COPENHAGEN — “Sea snail broth,” a server says, introducing the first course of a dinner for which I’ve just traveled 4,000 miles to try.
The initial impression is a warm and wonderful elixir pooled inside a spiral-shaped shell, set on a bed of fine sand. Part of the lip of the “cup” is rimmed with minced pickles — oregano buds, elderflowers, lemon thyme — which add some bite to the broth, robust with maitake oil and kelp dashi.
I have to hand it to Noma. Sea snail broth, it turns out, is the perfect antidote to the Arctic chill that’s descended on Copenhagen and a promising start to an hours-long journey that will take me on a deep dive into the mind of one of the most influential chefs on the planet.
When you’ve been away for a year and you’re staging a return, one way to reintroduce yourself to the world is with klieg lights and trumpet blasts. But that’s hardly the modus operandi of Noma, hailed four times in a decade as “the world’s best restaurant.” Seats for the Nordic adventure created by rock star chef Rene Redzepi are in such demand that when the acclaimed restaurant went dark and took its show on tour last year, reservations for pop-ups in Tokyo, Sydney and Tulum, Mexico, were snapped up in mere hours — for their entire seasons.
How to impress customers anew after a year away? The master of his universe, Redzepi turns out to be a master of understatement at Noma 2.0, sharing the fruit of his latest labors in small measures.
It’s dark when two of us are dropped off at the most anticipated restaurant launch of the year, located less than a mile from the original Noma and partly contained in a former garrison, surrounded by oak and birch trees and a small lake. Greeters standing on the side of the road assure us we’ve come to the right place and point us to a long wooden walkway that follows the outline of the building — one of 11 structures on an urban farm — where a series of windows gives us snapshots of Noma. A few paces in, we spy neatly arranged uniforms inside. A few feet more, we spot what we later learn to be an ant farm in the making, ants being part of the restaurant’s legacy.
The next window demonstrates the global interest in Noma’s return to its roots. Hey, look, it’s Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic from the Los Angeles Times! No less a guide than Redzepi, disarmingly boyish at 40, is showing the subject of the documentary “City of Gold” around.
Call me lucky. Back in November, when the reservation site accidentally went live, briefly, 30 minutes before the world was told it could take a crack at booking for the first season, I found myself staring at available lunch and dinner dates from its scheduled opening day on Feb. 15 through April. Using a pseudonym, I scored a first-month dinner reservation (about $365 a head, not including alcohol), so it comes as a surprise when I walk through the door and get a verbal bear hug from a gaggle of chefs and servers, as if I’m their long-lost friend from Tulum, my only prior taste of Noma. With only 40 seats in the peaked main dining room, a calming oasis of oak, every spot is a prized chef’s table. I’m checking out the fish skeletons on the wall and the dried seaweed hanging from a service table — fitting accents for a debut menu celebrating seafood — when the first course is set before me.
Oceans of shells follow, first in the form of nickel-size Venus clams, some open to reveal their tender insides, others turned over and empty; they’re decorative support. A condiment of black currant wood oil, reduced cucumber juice and butter makes for a dense sort of savory fudge, but the sweet little clams are better without it.
A clutch of blue mussels, polished to a sheen by the staff, adorn the lid of the next course, two mussels affixed to a single split shell. The treat has us scratching our heads, wondering how Redzepi managed to mess not just with us, but with Mother Nature. Like many of the lead ingredients tonight, the bivalves taste of the sea times 10.
What appears to be creme brulee is a thin, crackling cover of dried fish broth and shrimp butter hovering over “dried fruits and shrimps.” The liquid broth beneath the edible lace ping pongs from sweet to buttery to tart, thanks to gooseberries in the mix.
It soon becomes apparent that we’re eating the future, so influential is Redzepi’s thought process that his dishes are copied at the speed of the Internet by chefs around the world. Consider the novel way he serves trout roe, coaxed into the shape of a starfish with lightly cured egg yolks and finished with pumpkin seed oil, a brilliant composition in all senses of the word. Dinner is as much an education as an interesting way to fill up. Cigar-shaped razor clam shells, we learn, make excellent scoops. Tiled with peeled pumpkin seeds and sitting in a puddle of rose oil-infused cream, a lobe of sea urchin, the foie gras of 2018, shows up in half its spiky shell. Here and there, the sound of shells rubbing on plates demonstrates an attempt to engage all the senses.
