Making Up for Lost Time — 2012 in Food & Wine

2012 was a great year for my family. After a long search, I finally got a new job in April. I now write about wine for a living, and must say I’m not missing the hectic, stress-filled “corporate culture” of international finance that used to encapsulate my working life.

With a growing family and a new direction for my career, I haven’t prioritized restaurant reviews as of late. And the inevitable flip side of the career coin is that I don’t have the budget I once did for global gastro gallivanting. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been eating (and drinking) some exciting things from time to time! What follows is a personal list of some of the best things I ate and drank during 2012 (plus a few surprises — both positive and negative).

Now that things are a little more settled with work, I do hope to be posting more often on this site in 2013 and beyond. In the meantime, and just in case I don’t happen to get around to it, you can always keep track of what I’m eating and drinking on:

In fact, many of the below pictures were instagram images, taken with my iPhone. Can you tell which ones? Probably. Apologies, but I just can’t be bothered taking ‘proper’ pictures all the time anymore, unless I’m pretty sure the food is going to merit it.

But without further adieu

~ Best Meals of 2012 ~ 

This ended up being a tie. The connecting thread between these two restaurants is their focus on the provenance and quality of single ingredients, and the aiding and abetting of these pristine centerpieces with elements that will enhance yet not overpower the star of the show. I suppose this could also be seen as the biggest restaurant trend of 2012: searching for the finest ingredients (the nearer by the better) and letting them shine, simply yet beautifully. Dead simple in theory, but very hard to get it just right. Both of these places do, thanks to the insane lengths they both go to in sourcing ingredients, and their precise conceptions and flavors.

Hedone (London)

Possibly the most controversial restaurant opening in London for some time, Hedone created a chasm between its early visitors (through dishes like Cévennes onions with pear shavings): there were “haters” and passionate proponents, nothing in-between. However, as time has passed, the self-taught Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson (a former lawyer and food blogger … and long-time Paleolithic diet adherent), seems to have found his stride.

This was the most memorable meal I had in 2012, helped by the fact that I spent it with two very dear friends. By all accounts, things only continue to get better. And the restaurant has achieved a Michelin Star within about a year of opening — no small feat, no matter what you may think of the tire company. You can find the full photo gallery of my meal there, along with a few of the many highlights below.

Oyster at Hedone

Poached Dorset Rock Oyster, Granny Smith, Pickled Shallots

Broken Duck's Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

Broken Duck’s Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline at Hedone

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline

Roast Squab Pigeon at Hedone

Roast Breast and Leg of Squab Pigeon, Smoked Potato, Parsley & Pistachio

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Brooklyn)

When our good friends Mathilde (a true Foodista) and David visited in the early Spring, we had a few really good meals, as well as some great food (and wine) at home. Somehow, I had managed to secure us seats at the fabled Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which is one of (if not the) hardest reservation to make in New York. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, but you can read my full review here.

Luckily, that’s not where the story ended. When another friend visited New York in December, he invited me to dine at César’s palace once again. I actually found the food slightly better on the second occasion (which is really saying something). Out of 20+ dishes, all except for a couple were truly exceptional. This is still definitely one of the best places to eat in the New York area (and possibly the country).

Brooklyn Fare Window

The only picture I’m allowed to share — that’s so Brooklyn Fare

~ Most Disappointing Meals ~

Corton (Manhattan)

I had really wanted to dine at Corton for a while. So, when the opportunity came to meet up with Kristian it seemed like the perfect place. Sadly, it disappointed on almost every level. Aside for a bite or two, the food was utterly forgettable and (even worse for a Michelin 2* restaurant) the service was downright horrible. Even the wine pairing was lackluster, save for one special glass. It felt like our table was on a conveyor belt. The same one everyone else was on. No effort was made to make us feel special about the meal, and the staff kept looking at their watches and chatting to each other, ostensibly eager to leave (and get us out of there) as soon as possible … even though it wasn’t that late. This is to be expected in a more casual setting, but certainly not in a restaurant many regard as one of the finest in the city. I can’t imagine returning, despite the surprisingly pleasant room — it’s much nicer than internet pictures make out. You can see all of the photos here.

