Monday, July 16, 2012

Noma - A Work Still In Progress

“I have never seen further than standing on the shoulders of giants” – Sir Isaac Newton.
When Sir Isaac Newton uttered these words, he was referring to the years of research and discovery from such greats as Galileo, Kepler and Brahe that gave him the base to do his own work. Although we would like to think that genius is the force of scientist, any scientist will tell you for every good thought they ever had was the product of years of study, lab work, number crunching and observation.
In a lot of ways, cooking is in the same vein. For every top chef that is anointed the next best thing by Michelin, San Pellegrino Top 100 restaurants, or Food Network, there are years of training and apprenticeship (stagiaire in French). While a phenomenal dish may be born in chef’s head since they were 15, there are hours (and hours and hours) of peeling vegetables, stock making and kitchen drudgery before that plate even hits a restaurant 10 or even 20 years later.
Thus when I first went to Noma [an abbreviation of “Nordisk Mad” (Nordic Food)] in 2007, I realized that something was brewing in René Redzepi’s head long before the wood sorrel even hit the plate.
By now, the origins story of Noma is fairly well established. BN (“Before Noma”), there was only a revolving door of pork, potatoes, herring and grumpy Protestants. And AN (“After Noma”), every restaurant in Denmark is busy foraging for herbs with funny letters and killing moose with their bare hands.
But as with any origins myth, the truth is far more complicated. Yes, Denmark for years was not what anyone would call a “dining destination.” Beyond the famed smørrebrød, all you could in terms of fine dining was from Italy and France. And outside Denmark? Interest in Scandinavian food was a novelty – but mainly of the IKEA and butter cookie-kind (Granted, Marcus Samuelsson did Scandinavia a huge favor by elevating Scandinavian food to fine dining in the early aughts with Aquavit).
            In 2003, Claus Meyer, the Danish restaurateur, approached a bunch of chefs about opening a high-end restaurant that highlighted Nordic ingredients. Most chefs passed. Except a young chef named René Redzepi. After having stints at Pierre André in Copenhagen, Jardin des Sens in France, El Bulli, and French Laundry, Redzepi, then working as a sous-chef at the Kong Hans, agreed and a partnership was born.
But the beginning was not easy. Sourcing was a bit of a problem: No one just had piles of wood sorrel at the grocery store. But that was the least of Noma’s worries: How do you convince diners, much less chefs, that there was any worth in Nordic food? Chefs were the easy bunch. Ten months after Noma opened, Redzepi and Meyer did a Lars Von Trier. Working with area chefs, they created the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen.
Chefs working inside the kitchen at Noma
But as the 17th century French playwright Moliere said, “I live on good soup, not on fine words.” The proof was ultimately in the pudding. After reading several reviews of Noma, I decided on a whim to go there for lunch in 2007.  After eating at many of the world’s top fine dining establishments, WD-50, Charlie Trotter’s, French Laundry, I was not expecting to be surprised.
            How wrong I was. Starting with a couple of amuse-bouches of root crisps and egg cream, beef tartar with wood sorrel and a juniper vinaigrette and an aebleskiver (a donut like pastry made with batter) filled with pork and dusted with vinegar powder, this was not your farmor’s food.            
            The mains also did not disappoint. Instead of the ubiquitous pork, there was seafood abounds. Squid was served with unripe strawberries, cream and dill. Razor clams were served with an edible shell of parsley gelatin and a dill-mustard sauce, garnished with a mound of horseradish powder. Tender reindeer had ramson, woodruff and celery. This was food that broke ALL the rules yet maintained a rigor in taste. I tried to convince my friends of the ingenuity of the food I was eating, but I mainly faced a deer-in-headlights expression. They didn’t get it and to a certain extent, neither did I. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t delicious. It was fantastic. What I couldn’t get my head around was the juxtaposition of radically local ingredients with classical technique. It was if someone put a chef in Mars and asked him to go crazy.
            But it just wasn’t the food. Who decided that an old ship warehouse could be repurposed to a fine dining destination? Who has the chef greet you like you were his neighbor? And shouldn’t chefs be cooking the food and not serving it? And since when did fine dining destinations look like a hunting lodge? And it still gets a Michelin star?!
René Redzepi has now become the poster boy for an uber-locavore and foraging movement that even has New York’s Central Park worried for its plants. Almost as if he predicted a backlash to the chemical warfare of molecular gastronomy, Redzepi’s style of cooking has now become a dining meme to the point that a television show, Portlandia, has made an entire parody of locavore and wildvore dining practices.
Amsue Bouche of Malt Flatbread with Juniper being prepared
            Did two Michelin stars, a Time Magazine cover and three consecutive number ones in San Pellegrino Top 100 Restaurant list change anything? Certainly the restaurant itself has changed. From a kitchen staff of under 10, the staff is now of close to 40, including 20-30 stages, plus a hoard of foragers, farmers and fishermen supplying the restaurant. Add a completely renovated kitchen, a food laboratory, an actual head chef beyond Redzepi, and it’s any wonder that the restaurant is in the same physical location.
              But what about the food? Over the course of this year, I was lucky enough to dine at Noma twice, once at lunch and once for dinner, and well, things have changed. But to use the words “better” would be a misnomer: Noma didn’t become “better” or “worse.” It just is.
            This was evident the minute I sat down to eat. Opening with an amuse-bouche of malt flatbread shaped in the form of a tree branch with a dusting of dried pine needle powder set inside a vase of local flora, the setting might have proved to be too precious – until one took a bite. The slightly burnt caramel undertones of the malt were offset by the herbal bitterness of the pine powder, as if one could capture the Swedish woods in a cracker.
            And on and on it went, this series of amuse bouches, each reminiscent of the best Scandinavian holiday you never had. A blue mussel with concentrated mussel juice and celery was encased in an edible shell with the taste of Limfjord in a mind’s eye. A pot of baby radishes and carrots planted in a “soil” of ground malt bread and a puree of herbs and crème fraîche. A tin of cheese “cookies” topped with chopped arugula and stems taken from an assortment of herbs used in the kitchen that day. Toast topped with smoked cod roe was the summer picnic on the bay.
Snack of Blue Mussels with an edible shell

