My 7 Links

I was asked by esteemed fellow blogger @gourmetraveller to participate in a project called ‘My 7 Links’, which is organized by Tripbase. I haven’t really done a ‘meme’ post before, but thought this particular one would be a nice way to review my last two years of food and wine, re-focusing attention on some highs, some lows, and the unexpected. So, without further adieu, my seven links.

Most Popular Post:
The Fat Duck – A Blumen’ Great Day in Bray  

JELLY OF QUAIL, CREAM OF CRAWFISH: Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss & Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel) … at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK

I guess it comes as no surprise that my most popular post is a review of one of the UK’s high temples of gastronomy: Heston Blumenthal’s three-star Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck, which was also awarded ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ by the Restaurant Magazine / San Pellegrino ’50 Best’ awards in 2005, and has been in the top five since 2004. Given that a large portion of my readership still hails from the UK and that Heston Blumenthal has become a very popular figure on TV and in the country’s print media, it makes sense. Happily, it was also one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of eating since I started this blog. I also like the chef’s approach towards food and his concept of ‘the meal’, and think he’s one of the more consistent and genuine characters in the higher echelons of chefdom. I therefore have no qualms about the success of this post. 

Most Controversial Post:
Le Gavroche – Unfortunately A Very Mixed Bag

The Signature Cheese Soufflé ... at Le Gavroche, London (photo: goodtoknow.co.uk)

It is unfortunate that my most controversial post came from a restaurant that I so much wanted to like. You see, Michel Roux, Jr. was a new hero of mine at the time, and I desperately wanted to love his food and his restaurant, which I saw as an extension of him. Unfortunately, we did not have a pleasant experience at all – it was certainly not befitting of its dual Michelin-starred status. This was one of my first posts, back in the days when I didn’t take photos, so sorry for the lack of visuals, but this was probably the angriest review I have written (which just goes to show I’m a big softy). The anger wasn’t due to the fact that Mrs. LF annoyingly had a big crush on him (and still does), but rather the bordering-on-rude service we experienced. It put me off ever returning this traditional yet quirky subterranean dining room. The signature cheese soufflé and innovative wine pairings were the only things that mitigated what was generally a very disappointing experience.

Post Whose Success Surprised Me:
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma 

Samuel Miller Plating our First Course … at The Loft Project in East London

I really didn’t expect my post about a supper club in the East End of London to get the attention it did. But I guess The Loft Project is a pretty unique concept, as they do get some of the most interesting young culinary talents from around the world to cook for a few nights for 12 or so lucky guests. It’s not cheap, but for what you end up getting (sometimes 8+ courses with a wine paring included), it can often end up being phenomenal value. Anyway, the meal that Yorkshire man Samuel Miller – who is second only to Rene Redzepi himself in noma’s kitchen – stands out as one of the best dining experiences I’ve had anywhere. It was a wonderful evening in every sense, and for all my senses. The technical reason why I think it got so many views is because there was a television show on one night about noma, and Sam featured prominently in it, so I got a lot of people coming to the post after googling his name alongside the word ‘noma’. As of now, it is my 7th most popular post.

Post That Didn’t Get the Attention it Deserved:
Morgan M. – You Can Go Your Own Way

Oven-roasted Suffolk Red Leg Partridge, Sweet Potato Purée, Poêlée of Grapes and Savoy Cabbage, Liver Croûton, Bread Sauce … at Morgan M. in North London

Maybe it was the signature cheesy title, but I was surprised that my review of Morgan M. – which is one of only two reviews listed on Urbanspoon in nearly two years – did not garner more attention. Although the service was a little uneven, the food was certainly beautiful to look at and tasted very good to boot. I had really wanted to highlight this little gem of a place, which takes advantage of cheaper rent in North London but produces traditional French food with ample flair that competes with many of the more popular (and much more expensive) French restaurants in central London. The natural light during our lunch also allowed for some great pictures, making this one of the prettier posts I have done, IMHO. I was pleased to learn the other day that chef Meunier is, after many years, opening a second restaurant near London’s Smithfield Market.

Note: there was another post, which was somewhat controversial and also barely got any views, to which I would also like to direct your attention. It is an interview with the editor of Tong wine magazine, a publication that brings much-needed diversity to the global conversations taking place about wine. Read it here: Filip Verheyden is TONG – About Wine.

Most Beautiful Post:
The Sportsman – Captivating, Compelling, Complete

Cauliflower Tart … at The Sportsman on the Kent Coast

The food at The Sportsman, a one-Michelin star restaurant that could easily be mistaken for an unremarkable pub on an unremarkable stretch of England’s Kent coastline, is in many ways deceiving. It is presented simply and humbly, and you might not give it too much thought. However, the fact that a good deal of what you are eating comes from within a few mile radius of the restaurant, and that there is considerable technical skill and bounds of flavour packed into each bite, can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it. One of the two brothers who own the pub is the (mostly self-taught) head chef and the other oversees the front of house. The interior has been honestly restored and locals still do come in for a pint at the bar, even if the bulk of the reservations now come from patrons living further afield. The tasting menu, which is available during the week, is well worth a visit, but requires special booking ahead of time. Although the dishes are certainly not as artistic as many other restaurants I have reviewed, I felt that overall, the images from this post were the most beautiful when taken together as a whole. The light was fantastic on the day, and for the most part, these images received almost no retouching. I hope you enjoy reading and looking at it. 

Post I’m Most Proud of:
noma – Northern Light 

break on through to the other side ... noma in Copenhagen

Not only was I proud of myself for simply finding a way to eat at what has now been ranked as the ‘best restaurant in the world’ for two years running, I was also pleased with the review I wrote. It was very long (hey, what else is new?), but it managed to synthesize my numerous thoughts and emotions about the restaurant and our meal. The food itself is also breathtaking to look at, and while my photos don’t really do it justice, this also made it a visually appealing post to me. Hopefully you feel the same. 

Most Helpful Post:
Lanka – The Perfect Little Place in Primrose Hill

Rum Baba ... at Lanka in London

I don’t know how truly helpful my posts are to readers – after all, I mostly just eat and don’t cook – though I did feel like I was providing a good service to the residents within walking distance of London’s Primrose Hill when I consumed copious calories over a number of visits to a cute little pâtisserie and café run by Japanese chef Masayuki Hara. These multiple visits confirmed that the pastries were generally very technically well made, plus some of them benefited from an injection of Japanese flavor (i.e. green tea features prominently in a few of the treats). They have also gradually expanded the range of food, which is simple but very tasty, and have a good selection of high-quality teas and coffee (they use Monmouth beans, or at least did on my last visit). If you are in the neighborhood, I’ve found it is normally worth the extra calories that a visit entails. The hot chocolate is also good.

I would now like to direct your attention to five great food-related blogs that I follow regularly, all of whom have agreed to do their on ‘My 7 Links’ post in due course. Look out for their reflections on their old chestnuts. The are listed alphabetically…like, duh.

noma – Northern Light

noma
Strandgade 93
1401 Copenhagen
Denmark
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • The 7-course menu is 1,095 Danish kroner, while the wine pairing is 895 kroner & the juice pairing 395 krone
  • If you ask for more than the 7 courses on the menu (and have time for it), they will charge you a little bit extra – as guidance, my meal with wine pairing and a glass of Champagne came to 2,350 kroner (roughly $430 or £270)
  • You can see many more photos and some videos in the kitchen on my flickr page

In short (because this review is so long), my favourite meal at a restaurant thus far. Exquisite, astonishing, inspiring. And all carried out with no big fuss. Find an(y) excuse to go.

In the end, I had my beginning

It wasn’t going to be easy. Living up to my expectations. Two years, maybe more. That’s how long I had been pining to eat at noma – hardly thinking that when this dream transmuted into reality, I would in fact be eating pine, and lots of it.

