We never did make it to El Bulli during its years as the world's pre-eminent restaurant, so imagine if you will the excitement of receiving a special birthday gift of dinner for two at the recently anointed world's new number one eating establishment - Noma in Copenhagen. The young chef, Rene Redpazi, has delighted the culinary world with his creation of a new Nordic cuisine based entirely around ingredients gathered and foraged in his native land and the farther shores of Scandinavia. His restaurant, rather fittingly, inhabits a converted warehouse alongside a pier where returning boats brought rich cargo and foodstuffs from Greenland and other northern waters for centauries.
How do they follow that? By presenting the menu of course! We chose the 7 course tasting menu and passed on the wine by the glass with each course option, given that with the current menu, they offer champagne with all the dishes-not our thing. Our bottle of top notch Alsace Riesling found no difficulty in accommodating all the flavours that we were enjoying. At this point a truly delicious fragrant crusty sour dough loaf arrived with pots of lightly churned butter and smoky lard flavoured with apple brandy.
A moment's reflection on the essence of this so called new Nordic cuisine. I asked one of the young chefs who had been lucky enough to have worked in other restaurants of equivalent quality if he was learning interesting new techniques at Noma. His excitement was, rather, in the quality and variety of ingredients that he had never used before, and it's true that there is a refreshing absence of scientific wizardry in the cooking. The trick is of course to sustain the magic through to the last grain of coffee and the final farewell.
Our first starter was a stunningly pretty assembly of beetroot that had been roasted in a salt crust with hay served with crispy malt puffs on a vivid green dressing of dill, sorrel and onion ash. The next course was probably the highlight of the tasting menu showing a technique that rendered thinly sliced scallop crisp and deeply and sweetly savoury. The scallops are vaporized for 24 hours and take on a rusty hue; the slices were prettily arranged on little mounds of mixed grains bound in watercress emulsion and a sauce of squid ink, seaweed oil and mustard. In this dish I could discern truly new Nordic.
One more stunning dish followed -some magnificent white asparagus on a green asparagus juice flavoured with pine oil and vinegar accompanied by tiny baby edible pine shoots.
At this point I have to say that the high quality of the experienced began to ever so slightly flag. The next two dishes had a touch of fanfare and theatricality about them, but perhaps did not quite reach the same heights. I did love the purity of the native oyster served over rocks and seaweed to provide a briny aroma and the tiny beads of tapioca and elderberry combined well. I tried hard to see the merit of frying my own hen's egg and mixing it with herbs and wild garlic liquor, but truthfully the lovely quail's egg that we enjoyed earlier exhausted our appetite for egg. By now I was craving a good portion of flesh and to be honest, 3 meltingly tender but small pieces of ox cheek served with unseasonal chicory and pear were not what I had in mind to eat alongside my £20 glass of Barolo.
The spell was beginning to unravel. Such is the nature of expectation when the house carries the millstone of "world's best" and I just hope that Rene can weave new magic on his return from meeting his publishers and showcasing his talents in New York. Naturally we would all like him to be presiding in the kitchen when we dine at Noma.
My wife knows a lot more about puddings than me. What's more, she's Danish and loved them, whereas I thought them just a little too pure and simple. But then I hadn't had the originality to invent a dessert of celeriac parfait, compressed celery in sugar syrup and celery granita with lemon verbena. Some cleverly inventive petit fours with coffee got us past the slight irritation we felt over the sense that the senior staff wanted to bring down the curtain on the night's entertainment. £400 for two buys some seriously high expectation, I would say. They would probably say that's there's nothing worse than serving other restaurateurs that think they know a thing or two. They would be right!
I'd bite your hand off for an iota of your creativity Rene and you have created something truly breathtaking in your restaurant. I do hope your commitments don't dictate that you roam too far from home.