            By the time I finished all the amuse-bouches, I realized what the change was there. Yes, some of the “standard” Noma dishes were still on the menu: the beef tartar with sorrel, the marrow salad with pickled vegetables, but others got a new twist, such as the æbleskiver.
While earlier, Noma nibbled on the edges, it was evident in within that first hour that Noma had pushed itself to virtually change the ontology of fine dining. The categories of what were “ingredients,” “cooking,” and “food” were all challenged, just in 14 bites. Salad? Forget it. René has ants. They tasted like lovage, simply dressed with vinegar. Aebleskiver, looked the like its generic self-until you saw the muikku (a small Finnish freshwater fish) speared through it. One bite later, revealed a square chunk of piping hot pickled cucumber. And using shaved frozen cod liver, normally destined to Omega-3 supplements, as a Nordic answer to foie gras? Huh?
Tastes like lovage! Live ants dressed with vinegar

But the push was also in seeing how much work ingredients and technique could do. Redzepi asked more of his ingredients, geography and culture. And in turn, Redzepi was asking his diners to take that risk with him. A dish of fresh and fermented peas (or “peaso” as our server joked) used the fermentation techniques of ancient Japan to place vegetable, animal and mineral all in one dish.  A dried scallop, beechnut and biodynamic grains plate used locally grown grain and herbs to create a “grød” or porridge with dashi-esque freeze-dried scallop chips placed on top for an umami crunch.
Pear Tree dessert with pear and thyme sponge
 But lest one think that the desserts were to be neglected, Noma’s chef de partie Milton Abel and pastry chef, Rosio Sanchez, did not disappoint. A dessert of poached/grilled pear, seasoned with lemon thyme, sat next to a frozen sponge of thyme and a sauce of thyme oil. The natural sugar in the grilled pear only became more evident with the judicious use of thyme and a sprinkling of salt. A dessert of walnut and berries had no hint of it’s origins until you took a bite-it was walnut ice cream, but balanced with the tannic notes from a slightly bitter walnut powder and an acid punch of powdered berries.
             “Is everything all right?” asked the waiter. It was more than “all right” – it was incredible. But in some ways, this is not really the right question to ask. No one ever asked Newton, if things were “all right.” Nature is as nature does, but even Newton admitted that while “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”  The question for Noma is not whether there should be expectations upon what the “perfect” dining experience should be. The genius of Noma, like in science, is in creation. It still is becoming.
Cross-posted (with edits) on The Daily Meal