A purple blob that looks like a stand-in from “Alien” shows up on a platter of ice, and we’re encouraged to poke it. The creature moves, and my finger feels slimy, as if I just touched a toad. “Sea cucumber,” says an attendant. The creature turns out to be a mere garnish for two little bowls of ovaries (“a delicacy in Japan”) and skin, the latter of which poke out from a dab of whipped cream seasoned with salt kelp. If Poseidon ate potato chips, he’d crave these.
Redzepi dips in and out of the dining room to chat up his patrons. “If you’re lucky, you might see a fox,” he says, nodding toward an expansive window. “We have ducks in the lake.” Later, he tells us that he tested so many dishes in advance of the restaurant’s return, when “the ocean is the season,” he actually created enough for two distinct seafood menus. (Returning guests might want a change of pace, right?)
Summer will highlight vegetables, fall and winter will showcase game and forest fixtures. A chance to try the former happened March 5, when bookings were made available online at 10 a.m. Eastern time.
As intriguing as most of the dishes are at Noma, the ones that linger in my memory are the seemingly simplest. An ivory tube of squid, brushed with seaweed butter and poised on a raft of black currant branches, is so finely scored that when you poke the poached seafood with a fork, the pieces unfurl into what could pass for linguine. “Head of the cod” is delicious truth in advertising — the cheek, jowl and eye area of the fish, glossy and a bit sticky from their time on the restaurant’s wood grill. Alongside the plate of fish are frizzy grilled ramsons, a variety of wild garlic dressed with smoked butter and a scallop “fudge” that relies on dried seafood and beeswax. Also, a trio of condiments: salt, horseradish cream and black dots that suggest pepper but are in fact wood ants. They add a fascinating lemony jolt to the cod and, swear to God, make me eager for the day Safeway stocks them. (Ants are nothing new to Noma-philes, who may have been served the insects on beef tartare at the original restaurant, atop live shrimp in Tokyo or on avocado in Tulum.)
“Would you like to continue or pause?” a server asks shortly before the dessert courses. Guest comfort is a major priority at Noma. The courses aren’t so many or so heavy that we want to cry “Stop!,” but it’s nice to take a break from the food and enjoy the view and the clientele, which a server figures is “half Danish, half from all over the world.” Through the window, we spy a trio of smokestacks in the distance, which turn out to produce clean steam at an eco-friendly incineration plant. So mindful, the Danes.
A dozen or more courses is a long time to stay in your seat. Increasingly, ambitious restaurants the world over like to show off the whole of their vision, which means diners might be taken on a tour of the grounds or escorted to another room for part of lunch or dinner.
Visiting so early in the game means some of Redzepi’s many ideas aren’t quite ready for prime time. Noma isn’t offering bread at the moment, since its bakery has yet to fire up its ovens. Nor is the test kitchen — a glass house in which future guests will be able to glimpse tomorrow’s ideas — completely done.
That still leaves plenty to see, starting with a foyer of squid, octopus and other sea creatures displayed in jars on a big, round table, an idea Redzepi got while visiting a natural-history museum with his daughter. There’s a sleek canteen for the staff, a library’s worth of cookbooks from around the world, a fish tank with animated Norwegian crab — like the much-discussed cod sperm, the crabs are on the next day’s menu — and a big ant farm collected from twigs and earth that Redzepi says is missing “a sex room” for the insects. Nearer the enormous exposed kitchen are rooms devoted to barbecue and fermention.
Redzepi demands a lot from his staff, but he takes care of them as well. What other restaurant is promising its staff a sauna? Employees also get to vote on how much they want to work. For the second half of June, vegetable season, they’ve agreed to do dinner service only.
The new Noma benefits greatly from the team’s travels abroad. Tokyo, says Redzepi, taught him that there’s “no one way to do something,” but also, “we weren’t stuck. We would be able to do something different.” The pop-up in Sydney, where the chef encountered pine cones the size of footballs, helped the staff to “organize in proper fashion.” The jungle setting in Tulum, meanwhile, underscored the beauty of “being so close to nature,” a priority that plays out in the natural, light-enhanced design found in Copenhagen.