It took a little lot of planning, especially now that I live in the US, but eventually I made it there. And, for those who don’t have the patience to read the rest of this post, not only did noma meet my hyper-inflated aspirations; it exceeded them…in every sense. That’s all you really need to know.

#  #  #

I began to see blog posts about noma a few years ago. The photos I saw and descriptions I read immediately struck a chord. The food was beautiful to look at, forthright, and truly of its own “time and place.”[1]

So what was noma? To render it down, like one of their duck fat crisps I was lucky enough to sample: a perfectionist chef with a noteworthy pedigree goes back to the roots – literally – of his homeland’s cuisine and reinvents it, simply but boldly. Out with the so-called ‘luxury’ ingredients that it seemed necessary for chefs with stars in their eyes to proffer. Forget the foie gras, say sayonara to soupy sauces: René Redzepi wanted noma to begin with the naturally abundant produce on Scandinavia’s doorstep and to represent each ingredient – and the ecosystem that it lived within – on the plate, honestly but with flair, artfulness and precision.

Of course, it didn’t open in 2004 and immediately achieve all of this, but that is what transpired in the end…though there doesn’t appear to be an end in store for noma. As T.S. Eliot said, “…to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” And with the creativity of chef Redzepi and forty or so ever-changing and talented chefs, who knows what directions and heights noma will strive for and reach next.

But here is where it stands now. After garnering two Michelin stars in 2008, the restaurant went on to attain the accolade of “Best Restaurant in the World” from the increasingly influential San Pellegrino / Restaurant Magazine annual awards in 2010, essentially catapulting it to be the new elBulli in terms of global profile.

Already difficult enough to book, immediately after receiving the top honor at the aforementioned awards, the restaurant’s reservation system crashed with the sudden spike in demand. How then would the kitchen and the front of house deal with this increased notoriety – would they live long and prosper, or stumble temporarily under such scrutiny?

I was more than eager to find out, and was elated that I would be able to share the meal with two friends who I knew would appreciate the experience just as much as I would. Mathilde (@mathildecuisine) and David (@dewilded) actually flew in for a 24-hour period solely to eat at noma, while I was already there on a business trip and couldn’t make such bold claims. I only wish Mrs. LF could have been with us to experience noma as well. :(

Warm pastries, frozen canals

Let me tell you, Copenhagen in the dead of January ain’t warm. Nevertheless, we ventured from our cosy hotel at a spritely hour, and I led the group to one of the Danish bakeries that I had discovered on recon during the previous days (Lagkagehuset if you care to know) after a tip-off from a friend (who coincidentally has recently written a much more concise review on the subject of noma, which includes a cool video).

Tebirkes: a traditional danish pastry from Lagkagehuset

How cold was it? Well let me give you an example. It had been suggested to us by a number of people that we should take advantage of the canal tours in order to see some parts of the city that you can only see by water. Slight problem: the canals were frozen.

Bright but d*mn cold

Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s a more expansive view. Yup, frozen my friends, frozen.

Somebody got sick of sitting on water

After visiting the Lego shop, warming ourselves in a store selling various epicurean delights, realizing that the canal tour just wasn’t going to happen, and generally being cold to our cores, I had the bright idea of taking a water taxi.

I’m not a geek, really

We were here (blue pin), and noma was there (red pin). Sure, we had a few hours to kill (or die), but maybe one of these taxis could drop us off on the other side in Chirsitanshavn? So we went down to the nearest stop and waited. Eventually, one came along that we could take back and forth and get to see some more of the city.

Trifecta: Mathilde, water taxi, noma

Besides looking pretty in pink, Mathilde was mighty happy to get in that boat as (1) it was warm and (2) she really wanted to sit down. Sure, they didn’t serve hot chocolate on-board – a central obsession of hers which we shall revisit later – but as Meatloaf once sang, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.

In any case, I had espied noma in the distance, and was already quite excited, but this chilly weather and nonstop walking was making me hungry and I was sick of waiting!

The pink and turquoise banners beckoned…

After a warm and pleasant boat ride, we arrived on the other side, stopped off in a design museum to look at some rather fetching art/design books, looked through a bridge’s peep-hole and…

Things were looking up…this water wasn’t completely frozen

…we were there. After two years, a lot of planning, a steady build-up, and way too long of an intro, I was knock, knock, knockin’…

Let’s get this party started already

…but enough with the rock n’ roll allusions, and on with the meal!

Nordic, naturally

When you walk into the restaurant, you almost literally step into the kitchen, or at least the part of it that is semi-open behind glass. We were welcomed by a few people at the entrance who seemed all too happy to see us and seat us straight away, even though we had arrived half an hour early.

The décor is immediately Scandinavian – clean, mostly minimal lines yet with a subtle and carefully thought-out design ethos. There are wooden tables (no tablecloths) with spindly legs and similarly designed chairs, some of which are covered with small fur blankets, some not. Exposed wooden beams hang like they’ve been there forever, worn by the winds of time…even though they’re inside, and not out. The walls are a mix of rough stone and plaster, neutral in color, with very little artwork adorning them. There are some modern yet non-invasive serving stations attached to the wooden posts, and lots of uniform windows, letting in whatever natural light there may be and concentrating it around the edges of the room.

The staff, however, is immediately international. Out of about 40 people total in the kitchen brigade, just under 20 of these (17 when we visited) hail from outside of Denmark. It is very common for young and ambitious chefs – as well as old hands – to come to noma for anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months to do a stage in the kitchen. Everyone from David Chang to lucky young things who are just starting out have been fortunate enough to work in the quiet, collaborative space that is possibly the most exciting kitchen in the world to be working in right now.

We were taken to our table by the affable yet somewhat intense Australian gentleman that, as far as I could tell, was in charge of the dining room. By ‘intense’ I mean that he has the eyes of a hawk and is acutely aware of everything that is transpiring around him…and I wouldn’t want to be the waiter that he saw doing something wrong, however trifling.

Then, the young gentleman who seemed to be in charge of our table came to ask if we cared for an aperitif, maybe a glass of Champagne. If you are a reader of this blog, you will know that I rarely turn down an offer of Champagne, especially in this case as it was from a small grower-producer and was both biodynamic and without dosage (added sugar). The N.V. Jacques Lassaigne, Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux, Blanc de Blancs (Montgueux) was exceptional – dry, refreshing, persistent, lingering – and was what we would be sipping in the calm but swift procession that was about to commence.

Let me just say this: when you eat a meal at noma, things begin quickly.

The intriguing creations they casually call ‘snacks’ start arriving in succession. There is no silverware. You use your hands. You pick up the last filaments of food with your fingers. You lick them. You lick the plate. (At least I did). All of this is not frowned upon, but is instead encouraged. They love to see your enjoyment. There is no pretence. It is about doing the best they can with what nature affords them, starting from the most selective produce, the most perfect rendering, the most beautiful visual and artful presentation – a presentation of ‘what it is’ [2] on the plate.

As we settled in, I took out my camera and began photographing the pretty floral arrangement on the table. Little did I know that this vase would indeed contain our first snack!

Snack 1: Malt ‘Branches’ with Juniper Berry Powder

Three ligaments of a ‘branch’ had been molded from malt and finished off with a powder of juniper berries, then placed atop the floral arrangement, right above the real branches they mimicked so well. There was an undertone of woodiness (or was it merely suggestion?) and the juniper flavor was subtle and elegant. It was wonderful when dipped in the little dish of crème fraiche which had been provided. We had not even half begun and we were eating branches!

Shortly thereafter, a round bowl of luminescent green moss was brought to the table.

