during my almost 3 hour visit to noma for lunch today, i had a lot of time to think about what separates a good restaurant from one that can be considered one of the best in the world.
noma is either the first- or second-best restaurant in the world right now. it topped restaurant magazine’s list three straight years, from 2010-2012, and came second in the 2013 list.
the format is similar to that of other top-flight restaurants, made familiar to me when i first read about elBulli: 20+ courses (in my case, 26) that each take no longer than 5-10 minutes to eat, served rapidly and with precision. noma is famous for introducing a new take on nordic cuisine, as chef rené redzepi deeply explores the region for interesting, unique, and clever ingredients and turns them into interesting, unique, and clever dishes.
as i’ve made pretty clear over this series of posts, i’m not interested in food-blogging. i’m not interested in trying to write about specific flavors or impressions on food, because it seems a lot like dancing about architecture and honestly would become meaningless over time. i also discovered something during my meal today: there is something about removing the mystery of the meal that is unfair to anyone who reads this. the food was really fucking good, isn’t that enough to say?
the restaurant was beautiful and they sat me first of anyone because i happened to be the first person that walked into the restaurant. a few other folks were waiting until noon, but i had no such luxury since my flight from copenhagen to chicago was at 340p and i needed to give this meal as much time as i could.
upon entering, a few things happened: first, my bags were taken from me quietly and effortlessly, which is more than i can say about the nicest hotels i’ve stayed in. second, everyone from the kitchen and the 3 hosts all greeted me. third, when i sorted out who of the 20-ish people smiling at me i was supposed to talk to, the host sat me at a single table instead of at the sharing table that i was told my seating would be.
this was an overwhelming, happy start to the meal. i felt incredibly welcomed. no one else could get such a greeting, because, well, i had sat and some of the staff was busy preparing my meal and then the meals of those who sat after me. and i felt lucky… lucky isn’t the right word. blessed? blessed that i was given a table alone. upon sitting, my waiter came over to me and said, plainly “so, you know gabe?”
when i first planned this trip, whenever i first planned this trip, i was just late on making a reservation for february at noma. i was on the waitlist for 2-3 different days, but my hopes were… minimal. i lacked expectations, because who can ever expect to get that kind of call? then a funny chain of events, a wonderful chain of events happened:
1) i happened to go to my favorite bar in dc with pablo, because i heard my boss was there with some folks who were in longer meetings earlier that day. this was maybe 1 week before my trip began.
2) at the bar with my boss, trei, was lockhart steele, founder of the racked/eater/curbed network which was recently acquired by vox media. lockhart saw me and broke into a huge grin and said “niv, we just closed our tab, but for you i will have one more beer.”
now, lockhart and i have only encountered each other a few times in passing, but by all accounts he is a great guy and apparently by all accounts i am not so bad myself. my work intersects deeply with one of the value propositions we offer sites we are interested in acquiring, so without me really knowing it, some of the new, exciting people in our office are pretty well aware of me and view me in a positive light.
this is how i’ve rationalized this entire thing, so let’s just assume i’m right, because otherwise i am just the luckiest person on earth. or maybe lockhart is incredibly nice.
3) lockhart sat with me and had a beer and asked me how things were and trei mentioned my trip to him and he was immediately drawn in. he found the entire trip exciting and brilliant. he listened to me talk about my hopes for the northern lights in norway and how i was excited to eat in copenhagen because i’d heard such great things about the food there and on and on and on. and i forgot that i was talking to the founder of eater.com, until he mentioned to me that a former writer of his gave notice in the best way possible, because he was recruited to move to copenhagen to write about food for chef rené redzepi. gabe, he assured me, would get me into noma without any problems. my jaw hit the floor, and i thanked my lucky stars for going to churchkey at the beginning of the snowstorm.
4) lockhart introduced me to gabe, and gabe ulla is smart and kind and wonderful. he reached out to nadine, who runs reservations at noma. everything went silent while i was in norway.
5) then nadine emailed me and said i was set for the shared table at noma on tuesday, february 25 at noon and asked if that was fine.