The last few bites at Noma are enjoyed in a lounge that revels in hygge, (pronounced HUE-gah) the Danish concept of extreme coziness. While much of the restaurant fuses “rawness with the Blade Runner,” as Redzepi puts it, the final stop of the meal is a beautifully lit room furnished with low couches and a crackling fire. A choice of spirits are offered as we admire the work of the pastry department: fermented pear and roasted kelp ice cream tucked into what looks like a mussel shell, and yogurt reworked as powdery snow studded with soft, itty-bitty candied pine cones. Plankton cake demonstrates, once again, the versatility of kelp.
Noma has the advantage of experience behind it. But the pressure of reopening on home turf (a day late because some crucial parts didn’t arrive on time), plus impressing guests anew, occasionally slips into a meal. “Pick up, please?” I overhear a manager call out in the open kitchen. “Can I get a waiter, now, now, now?” he says with the urgency of a man who knows that people have shelled out thousands of dollars for the privilege of dining here, airfare and hotels not included. When I suggest to a veteran server that working so close and so long together must be like live theater, she smiles and jests, “more like a traveling circus.”
Yet service is every bit as considered as the food. It’s almost impossible to stump the staff with a question. When I ask a server about the oak planks in the dining room, she tells me they’re held together by 250,000 nails, and that much of the wood was carried in by staff. Team members tend to be hired more for their personalities than their résumés, plus their willingness to endure “11 months of s---ty weather “ in Copenhagen, jokes Redzepi, who has already sent at least one colleague to the doctor for vitamin D.
Noma’s Norwegian sommelier, Mads Kleppe, appears to be BFF with all his sources. Except for the house-brewed beer, flavored with coriander, the wines are mostly from producers he knows personally. “I picked the grapes for this vintage,” he says as he pours our glasses with Laissez-Faire from Christian Tschida in Austria. “Enjoy this while you are here,” he says of the wine that few but the producer and Noma have in stock.
Menus aren’t presented until after dinner, and then as a scroll tethered to a cute woven crab. Noma prefers you dine in the moment.
“Creativity comes when you fill yourself with knowledge by reading, travel and conversation, then fuse it with the now,” says Redzepi. As early as it is in the seafood season, Redzepi is already mulling the next menu, a plant-based one, in May. “What can we do with crudites?” he asks himself. “What’s a vegetable main course?”
There’s little chance Redzepi will get bored now that he’s back in Copenhagen. “We built this space with that in mind,” he tells me over coffee at the restaurant the next morning, where dozens of staff are back at work, pumping themselves up with “We Will Rock You” blasting in the kitchen. The seemingly humble star of the show is referring not just to the variety on campus but the possibility that the buildings might someday transform into multiple restaurants, a hotel or even a school. The new Noma, in other words, was “made to be able to change.”
Will Noma — the original of which was derided early on as a “blubber restaurant” for serving only Nordic ingredients — recapture the No. 1 slot on the influential World’s 50 Best list, ranked by Restaurant magazine? (It was No. 5 in 2016.)
The more pressing question is, of course, whether the price of admission, including the difficulty of getting in, is worth the effort and expense. There are thrilling restaurants everywhere these days, many of them easier to access than Redzepi’s, and some a great deal less expensive. (But not all: Lunch for two at the Michelin three-star Geranium, also in Copenhagen, can set a host back $1,000. Budget travel tip: The best Wiener schnitzel of my life might be the entree at Barr, in the waterfront space inhabited by the original Noma.)
As in all high-stakes dining, I tend to ask myself a few questions, starting with whether the food was truly delicious. Most of it was, and while I hope savory fudge doesn’t catch on, I could live off sea snail broth, squid that eats like pasta and freak-of-nature mussels. Did I learn anything new? Tons, including a fresh appreciation for sea cucumbers, Danish design and housing requirements of ants. Was it inspiring? Noma is a rare chance to hang with a true visionary. And the guy wants his staff to enjoy a sauna!
Ultimately, would I go back on my own kroner?
Race back is more like it. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Noma does with crudites — provided lightning strikes twice and I can book a seat.
Tom Sietsema’s First Bite column will return next week.