Snack 2: Silver Moss from Finland with Cep Powder

On top of it lay three morsels of silver Reindeer moss from Finland, which had been coated with a deep-fried cep powder. The flavors of the forest were reiterated. The branches had fallen to the ground and landed in moss and mushrooms. As with the branches, the moss was also dipped into the crème fraiche. It really did taste of moss (I had some when I was a kid – don’t ask), and we were smiling and giggling already. These two dishes perfectly illustrated Redzepi’s concept of representing the ecosystem that the main ingredient for a dish comes from, both on the plate and on the palate.

Finger-licking good: the last filaments of moss suspended in crème fraiche

From the branches of the tree, the moss that grows on its trunk, and the mushrooms that take nourishment from it below ground, we were next presented with the berries of a native Nordic bush, sea-buckthorn (or havtorn in Danish).

Snack 3: Sea-buckthorn Leather with Pickled Rose Hips

The berries themselves had been peddled into a rough leather and ever so lightly salted. The floral, bright and supremely tart essence of the berry shone through precisely and, for the first time, we had to purposefully use our jaw muscles to chew. The bright fortune-cookie shaped fruit roll-up was appointed with pickled rose hips at each corner, and this would be the first of many pickled sensations in the meal. In this case, it brought out the singularly magical expression of rose aroma, and also a sweet tanginess, to bear on the acerbic berries.

Next, an antique-looking biscuit tin arrived and was opened in front of us.

Only three?!

Inside, there was a little biscuit for each of us. Upon the base layer of a savory cookie, speck (or lardo) had been thinly shaved, on top of which a powder of blackcurrant had been sprinkled. The dainty orts had each been crowned with a single spruce shoot.

Snack 4: Savory Cookie, Speck, Blackcurrant Powder & Spruce Shoot

This was richer than the preceding snacks, but still delicate and perfectly balanced between richness and acidity.

At the same time, a large plate with a thin layer of gray felt (which would be the serving vessel for many things) arrived, adorned with three low-profile rectangular creations.

Snack 5: Rye Bread, Chicken Skin, Lovage & Smoked Cheese

One side of the sandwich consisted of seeded rye toast, while the other was formed from crispy chicken skin. Sandwiched in-between (literally) was a mixture of smoked cheese and an emulsion of lovage (and possibly peas). This was, for me, Denmark on a plate. Seamless but not seedless, dancing around all corners of the mouth, and then washed down with a refreshing elixir from the North…of France albeit.

Next, one of the noma signature dishes arrived.

Snack 6: Brined, Blanched & Smoked Quail's Egg

Two large speckled eggs shells appeared. Before even opening them, you could smell the smoke pent up inside, folding back into itself. Upon lifting the lid, the smoke rose up into the air – the scent of a winter campfire, a suggestion of flames in the cold. The dainty eggs themselves, in addition to being smoked, had been pickled and lightly poached. The central chamber tasted of rich, liquid, smoky yogurt and was effortless in its purity and simplicity. A perfect bite.

After the golden egg had been laid, eaten and taken away, a terracotta pot arrived.

Snack 7: Radishes in a Pot (Radishes, Herb Cream & Malt Soil)

Inside, radishes were growing in soil. We were invited to pluck them out of the pot and eat them. But the trick here was that the soil was of course edible too. Everything in the pot was edible. The soil was made from malt and hazelnut flour, beer and butter, while the green cream at the bottom of the pot was an emulsion of fresh herbs and sheep’s milk.

I was excited, but didn’t soil myself

This was really the only course so far that reminded me of molecular gastronomy, maybe only because its playfulness reminded me of Heston Blumenthal and our meal at the Fat Duck.

This was followed by another trio of thin and impossibly delicate finger sandwiches.

Snack 8: Toast, Rendered Wild Duck Fat, Herbs, Smoked Cod Roe Emulsion, Vinegar & Herbs

This time sandwich contained micro herbs in the middle, which commingled with an emulsion of smoked cod roe and vinegar powder. I believe the top of the sandwich was made from the fat rendered off a wild Danish duck, whose flesh we were to consume at a later stage. This was definitely our favorite bite so far in terms of taste alone – translucent ‘bread’ made of rendered wild duck fat…’nuff said.

Finally, our flurry of snacks came to a close when three spheres of Æbleskiver arrived.

Snack 9: Æbleskiver, Cucumber & Moiko

Only these weren’t the traditional sweets served at Christmas time in Denmark; they had been lightened and made more savory than sweet by replacing the traditional apple filling with pickled cucumber and a little moiko (a freshwater fish from Finland resembling herring) piercing through the middle of each brown ball. The batter, which Mathilde insisted tasted like a beignet, had been lightened into more of a pancake texture using clarified butter and the combination of pickled cucumber and salted fish was (unsurprisingly) surprisingly a miniature revelation. Whodathunk it? Cucumber and fish. Brilliant.

But before the meal proper was to begin, a fabric parcel was placed in the center of the table.

Loaf of Sourdough Bread

Unwrapped, it looked like a joker’s hat. It was a round loaf of sourdough bread. On the side resided two stone pots, one containing pork fat, and the other goat’s milk butter.

Pork Fat & Scratchings and Goat’s Milk Butter with Salt

The fat was expectedly very rich and it was better once you allowed it to warm up, when it melted and seeped into the pores of the bread. It was topped with pork scratchings, but it was the goat’s milk butter that won our hearts, and taste buds.

Thus far, there had been no silverware, no discussion of wines or pairings and no ordering. The restaurant had been presenting their country and region to us on the plate in the most elegant and refined way possible. We had been barraged with Danish produce. Nine snacks, a loaf of bread, plus pork fat and goat’s milk butter were residing in our stomachs. During this first succession of surprises, things were clear, resolute, unfussy, confident and on-the-mark consistently throughout – both in terms of food and service.

The single glass of crisp Champagne had been the perfect foil for the snacks, cutting through the richness present in a few of the snacks and complementing the acidity of other elements within the food. The snacks had been delicious and more original than anything I think I’ve had before (the only other thing that comes close in my own dining experience is the Fat Duck) and I was already in love. But could the relationship continue to flourish, as things got heavier?

Another nine? Hope we have time…

Another thing about noma is that the food is brought out to you by a wide array of staff members – anyone from René himself, to his senior and junior chefs, to the restaurant’s waiters could be serving your food and explaining what it is. This adds considerably to the enjoyment of the meal (at least it did to ours) as, for example, a Swedish person might come to explain why the Gotland truffle you are eating is so special, or a Dane as to why the Æbleskiver is an interesting and innovative play on the traditional way the dish is served.

As I mentioned, throughout the snacks, while various people had served us, we did have one main waiter who seemed to be assigned to our table. A young man from the region, he struck a deft balance between giving us as much food as they could within our allotted time and getting the pacing right. They close the kitchen at 4pm sharp, and there is no budging on that – and I mean no budging (an attitude I find fondly Scandinavian). So far, we had sampled so many things, but hadn’t felt rushed. This was to continue throughout the main part of the meal.

After the snacks, he explained to us that the normal menu is normally a 7-course affair, but that if we wanted, they would just try to serve us as many courses as we had time for – i.e. before the bell tolled 4pm and the kitchen shut down for the staff meal and evening prep. I got the feeling that if President Obama was eating there, they would not serve him past 4pm either. Needless to say, we went for the latter option. David and I opted for the wine pairing while Mathilde decided to try the juice pairing – a great option for those who don’t feel like consuming so much wine for whatever reason, and one which worked surprisingly well given both the quality of the juices themselves and the way they complemented the flavors of the food.

First up of the main dishes was a beautifully presented and fresh-looking plate of food.

Course 1: Apples, Leeks & Seaweed Gel

The catch here was that the leeks and apples had been painstakingly prepared to look identical, so you didn’t know whether you would be getting a sweet or savory sensation if you only ate one at a time. The two flavors married together beautifully when eaten in concert, with the pang of seaweed adding a welcome though unfamiliar sensation on the palate. The dish was fresh and light, with a touch of richness from the seaweed. It was an excellent beginning in the middle of the meal.