6) AND THEN, as if he had not done enough, gabe reached out to me via email and while we were not able to meet up while i was in copenhagen, he sent me numerous recommendations for some of the best restaurants and bars in the city. it was incredible. it was high-cuisine lonely planet, and as a result i had very few culinary missteps while i was in copenhagen.
so, lockhart, gabe, and nadine all have my greatest thanks for pulling all of this together and helping me experience noma. i’m sure as hell buying lock the next round, and hopefully gabe will be back visiting the states sometime soon.
back to the experience at hand: the shared table was starting to fill up and i realized what it was – one-offs sharing a table for 8. all of them strangers, except for one couple. i couldn’t help but think of the movie clue and hoped that they all secretly knew each other and then someone would turn up dead. well, maybe not the last part.
eating alone was how i’ve been used to eating. i’ve had four spoken conversations since my trip started. i didn’t want to be stuck at the pace of anyone else and i surely didn’t want to sit next to anyone who would over-analyze the magic being put in front of us, so the treat, the gift of getting to eat alone was more than i deserved.
i mentioned removing the mystery of the meal earlier and i just referred to the meal as magic, and i wanted to expound upon that by way of another side story. there was a gentleman sitting to my left, probably my dad’s age, with his wife who spoke loudly and confidently about the food as it was placed in front of him. he asked many questions about how things were made and spoke assuredly about how they could buy most of these ingredients in new york city and he could make most of these dishes in his house with his fancy kitchen gadgets but they were still delicious anyway.
this, to me, undermines the entire premise of noma. noma is a world-class restaurant because the dishes are like magic. i thought about my first meal in copenhagen, at amass (still the second-best meal i’ve ever had), and the dishes there were magic as well. both restaurants presented a list of ingredients and even visually presented things that were familiar. amass was like a good magician, presenting dishes you could reverse-engineer with a bit of thought and very few questions but were incredibly enjoyable regardless of understanding them. noma was some david copperfield making the statue of liberty disappear shit. i joked about wanting to call the kitchen staff at amass ‘witches’, but noma was some dark, secret black magic. things were presented that made no sense but were delicious, things were presented that you thought you understood, but then realized quickly you had no earthly comprehension of what you were eating, things were presented that you’ve even tried to make, only to realize the things you thought you did well were not even close to good.
noma was some black magic shit and i could not recommend it more. amass might get there soon, bror is a little bit short but on its way, and nowhere else i ate came close. manfred’s is a great counterpoint – a delicious, wonderful meal that made perfect sense and was executed exceedingly well. noma only had 2 dishes like this, and they were both taunting, as if to say “yes, we can do that black magic you’ve never had this before and will never find it again stuff, but we can also make things you’ve had every day better than you’ve ever had it”.
so to me, asking the waiter, the magician, to immediately reveal his trick is exceedingly bad form and doesn’t allow noma to be as good a restaurant as it is.
back to the beginning of this story, i mentioned that everyone greeted me upon entering the restaurant. i spoke a bit to the waiter and showed an interest in seeing the kitchen and saying hello to gabe, and before i knew it i was set up for a tour of the restaurant after dessert and before my taxi arrived to take me to the airport.
let me remind you that this is one of the best two restaurants in the world, they are booked full every day, and i just had a meal for one with a juice pairing and was dressed in jeans and a flannel button-down. i was a friend of gabe’s and little else, and i’m not even sure that i needed to be a friend of gabe’s to get this treatment – i just had to ask. the service and friendliness was exceptional, and captured so much of what i liked about copenhagen in one 2.5 hour chunk.
i saw the finishing kitchen, the main kitchen upstairs (with a weird, apologetic note about the interns from my guide nate, who softly defended noma’s practice of not paying interns), the test kitchen, and the office and library. everyone said hello, thank you for coming in, and good bye as i walked through the tour. i was so overwhelmed that my camera was in my pocket until the very end, where i got some shots of the finishing kitchen.
and after 26 courses and a lot of juice and 2.5 hours at noma, it was time to catch my cab and make the mad dash for the airport and my flights home. i’m writing this as we approach greenland, 3 hours into our almost 9 hour flight. the glow of the meal is still with me, i feel lucky and blessed and happy about my trip to scandinavia, and i am glad to be on my way home with that sending off.
and with that, here are my cellphone pictures of noma.