It all sounds a mite deja vu Noma announcing 20 years on from its foundation it will soon be abandoning the formal restaurant concept that finally won it a third Michelin star in 2021. Adding to its cluster of World’s No.1 restaurant awards that focused the world’s eyes on the culinary wizard of Copenhagen, René Redzepi.
Didn’t that previous groundbreaker, El Bulli in Catalonia close its doors to customers a decade ago to mutate into a culinary research laboratory? The critical Sabatier knives were out then for the perceived pretension. Not everyone had bought into the refined spheres of ‘molecular gastronomy’ and the heavy-handed satire of recent movie The Menu is witness to continuing hostility to a fine dining world few of us can afford – or, when it comes to epic tasting menus, tolerate.
As with El Bulli the broadsheets were quick to react to the Noma ‘bombshell’ with ‘Is This There End for Fine Dining?’ headlines, Observer critic Jay Rayner wading in with ‘Twenty Six courses. £400 bills, artichoke creme brulee… I won’t miss super-luxe restaurants’.
He has got form for whacking bloated, exorbitant establishments, but Noma is a different beast despite its exclusivity. I remember a leaner Rayner lauding Redzepi in the same pages back in 2009 when he was viewed as a natural successor to super chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Since when the Dane’s templates of foraging and fermentation have filtered down to absorb a whole generation of chefs.
It’s not even clear what form Noma 3.0 will take when it emerges at the end of 2024, the statement hinting “serving guests will still be a part” of a “Noma Projects’ experience that will not be a conventional restaurant. What is certain is that the team will decamp to Kyoto in Japan between March and May 2023. So Japanese influence looks certain. A previous sabbatical foray to the Yucatan in 2017, while the Copenhagen base relocated to include an urban farm, resulted in the swerve in direction that became Noma 2.0.
Simon Martin was along for that Mexican ride and the success of his Michelin-starred Mana in Manchester is proof the expensive tasting menu experience is not dead. I‘m a fan and last year I endorsed the multi-course extravaganza offered by Gareth Ward’s mighty Yynyshir. At both these places the waiting list stretches into the distance. Expect Noma now to be even harder to get into despite a dinner menu for its recent ‘game & forest season’ that cost £415 a head with an additional £214 for wine pairings or £154 for juice pairings.
Or you could just buy the book, Noma 2.0: Vegetable, Forest, Ocean
Quite a stocking filler. 2.5kg is a lot of cookbook. Particularly for one without printed recipes. And ingredients you are unlikely to pick up at your local Waitrose. So what makes this magnum opus (Artisan, £60) my Food Book of 2022? Pipping very different, pleasurable tomes from Jeremy Lee and Debora Robertson, it is the polar opposite of their domestic charm. Lord Sauron to their Hobbit. Except, tenuously extending the Lord of The Rings conceit, it ultimately casts a near Elvish spell.
Beyond its extreme pictorial beauty there’s nothing approachable and immediately useful about this latest edict from the realm of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant and its shape-shifting magus, Rene Redzepi. That may represent its true magic.
Regular readers of this blog will recall my (rewarding) travails tackling 2018’s Noma Guide to Fermentation. The new book is more a follow-up to Rene’s original mission statement, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (2010), tracing the literal journey that took Noma from derided obscurity to world’s best restaurant. Noma 2.0 records the leap forward, via a sabbatical that involved ‘cuckoo nesting ‘in Mexico, to a new custom-built site in the Danish capital with that radical fermentation lab to the fore, providing all the menu’s building blocks. Noma is relocating to Kyoto, Japan in spring 2023 and friends close to the operation tell me that might mark a radically different stage 3 in its restless evolution.
The story so far is captured by the remarkable photography of New York-based Ditte Isager, who is on back on board for the new book, more brilliant than ever. Her startling image of Blue Mussel and Quail Egg (above) represents an element in one of the three seasonal sections. Ocean reflects the menu for January to April. The others are Vegetable (May through August) and Forest (September through December) – teasing us with 200 dishes in all.
Let Rene and his co-authors explain: “This book is a cookbook, but it is not necessarily meant to be cooked from. At Noma we constantly return to nature as a primary source of creative inspiration, however, creativity is a unique process for each individual. This book is meant to help catalyse that unique creative spark for each reader. If you do wish to recreate any of the dishes, there is a QR code in the book which will bring you to every detailed recipe exactly as they are used in the kitchen at Noma.
“It is about composing a plate that delights the eye as much as the palate, whether through the trompe l’oeil of a “flowerpot” chocolate cake or a dazzling mandala of flowers and berries. It is about pushing the boundaries of what we think we want to eat—a baby pinecone, a pudding made of reindeer brain—to open our palates with startling confidence.”
Let me quote one daunting dish description. It’s my promise to myself next year, aided by what lies through the QR portal to recreate Noma’s Wild Boar and Nasturtium. That’s ‘Forest’, I’ll have hang fire until Fall. The journey starts when “nasturtium leaves are compressed with parsley oil, then folded over dots of gooseberry-coriander paste and smoked egg yolk paste to form nasturtium ravioli.
“Chestnuts are cooked in smoked butter until crisp and caramelised, glazed in roasted kelp salt, peaso reduction and smoked seaweed shoyu, and then diced. Fermented wild boar belly is fried to brown its surface and then sliced. Smoked egg yolk paste is piped onto the boar slices, which are then topped with the diced roasted chestnuts and folded to enclose the fillings.
“Three fermented wild boar belly wraps are brushed with chestnut smoked butter and briefly grilled over charcoal. The belly wraps and one nasturtium raviolo are skewered with a blackcurrant wood skewer. The belly wraps are brushed with cep tamari and seasoned with ancho chilli paste, quince vinegar, salt and black pepper. The skewer is served on a hay plate with a wedge of Japanese quince.”
Or maybe I’ll divert to the more straightforward Sikha Roast, one of many deer recipes, including Reindeer Brain Jelly or Reindeer Marrow Fudge or, gulp, Reindeer Penis Salad. Off-puttingly exotic? Definitely, but what shines through is the determination to make the most of whatever is local and seasonal and sensual. Here not just empty nods to fashion. And if it’s not our ‘local’ who cares? That’s no excuse not to buy an exquisitely beautiful volume for the foodie in your life.