Course 2: Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill

The Australian chap I mentioned earlier introduced the second course. He didn’t start by saying anything about the dish, but just began telling a story. The central character was a (some would say mad) Scotsman who had relocated to 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway to hand dive for sea urchins. He supplies these exclusively to noma, and these were the central component of the plates in front of us.

What I loved about the dish was the way that the frozen landscape in which this urchin-man lives had been translated onto the plate, both in terms of the serving temperature of the ingredients and the visual aspect of the plating. I thought it was one of the more beautiful things placed before us that day, and it was also one of my favorites. The overwhelming sensation was that of clean flavors from the sea. The sea urchin was extremely delicate and surprisingly sweet in flavor, while the frozen milk and dill granita served to accentuate the cleanness of its flavor, at the same time balancing its slight richness. The small spheres of cucumber had been seasoned with dill oil and also powder from the cucumber peels themselves, which had been cooked under a hot grill until completely carbonized. The dark orbs brought a welcome textural relief while at the same time reiterating a fresh, green, watery vegetal flavor to the dish. This was a miniature masterpiece.

Course 3: Langoustine, Oyster Emuslion, Söl (Dried Dulse) & Rye Bread Crumble

Continuing the oceanic theme, we were next each served a sparse scene upon a large, slightly warm basalt stone. Atop the stone was perched a rather robust Danish langoustine (it sort of looks like a caterpillar, no?), with eight Hershey’s kisses of a pale green emulsion concocted from oysters, parsley, grape seed oil and lemon juice. These little and seemingly randomly placed globules were topped with rye bread crumbs (which had been fried with butter) and a powder of deep purple dried dulse (a red algae, in this case from Iceland, where it is called söl ). The langoustine itself was soft, a little chewy and exceedingly sweet, with undertones of the butter in which it had been sautéed. When you picked it up with your fingers (there was no need for silverware in this course) and dipped it in the oyster emulsion, it added a pleasing acidity and delicate sourness, but for me it was the pristine and sweet langoustine itself that was the star of this dish. This visual impact is an important part of this course, but most importantly, we loved the taste of it too.

Course 4: Oyster & The Ocean

While the previous two courses had showcased various elements of Scandinavia’s coastline, for me the next dish most clearly evoked the rawness of the sea. A large blue pot was placed on top of our plates, and when the lid was removed, a single large oyster shell was revealed; underneath laid stones from the sea as well as some seaweed and other seashells. A big gust of steam immediately carried the smell of the sea to your nose as the oysters had been steamed with seawater that was placed at the bottom of the pot.

Open sea-same!

When we lifted the top of the oyster shell off, a beautiful scene was revealed. There was the oyster itself, which had been sliced into three sizable pieces and steamed for four minutes, leaving it just between the raw and cooked state. Scattered on top and around the oyster were pickled capers of elderberries, tapioca pearls, beach cabbage (I think) and some green herbs.

Getting up close & personal with my oyster

It was the best oyster I’ve ever had, and I loved the meaty texture of it. I don’t know if I was supposed to or not, but I chewed each of the three pieces slowly and tried to get some of the other components of the dish in each bite. I thought it was a marvellous reproduction of the coastline and the flavors melded together seamlessly: it was fresh, sharp, saline and clean, just what I imagine the beach to be. It was one of my favorite courses, and I am not even normally a lover of oysters.

Ready to go down the hatch

From the rawness of the sea, we were next brought back to the forest. Pine was making a comeback, and in a big way.

Course 5: Cauliflower & Pine

Not immediately the most arousing description of a dish is it: cauliflower and pine? But what it lacked in descriptors, it certainly made up for in visual curiosity and in taste. A charred piece of caramelized white cauliflower was residing in the middle of the rather sparse plate, on top of which were two strands of spruce, needles and all.

Sprucing up the plate

Next, our server spooned a circular pond of green sauce composed of spruce oil and whey around the cauliflower and then placed a dab of cream (inside of which was hidden some horseradish) in the middle, where it slowly melted into the sauce.

Your plate is now pine to eat, Sir

When you ate it, all of the flavors came together in unison, without one dominating the other. I loved the taste that the char brought to the cauliflower, and the aroma of the pine persisted in my mouth but didn’t overtake the simply prepared vegetable. The horseradish was there too, but lingering in the background at the top of my mouth and back of my throat. I was blown away by how much I liked this dish, as I am not really a fan of cauliflower – I think a lot of it had to do with the brilliant sauce. I was going to try to eat some of the pine needles too, but Mathilde scolded me for being silly (she was drinking juice, not wine, remember).

Course 6: Celeriac, Black Gotland Truffle & Garden Sorrel

We officially coined this the most ordinary looking dish of our meal so far. But for whatever it may have lacked in ophthalmic impact, we shortly forgave it. The golden brown piece of celeriac itself looked quite odd, almost like a rock or seashell of some sort, and it was juxtaposed against a nearly jet black paste of black truffles from the island of Gotland (a favourite summer vacationing spot for south-eastern Swedes – the human kind – in the middle of the Baltic sea). On top were strewn a few strands of garden sorrel.

The celeriac itself, which had been cooking in butter and sorrel for quite a while by the time we saw it on our plate, tasted about as good as celeriac can all by its lonesome, and had an interesting texture that I would describe as firm mushiness. However, I felt like I had been slapped across the face when I tried some of that thick truffle purée. I remember being surprised at Matthias Dahlgren’s Matbaren a few months ago by the pungency and deep flavor of autumn Gotland truffles (after being somewhat underwhelmed by the summer truffles a few years back at another fine Stockholm restaurant, although they worked well in the dish they made an appearance), but this was taking it to yet another level. It was the essence of truffle to me, and it paired perfectly with the root flavors of the gnarly looking celeriac. The garden sorrel added a pleasing citric note (it tasted like lemon) and it was strangely one of the more memorable dishes of the lunch, especially given that its appearance was decidedly modest amongst the company it was keeping. Genius.

Course 7: Pickled Winter Vegetables & Bone Marrow, Flowers & Herbs

If the kitchen had temporarily forgotten to add color and geometry to the celeriac dish, these pickled winter vegetables certainly made up for the lapse in spades. Our server explained that it is was longstanding tradition in Scandinavia to pickle things – mostly vegetables – in order to survive the bitterly cold winters. Pickled vegetables were often eaten with salted meat in olden times. In this case, we were presented with a number of seasonal vegetables (I counted about six), each of which had been pickled in its own liquid. For example, the yellow beetroot had been soaked in elderflower vinegar, while for the red beetroot rose hip vinegar had been used. Interspersed throughout the colorful cylindrical vegetable ringlets were little discs off creamy bone marrow, which had been salted and lightly poached.

Getting saucy

Next, a sauce, which I think was made from roasted pork bones and brown butter, was spooned on top so that it seeped out to one side. It was a striking presentation, and was a wonderful sensation of flavors converging in your mouth, from astringent to sweet to rich. I truly loved this dish.

Things were becoming serious

After our empty freckled gray plates had been taken away, a beautiful handmade knife was laid down on the side of each of our place settings. We were told that René had convinced a craftsman from the region to make some knives for the restaurant, and that the man got quite a shock when he realized he was being asked to make 100 of them – by far the biggest order he had ever received. In any case, the actual blade was much smaller than we imagined it would be given the disproportionately large handle. However small the blade, we knew something meaty and substantial must have been arriving soon…

Course 8: Wild Duck & Apple, Malt & Brown Butter

Just like the pine, which appeared first in the snacks and later in the mains, the wild duck – which we thought had been used to make one half of a sandwich in our snacks – now appeared in fuller form for our final savory course. Surrounding the sous-vide cooked duck was apple…in a startling array of guises. A perfect disc of pink apple and rose powder (which was also sprinkled on top of the dish), rigatoni-like pipes of apples, cooked slices of apples, and apple ‘seeds’ which were in fact made from malt – just like the branches with which we began the meal. Possibly for the sake of diversity, some green herbs had been thrown in too.

