon sightseeing and sitting with a drink in Christiania, catching up on the last couple of years of our lives and watching the world go by.

Konrad, who had booked the table, turned up on the Wednesday evening and we went for dinner and a drink in the centre, sampling Copenhagen's only CAMRA rated pub where the price of the pints was as much the cause of weakened knees as the strength. Retiring after a couple of pints we cycled back through the city at night, ready for the feast which was to come the next day.

Booked for lunch at one, Konrad, his friend and I headed at a leisurely pace through the city (having warmed up our stomachs with a fine breakfast), still in full spring haze to the North Atlantic House, the ground floor of which houses NOMA, done up in relatively unpretentious decor

The second you step through the door you are made to feel special. You forget about the fact that the place itself is special, but the waiters are immediately interested in you, asking questions and making you feel like you've just met a best friend of a best friend.

They introduce the concept of the restaurant: Nordic inspired cuisine, with Nordic ingredients in highly seasonal, frequently unusual combinations. This is not another El Bulli, where the food was all about the processes - a lot of incredible molecular gastronomy, but is really about the freshness and purity of flavours and the subtlety of their combinations.

I know very little about music and I wouldn't claim to know all that much about food, but, at a piano concert a few years ago, a friend who really does know a great deal about music told me that the brilliance of the particular performance was not about getting the notes in the right order, or at the right time, but was about the subtlety and exactness of the strength of those notes.

In the same way, at NOMA you are not going to be blown away by whizzes and bangs in your mouth, there is not the satisfaction of a great steak or burger, or the sugar and fat buzz of a tiramisu that may satisfy for a few moments, but there is an incredible harmony of flavours that are so finely woven together that one follows another follows another, each one creeping up as the other fades, just as the notes of a brilliant piece of music follow in perfectly weighted succession.

For me the pinnacle of this melody was a dish of scallops, sepia ink and biodynamic grains in a pea puree. The sepia ink gives a background platform which carries the first hit of the scallops, which have been processed for around a day, purifying their flavour and turning them almost into caramel wafers, and finds its way into your mouth before the scallop is even there. The flavour of the scallop slowly fades as your mouth habituates to it, at which point the grains and puree are building to a head and take over, the chemical similarities between the scallops and peas allowing this to happen seamlessly:
Dried scallops and beech nuts, biodynamic grains and watercress

The very first dish was actually sitting on the table when we arrived, in the form of malted bread sticks, hidden within the flower pot and dusted with juniper (these are in the back, the strange rather furry looking things sticking through the foliage).
Malt flatbread and juniper
Along with the 23 courses came 9 incredible wines, all white, bar one rosé, all from Europe and there were some outstanding pairings with the meal, including a wine which was almost calvados in its depth.

After almost 4 hours we were left wonderfully satisfied, slightly drunk and enormously happy. Konrad and I went to a bar after this and sat in the sun, giggling like little kids about individual bites, about surprise flavours and about the experience as a whole, sipping a cold beer and lapping up the waves of emotion.

The day continued in much the same vein until around 6 o'clock the next morning, when I returned exhausted to collapse asleep for a few hours before having a very easy day the next day.

I shall simply leave you here with a slideshow of the meal. It is an expensive meal, but I can say that for anyone who loves food experiences, this is truly one of the greats, and for me, as a once every few years extravagance, I am willing to forgo a long holiday for a journey like this.
I should also add as an important postscipt, that I was hugely taken by Copenhagen and by the Danes in general. I would certainly love to return some time and spent a bit more time exploring that part of the world.


Gunnar said...

I love Denmark, too. The people are always awesome and even if the weather sucks, life just seems simpler and easier over there.
Great food pics, becoming a foodie now?
Now that you're back: About that beer..

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