What would we do without brown butter?

But there was more apple to come. A sauce of brown butter, which contained an apple base, was poured over the center. The duck itself was beautifully rare, and the reverberation of apple throughout each element of the dish complemented the fowl perfectly, adding sweetness and an acidic tang. It was delicious, and well worth savoring. Yet, for some reason – possibly because it was really the only substantial/filling portion we had been served – it didn’t seem as exciting as what had preceded it. Don’t get me wrong, we all loved the dish, but I suppose this was the most ‘main course’ dish of the main courses…this, of course, was a good problem to have!

Dessert 1: Pear Tree (Frozen & Aerated Pine, Poached Pear, Raw Pear with Herbs & Flowers)

After nine snacks, one loaf of bread and eight savory courses, the first of the sweet(er) dishes was here. I personally thought this was the most beautiful plate of the afternoon – I mean, just look at it….

So pretty I didn’t want to eat it (well, not really)

Now those of you who know a bit about noma will already know that Redzepi is not a big fan of overly sweet and heavy desserts – he prefers rather to use the sugars that dwell naturally within certain ingredients to present a fresh and light close to the meal.

In this case, the a pear had been beautifully poached and hidden beneath a thin slice of a raw pear, which was decorated with all manner of things green and pink…from what I can remember, lemon thyme and some local flowers. An artful golden swirl across the plate contained a pear sauce with thyme (i.e. the green shards you can see scattered throughout it). Flanking the delicately balanced pear was a light green sponge of frozen and aerated pine (or was it thyme?). The block of porous pine began to melt when it was touched by your spoon, and even more rapidly so when it got inside your mouth. The overriding sensation from this course was a refreshing sweetness – raw and cooked pear, melting frozen pine and a lovely syrup of similar flavors overlapping in your mouth. A wonderful first dessert.

Dessert 2: Snowman (Yogurt Snow, Yogurt Glace, Meringue & Lingonberry)

Our second dessert continued the frozen theme…to an extreme. It was the classic noma snowman, and I was so happy to have gotten the chance to see it in person. My three-sphered creation had a particularly long nose and I wondered if he had lied once too often and was getting sent out to the dining room to be executed by my cutlery.

Split decision

Not usually such a nasty fellow – though Mrs. LF might disagree :) – I nevertheless executed his sentence and split him in two, straight down the middle. Then I got down to business. It turned out to be a concoction of meringue, yogurt glace (made of yogurt, buttermilk and gelatin) and yogurt snow (containing both sheep’s and cow’s yogurt). I thought I also tasted carrot near the base, but maybe I was going crazy at this point? Underneath the snowman there was a biting crimson sauce made from lingonberries.

Murdered in cold blood

It gave you the sensation of taking a brisk walk through the snow, and the lingonberry in particular provided a very sharp flavour against the cool, crunchy and fairly neutral tasting ‘snow’ and meringue. Taste-wise, it wasn’t the most awe-inspiring dessert, but you have to give them marks for playfulness and artistry…and I thought it actually tasted pretty good too. I was about to eat the wooden nose and arms of the snowman – in the spirit of eating everything on the plate, as I had done thus far – but I was informed that these unfortunately were not really edible. :(

Dessert 3: Øllebrød & Skyr

The final dessert was definitely the simplest of the three sweet courses, and one of the most straightforward of the meal.  Øllebrød, it was explained to us, is a traditional Danish breakfast porridge made from beer ‘bread’. While I have never had the original, we were of course given the noma version of this simple dish. Besides the rye bread flakes that I believe had been soaked in beer and provided some crunch, it also included some frozen skyr, which is a soft cheese from Iceland that is quite yogurt-like. Taste-wise, I found the dish to be divine, and I liked the gooey texture of the bready substance at the bottom. David and I were both almost simultaneously reminded of a lemon tart in terms of its flavor profile. This was comfort food, and there was quite a bit of the delicious pudding for us to savor as we contemplated all that we had just consumed. It was the perfect ending to an inspired, and inspiring, meal.

A marrowing finale

As it was now a little past 4pm, we were escorted to the private lounge to have hot drinks and a few petit fours.

In good spirits

There was quite an array of spirits on hand, but I had swallowed enough fermented grape juice by this point and was content enough with coffee.

There are some things you can’t change about people, even when they’re in the best restaurant in the world!

But Mathilde had to ask for her hot chocolate. We were informed that coffee and chocolate were two of the few things served in the restaurant that are not from Scandinavia. And, to be honest, I was glad they hadn’t taken the local thing to such extremes as to offer us some malted hot water with goat’s milk curd and pickled elderberry foam – though maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad…. They didn’t seem overly confident about being able to make hot chocolate in the first place, but endeavored to do their best. Big surprise (not): Mathilde simply loved their 72% Valrhona version of the drink. I had a sip and agreed it was pretty d*mn good.

Petit Fours 1: Potato Chips with Anise & Chocolate in a Biscuit Tin

These were pretty much like they sounded, and I could have easily eaten a few more. Salty, crispy, chocolately and liquoricey. All things I like, and I liked them all together.

Petit Fours 2: Petit Fours: Sea-buckthorn (Havtorn) & Beetroot Flødeboller in a Metal Bucket

I know, it sounds complicated, but it wasn’t really.

No edible branches on top of this plant, alas :(

It was basically chocolate covered marshmallows, except the mushy meringue was made of sea-buckthorn and beetroot with a beetroot gel and a malt base to boot. Sweet and sour. Divine.

Petit Fours 3: Smoked Bone Marrow Caramels

Last up was possibly the most challenging combination of flavors and textures of the afternoon. After unwrapping the parcel of butcher’s paper, which was tied shut with string, we found three marrow bones, each with a caramel-like center.

Things were becoming blurry

There really was bone smoked marrow inside them, as well as caramel, and I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it or not – it was pretty weird. But I’m all for trying new things.

Tranquility

It was nearly 5pm and our meal had finally come to an end. There had been an astonishing array of food, and I was pleasantly full, but nowhere near bilious. This reminded me of my meal at The Loft Project, where Samuel Miller (the sous-chef at noma) had cooked some of his own food for the table that night; we had eaten a lot on that occasion too, but hadn’t felt full at all – instead, energized.

It turned out that the master of the house was not there on our visit. Apparently for the first time since the restaurant opened, René and his family had taken some time off for a real holiday in January. As disappointed as I was not to be able to meet the creative force behind the food we had eaten, I was very glad to see Sam and accepted his gracious offer to give us a tour of the kitchens and private areas of the restaurant.

We got to see all of the various cooking stations, as well as the fairly new private dining room and enlarged staff canteen.

You can find a few photos and videos below, and there are loads more on my flickr set for the meal.

Placing malt branches at the snack station

Egad, there’s a Viking in the pastry station

The newly enlarged staff canteen

Private dining room

Sam demonstrating the outdoor grill (in the January cold)

Reflections on a perfect meal

I already commented on the décor of the restaurant at the beginning of the piece. In terms of the overall ambience, I think the restaurant has gotten it just right. Nothing is overly formal: there is no dress code, and there is no fancy napery. More importantly, everyone just really cares about their guests – from the senior members of the kitchen all the way to the waiters. They really want to make sure you have an amazing time, whether that means staying with the ‘normal’ set menu or being more adventurous and going for whatever the kitchen can throw at you. As Danes generally prefer to go out at dinnertime, lunch tends to be a particularly international crowd, with many people flying in and out the same day just for their meal. The weight of these peoples’ expectations could understandably put a strain on the front of house.

We got to know our young waiter pretty well over the course of the afternoon, and he was very forthright about the experience of the meal from his point of view. Toward the end service, he even asked us if, at one point, we had felt a tiny bit rushed when one of the courses was served. He explained that he had been extremely nervous about that particular dish as it was probably served 30 seconds or a minute too early. Of course, we hadn’t noticed and he remained outwardly calm throughout. The thing is, I just can’t imagine this conversation taking place at another restaurant of a similar ilk, and I found his honesty and genuine care for his guests to be touching…and I don’t think that ‘touching’ is too strong or silly of a word in this case. He really wanted to make sure that our meal at noma would be an experience we would treasure for years to come, and he felt a real responsibility to ensure the part of the meal he could control would be as close to perfect as possible. That, for me, is what true service is about, not folding my napkin perfectly and placing it in the center of my chair each time I get up from the table.

In terms of the food, I suppose I am a novice as far as Danish cuisine goes, and I tasted many new flavors and combinations of tastes and textures in this meal. I absolutely loved it all, and thought it was the most exciting meal I have had so far in a restaurant – specifically because so many of the flavors and ingredients themselves were new to me. I don’t know whether a native would take some of this for granted and therefore not share my excitement over a few (or more) of the dishes, but I thought everything was perfectly conceived and painstakingly executed to great effect. Sure, there were a few things that didn’t get our juices flowing as much as others did, but that is almost bound to happen when you are sampling so many things, especially as each person has his or her own personal likes and dislikes.

I really do think that some of the main elements of Nordic cuisine – such as their pickling, their refreshing desserts, and their sauces (which generally lack the heaviness of wine and flour, for example) – will have a significant impact on food worldwide in the next decade. I’m not saying it will become as developed as Asian (and specifically Japanese) food has become within this timeframe – i.e. I don’t see something like the now ubiquitous fusion of French and Japanese cuisine happening with Danish and French (or Italian) cuisine – but I just can’t imagine food this interesting, good and generally healthy (or at least healthier) not being ‘discovered’ by restaurants, markets and cooks very soon. Many already have.

Goodbye noma, I hope to see you again before another two years passes

I, for one, think noma deserves the praise it has garnered from the international press, its peers and the majority of diners who have had the pleasure of eating there. I know I am only chiming in to the growing chorus of goodwill, but based on my experience, there is nothing else I could or should do…and I am glad to be publishing my own little love-fest.

I wish the young team at noma all the luck in the world, and hope that they can continue to evolve and improve. I just pray I can find an excuse to go back for dinner, and that there will be a table for me!

Rating

Ambience: 10/10

Service: 10/10

Food: 10/10

Wine: I know, I didn’t comment on the wine pairing in the review, but hey, it was getting a little long already wasn’t it? In any case, you can find the wines we had below. All of them went well with their chosen partners and I particularly liked the Champagne, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which was very fruity) and the Chardonnay vendage botrytisée. I also loved Mathilde’s sea-buckthorn juice…how I will miss that orange berry!

Champagne + Wine Pairing

  1. N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs (Montgueux)
  2. 2008 Bourgogne Aligoté, Guilhem & Jean-Hugues (Cotes d’Auxerrois)
  3. 2007 L’Or de Vix Pinot Noir, Vin de Table Blanc, Elodie Beaufort (Bourgogne)
  4. 2009 Pouilly-Fumé “Mademoiselle M”, Domaine Alexandre Bain (intentionally oxidized)
  5. 2009 J’en Veux !!! – J-F Ganevat (Jura)
  6. 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’, Domaine de Villeneuve (Rhône-Sud)
  7. 2009 Pinot Blanc ‘Vielles Vignes’, Domaine Dirler Cadé (Alsace)
  8. N.V. Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée, Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland (Vire)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have (sadly only) dined at noma once, and it was for lunch*

Noma


[1] René Redzepi’s first cookbook is entitled Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, indicating that his food is rooted in the marriage of both seasonal and local ingredients, forming a partnership that can lead to great and groundbreaking things.

[2] Curnonsky once said: “La cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont,” or “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.”


The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from Noma

The Loft Project
Unit 2a, Quebec Wharf
315 Kingsland Road
London E8 3DJ
Website
Map
Reservations can be made via phone on +44 (0)7956 205 005 or via email

  • Multi-course tasting menu (ours was 12 courses) with wine pairing for the entire meal at £100/person plus VAT
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below to get a larger image

The Loft Project is an innovative concept within the London underground restaurant scene. While its genesis consisted of its creator, Nuno Mendes, using the space an experimental kitchen to develop his cuisine and offer it up to paying diners, it has evolved into a kitchen that welcomes exciting guest chefs from around the world, who take up residence for 1 or 2 weekends with the permanent kitchen staff. The table of 16 is bookable by anyone on a first-come, first-serve basis and makes for a unique evening out, with high caliber and innovative food surrounded by a random group of diners. On this occasion, I had the pleasure of sampling Samuel Miller’s food, who is currently sous-chef at the world-famous Noma in Denmark. Both I and my dining companion were blown away by the food and the experience as a whole and I would highly recommend an evening at The Loft Project to anyone who is up for this type of experience.

When you can’t make it to the mountain…

Behind the times as usual (whether due to laziness, wallet consciousness or purposeful intention is anyone’s guess), I had been espying The Loft Project from the distant shores of my laptop for some time. Come to think of it, maybe this was because I was a veritable ‘underground restaurant’ (that’s ‘supperclub’ to us Yanks) virgin until I recently popped my proverbial cherry at the Hidden Tea Room (which, by the way, is fantastic – see my photos here). Buoyed by this experience, I had worked up sufficient courage to make another foray into this mysterious and very en vogue world; however this time it would be for dinner, it would be haute and it wouldn’t come cheap.

What tipped me over the edge, pray tell? Well, I have been aspiring to visit the now world-famous Noma in Copenhagen (along with a number of other restaurants in that fair city) for over a year now. Somehow, this culinary cruise ship has never pushed off shore, so when I saw that the sous-chef from Noma would be the ‘chef in residence’ at The Loft Project in London in a few month’s time, I quickly secured two places on one of the three nights that he would be presiding over this above-ground, subterranean epicurean mess hall. For once, the mountain (well, at least part of it) had come to me.

But let’s backtrack briefly as, in my haste, I seem to have gotten slightly ahead of myself. For those who are not already familiar with it, The Loft Project (TLP) is run by Nuno Mendes and his partner Clarise. Nuno is a Portuguese chef who formerly ran the kitchen at Bacchus in London and has had experience working with many modern-day culinary masters from around the world, including the likes of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Wolfgang Puck and Jean Georges Vongerichten. TLP started out as an experimental test kitchen where Nuno would invite paying guests to sample his innovative and ever-developing cuisine. As he has now finally opened his much talked about new restaurant Viajante (which in Portuguese means ‘travellers’), TLP has now evolved to host exciting, and mostly younger, chefs from around the world for a limited number of nights (normally over weekend evenings). They in effect become ‘chefs in residence’ for that week (or weeks). There are by my count three permanent kitchen staff who support the head chef and also a waiter-cum-sommelier who runs the floor. The visiting chef sleeps above the open-plan kitchen/dining room space, literally in the loft.

Samuel Miller, sous-chef at Noma & ‘chef in residence’ at TLP on my visit

Samuel Miller is a 28-year old Northerner from Fulford on the outskirts of York and is following a family tradition in food, i.e. his father is also a chef. He spent over two years at double Michelin-starred Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham alongside David Everitt-Matthias (where he came second in the Young Chef of the Year awards in 2004), and since then had stints at Mugaritz and El Bulli, before going on to work for René Redzepi at Noma, which as most readers of this blog will know, was recently crowned the #1 restaurant in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in London.

My companion for the meal was the Phantom Medic (who not that long ago had dinner at El Bulli, which I interviewed him about), and we decided to go on a Friday, the first night of Sam’s three-day residency. As we rolled up a tad early, we decided to take a walk around the veritable mish-mash of buildings on the stretch of Kingsland Road that TLP occupies. We decided to duck down below to the canal, and after meandering for a while, and came upon a few surprising discoveries.

Modern developments & floating vegetable allotment

Firstly, once you got down to water level, things looked a bit nicer – there were a lot of modern developments along the waterside and we even singled out a floating vegetable allotment behind the complex where the loft is located.

Towpath, a cute cafe just off Kingsland Road in E8, serves fresh Italian-inspired food

Secondly, we stumbled upon a tiny café called Towpath occupying two carved-out open units overlooking Regent’s Canal. The food is Italian and looked extremely fresh and appetising (Time Out has done a little review of it here), and although we abstained as we were about to subject our stomachs to 12 courses of food, I will be back to sample the food on some sunny day this summer.

Light as a feather, I could eat forever

We eventually tore ourselves away from the friendly people at Towpath and entered TLP, along with the rest of the diners, who all seemed to arrive in unison, even though the group was made up of many different parties.

Entering The Loft Project

We were offered sparkling wine and had a chance to check out the scene.

Sam introduces himself to the guests & we soak up the atmosphere

We had a lovely time getting acquainted with the other diners, who ranged from Swedish and Irish businessmen (and their partners) to a group of serious Japanese foodies, including a restaurant owner, respected chef and a woman with a camera that was bigger than her face by a good measure. As we were chatting, Sam came out of the kitchen to introduce himself.  He was the consummate host: mild-mannered, friendly and genuine.

Let’s get this party started – some of the ingredients on offer as a chef ponders what to do with them and when

As we were talking, Sam explained that he had arrived fresh from Denmark that morning and had luckily managed to smuggle a bevy of beautiful produce and Nomadic (oh yeah, pun action) concoctions from Copenhagen in his luggage for his three nights at TLP. It turned out to be an exceedingly worthwhile risk, for us diners at least. :)

Prepping of Course 1

As the kitchen crew got to work preparing the first course, I found myself drawn like a (hungry) fly to the bright lights of the kitchen. One of the great things about TLP is that it is a completely open kitchen, and they chefs were happy to let me watch the goings on and take as many photos as I liked. I also asked a few questions here and there, when I thought I wouldn’t be bothering, or intruding upon, them too much.

Course 1: Salt Baked Carrots, Fresh Cream, Thyme & Lingonberries

The first course was based around a central theme of orange and purple carrots. I thought the purple carrots were quite novel and had a nice contrasting effect on the plate. However, when I mentioned the novelty of the curly purple slices, the Irish gentleman sitting to my left proceeded to give me a brief lecture regarding the history of carrots, and explained that most people thought that the ‘original’ carrot was actually dark purple (if you are interested or curious, knock yourself out over on the Carrot Museum site – yes, it exists, for real). In any case, both carrots had a firm sweetness that was balanced well by the sweet and sour sharpness of the lingonberries, and subtly enhanced by the thyme oil and fresh cream. There was also an extra crunch provided by a few bits of bread salad and a few strands of mixed chewy herbs. It all held together well and was a very fresh opening to the evening.

Course 2: Mussels, Watercress & Frozen Yogurt

As I was diverted by the enthralling history of carrots, I missed the prep action for the second course. This was another pretty plate of food, where the flavors again gelled well despite some slightly unusual combinations. The mussels themselves were soft, meaty, delicately rich and fresh. They were also enriched with a ‘mussel gel’ which brought an intense preciseness to their flavor. The watercress sauce was a beautiful deep green hue and lent a slightly bitter (sort of radish-like) and peppery note to the mussels, which was not at all unpleasant. But what I loved about this dish was the frozen yogurt ‘snow’. Its gentle tanginess offset the mussels perfectly and the coolness brought a very engaging dynamic to the plate, which I thought augmented the dish nicely. Again, light, dainty, delicious.

Prepping of Course 3

As the table played its first round of musical chairs, I took the opportunity to dash off to the kitchen to check on the progress of the third course.

Course 3: Raw Mackerel, Hazelnuts, Mustard & Rye Crumbs

This course turned out to be one of my favorites. An oddly arranged plate was presented, with a creamy tapioca base and an alternating circle of yellow and green glistening spheres (which mirrored the tapioca’s translucent pearl beads) ensnaring a pink and wormlike sliver of raw mackerel which was topped with a rutted skin of mustard and rye crumbs. Somehow, this all worked. Again, an interesting play on textures was afoot here. The unctuous tapioca acted as a unifier, evening out the combination of sweet apple and cooling cucumber as they interplayed with the creamy and rich texture of the delectable raw mackerel. The crumbs were also clever as they provided a much-needed crunch an ever so slight hint of spice. The Phantom and I were both left speechless (and that’s saying something for him).

Prepping of Course 4

Things were noticeably beginning to step up a notch in the kitchen and I really enjoyed watching Sam steer his team into plating up the courses from then onward. There was generally a quiet calmness as all of the elements of the dishes finished cooking (or being prepared) in anticipation of plating. Then, a sudden and nearly silent intense flurry of activity ensued as Sam and the other chefs quickly and purposefully moved around the table (and sometimes the side counter), precisely plating up each dish and checking them for uniformity and flavor. It was quite an experience for me to witness a chef operating at this level as he moved resolutely and with a quiet confidence to ensure each plate was ready for his guests. An atmosphere of friendliness and comradery was also evident between him and the rest of the team, which I found interesting as I assumed that they had not worked together before.

Course 4: Asparagus, Rhubarb & Lovage

The fourth course of white and green asparagus was, for me, probably the most ho-hum of the evening. The asparagus spears were fresh and the rhubarb juice added a gentle sharpness. The lovage oil was very mild and offered up vaguely celery-like undertones. After the sublime mackerel dish, my reaction was kind of, “meh.”

Prepping of Course 5

Things hotted up as the meat made its first appearance. Earlier, Sam had promised us a nose-to-tail dining experience that would manage to remain very light, so I was curious to see how this would be delivered.

Course 5: Crispy Pork Tail, Jerusalem Artichoke & Ramson Onion Sauce

Well, the tail certainly hit the nail on the head, it was pure genius. A smiley face outlined by circular green streaks of Jerusalem artichoke and ramson onion sauce, with sliced ramson onions for eyes, was presented on a plain, white round plate. The onions themselves were to die for…so sweet and succulent. The pig tail was extremely crispy on the outside and gelatinous in texture inside, reminding me slightly of bone marrow in its consistency. Its fattiness against the snappy skin and the deepness of the green sauce made for a perfect trio. The toasted flavor of the sunflower seeds that had been sprinkled on top of the onions also worked well, in addition to providing textural alternation for both teeth and tongue.

Course 6: Poached Oyster, Potato & Seaweed

Course 6: Poached Oyster, Potato & Seaweed

After another round of musical chairs, I was busy catching up with my newly found Swedish friend who I had met during the welcome drinks. The next course was suddenly upon us. I have confessed before to not really knowing much about oysters (unlike other bloggers I know, who have even attended master classes and oyster-focused dinners). These oysters were presented in a new format for me: poached. The flavor of an oyster has a way of defying exact description (for me at least), so I won’t try to do it here. In fact, it is not the oysters I remember here, but the potatoes – they were transcendent. I think the potato purée must have been emulsified in butter, or something like that: it was luscious, soft and highly memorable, and a rich pot sabayon also added to the creamy delicacy that was this dish.

Prepping of Course 7

I spent a long time watching the brigade prepare the seventh course – it seemed to take the longest to prepare, and I had never had anything like it before.

Course 7: Lamb Tongue, Peas, Pine & Milk Skin

The lamb tongue was silently cavorting with an entourage of fresh green peas underneath a thin white sheet of milk skin, which had been covered with sorrel stems, a pine glazing and barbecued pea oil, then dusted off with some salad leaf stems. I suppose it was meant to enforce the element of surprise (which unfortunately I had spoiled for myself by watching them construct the dish from the plate upwards). It wasn’t an unappetizing presentation, but I guess many people wouldn’t naturally want to dive into it straight away either. How did it taste? Well, the intense meatiness of the tongue came through strongly, but not as harshly as I had imagined it might. The milk skin, a component in some of Noma’s famous dishes, was very mild in flavor, and seemed to be there more for texture and visual impact than anything else. The subtle pine flavor suited the almost gamey taste of the lamb well, and the peas’ sweetness and slight crunch pulled the dish through to make it very enjoyable amusement for my bouche.

Prepping of Course 8

I spied a pot full of oozy green liquid stuff in the kitchen and resumed my place on the observation deck.

Course 8: Pigs Trotters Cooked in Beer & Burnt Leeks

The eighth course eventually arrived in all of its green swampy glory. Not the most appetizing bowl I’ve ever been served, but the ingredients had me curious and slightly excited. It actually wasn’t as heavy as I thought it might be, and the taste of the trotters was spot on – not overpowering at all – and melded well with the deep flavor of burnt leeks (in the dish there was leek oil, leek bouillon and actual leeks) and the hint of parsley. Sam’s subtle use of textures was again evident, with some cereal flakes being strewn across the top to add some crunch. It was an enjoyable course but not one of the ones that sticks out most in my memory of the meal.

The table was in full swing as Sam introduced Love Potion #9

With another spontaneous shift of positions at the table, I was now sitting next to someone else as Sam came out to introduce the ninth course.

Course 9: Skate, Radishes & Unripe Elderberries

The simple skate dish was one of the highlights of the evening for me. I thought it was presented beautifully, with a few radishes – stems still intact – scattered around the edges. The fish itself had been faultlessly cooked and was firm, flaky and soft at the same time. The roast bone sauce flaunted a perfect balance of acidity and richness and the dish was lifted by the pungency and tartness of the unripe elderberry capers (presumably flown in from Denmark with Sam) that topped the fish. Perfection on a plate, or skate, as the case may be.

Prepping of Course 10

The last of the savory courses was being prepared and it was an exciting one to witness, with a few more intriguing ingredients on display.

Course 10: Beef Cheeks Cooked in Hay, Onion & Roses

While presented in a simple fashion, there was a lot more going on flavor-wise than was immediately on show. Whatever they did to those beef cheeks, they were out of this world. Soft and intensely flavorsome, they were complemented (and I would say lightened) by the acidic astringency (both sweet and sour) of the beer- and rose-pickled onions, with the brown butter and thyme oil adding a further notes of harmonious delight. The way that the sharp rose flavor lifted the beef cheek was phenomenal and definitely one of the best flavor combinations of the meal.

Course 11: Glazed Beetroot, Apple & Crème Fraiche

The first of the dessert courses was a stark affair (and not Philippe), to say the least. The cored cylinder of an apple and two similarly barrel-shaped constructions of crème fraiche mousse and red beets lay scattered on the bare plate, dangling their feet in a little puddle of sorrel granita. It was fresh, clean and almost seemed like a palate cleanser of sorts to me. There was nothing particularly interesting, save for the sorrel juice, which had a sort of sour strawberry flavor that helped to tie together the other three elements. This seemed like the least thought-out and developed course of the meal – almost an afterthought. (Note: I do vaguely recall Sam telling me that desserts were not his strong suit and that he hadn’t done them in a while, so possibly he hadn’t spent as much time on this course as he had on the previous ones).

Course 12: Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry

Whatever was lacking in the eleventh course was more than made up for in the meal’s grand finale. A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intenseness of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.

(Lofty) Northern heights

The whole experience of eating at TLP was immensely enjoyable for both me and my dining companion. Everything was laid back but at the same time functioned in a timely and well-organized fashion. Wine was poured, explained and topped up; the chef presented each course; diners mingled endlessly and played musical chairs (even if there was no music); and there was a free flow between the table and the kitchen as people ducked off occasionally to watch the chefs at work and then wandered back to the table. The group of diners was diverse, interesting and the atmosphere at the table was exceedingly convivial.

One of the most amazing things about the evening – which we both commented on during the journey home – was that although we had eaten 12 courses, with some pretty intense ingredients and flavors, we felt extremely light afterwards. In fact, instead of feeling heavy and bloated – as I have been after similar tasting menus at expensive restaurants – I felt energized, completely awake and ready to take on the world. Even stranger, when I woke up the next morning, I was a full kilogram lighter than I was on the previous morning, despite eating very late, having 12 courses and having at about 6 glasses of wine (if not more), which is a lot for my delicate temperament. ;-) Possibly it was down to the Northern influences in the dining, but I still found it miraculous.

Much of the food was also full of little miracles for me. The menu had been well conceived and constructed, always slowly building, but not by too much or too quickly, and was never jarring. Some of the ingredients and flavor/texture/ temperature combinations were completely new to me, and will stick in my mind for some time to come (i.e. mussels/frozen yogurt, raw mackerel/tapioca and beef cheeks/rose-pickled onion, to name a few). Also interesting was that, while the menu was undoubtedly influenced by Redzepi’s cuisine at Noma, there was also a lot of Sam himself in the food (well, not literally), and the combination of the two for the most part worked brilliantly.

If you have the wherewithal and the financial means to do it, by all means go to TLP for one night this year. Just look at the calendar of chefs and pick one that speaks to you – because he or she will then cook for you. I doubt that you’ll be let down by the rather unique experience. Although the total cost is £115, in many ways it can be seen as pretty good value. After all, you are having an exciting and well-respected chef cook 10 or more courses for you, plus all of the wine you want and service is included in the price. You also have the rare opportunity to actually engage with the chef if you care to, in whatever way is most comfortable.

Or if you can’t be bothered with the whole process, why not check out Nuno’s own cooking at the newly-opened Viajante? His food will likely share a few similarities with the type of chefs that tend to frequent The Loft Project.

Rating

Ambience: 10/10 (though this is obviously variable depending on the 16 people who turn up on the selected evening)

Service: 7/10

Food: 9/10 (I think this is an apt score given the innovativeness of the menu and the general balance, creativity and precision to the food. While a few of the courses didn’t blow me away, the culinary experience as a whole certainly opened new doors and was a in many ways a quietly confident tour de force, utilising a vast array of primary ingredients and making them work well in their own right as individual dishes and also meshing seamlessly together as a progression of flavors and textures over the course of the evening).

Wine Comments: unfortunately, I did not take any wine notes as I was mostly concentrated on observing the kitchen and tasting the food, but nonetheless I do have a few comments. The first wine was a Gruner Veltliner (2008 Stift Kloster Neuburg, Autria) and was very pleasant, going well with both the first course of carrots and the second of mussels and frozen yogurt. I also recall that the German Pinot Noir that was served with the lamb tongue and pigs trotters worked very well and was a particularly good example (2006 Villa Wolf). A pleasant Côtes due Rhône complemented the final two savory courses of skate and beef cheeks (2008 Domaine Sarcin). The delicate and refreshing dessert wine was lovely with both sweet courses, and I could almost picture it with gentle bubbles, which would have made it into one of my favorite light sweet wines, Moscato d’Asti – it was however sans the gas and Spanish in origin, though perfectly lovely and floral in its own right, enhancing the sharper fruit notes of both desserts (2008 Enrique Mendoza, Moscatel de la Marina).

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at The Loft Project once and I paid for the meal.*

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