“Scotch Egg” at Corton

“Scotch Egg” — one of the only memorable bites at this 2* Michelin disappointment

wd~50 (Manhattan)

That I was really unimpressed with wd~50 is even more sad, given that I had enjoyed meals here previously. On this occasion, I ate with That Hungry Chef (who is now heading the kitchen here) right after the new menu format was introduced. Let’s just say I preferred the previous meals. It’s all become very Japanese (not a bad thing in itself, of course), and there were very few standouts in a meal of many plates. The meat dishes were overall much more solid than the other savory courses. Aside from the food, the dining room just didn’t feel like it was running smoothly, or in sync with the kitchen in many instances. More minor quibbles included plates that were so visibly scratched and un-wiped before leaving the pass, that they shouldn’t have ever left the kitchen in a restaurant of this standard. Oh, and seemingly random sizes of Yuzu milk ice puffs for every diner (I, of course, managed to get the small end of the nitrogen poaching stick). You can read my dining companions’ entertaining review here, and view all my photos here if you care to. Oh well, I do wish Wylie and his team luck with their new venture, Alder, in 2013.

Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse at wd~50

Dessert of Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse — one of the few really good dishes at the re-launched wd~50

~ Best Surprise ~

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Manhattan, RIP)

I had always liked L’Atelier in London as a place to get oftentimes astonishingly good haute cuisine in an informal atmosphere that was fun and engaging.  But after so many years in the limelight, followed by many years of falling from grace (Robuchon’s concept has famously been coined the McDonald’s of fine dining, i.e. you get roughly the same menu in any of its global locations, despite variations in local ingredients and cultures), I wondered if the ancient-by-restaurant-standards New York outpost would hold up to my fond memories.

Well, I dined there with my brother and we were both totally gob-smacked at how simply delicious everything was. You can actively go looking for faults in nearly anything, but here there were certainly no faults in the cooking. With a new chef and some of his own dishes, it was a fabulous meal. Sadly it’s closed now. Likely due to its awkward location within the Four Seasons hotel and the fickle dining trends of a large metropolis. You can read the full breakdown of my meal here. And all the photos are on my Flickr.

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar at L'Atelier New York

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar

~ Most Fun Meal ~

Torissi (Manhattan)
Chef’s Tasting Menu

This was another very difficult meal to book, but I seemed to have lucked out this year with tough tables. I had not been a fan of the original dinner service at Torrisi — having been rushed out so they could turn our table once, and feeling ‘meh’ about quite a few of the dishes (plus the annoyance of having no reservations and needing to wait from before 5pm to nab a table). I did, however, love the few lunches I had there.

So when they changed the format, and transitioned the ‘simpler’ fare to a location a few doors down (Parm), and focused solely on the more ‘refined’ food at Torrisi, I thought I’d give it another chance. Thank goodness I did. The sheer inventiveness, playfulness and presentation of the Chef’s Tasting Menu is fantastic. With it, the restaurant has morphed from being (proudly) Italian-American cuisine to a unique representation of historic New York dishes from all cultural backgrounds. There is a real nostalgia to the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the food was overall executed splendidly during our meal. It is worth trying to book based on my experience. A few of the more catchy dishes are pictured below as a little taster. The whole set can be found here (spoiler alert).

Smoked Sable Cigarettes at Torrisi

Smoked Sable Cigarettes

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) at Torrisi

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) — for the men

~ Weirdest Meal ~

ISA (Brooklyn)

There’s no real way of putting it gently: ISA is a weird place. I have only eaten there once, for brunch, and everything from the design of the menu, to the Brooklandia-ness of the waiters, to the odd amalgamation of dishes on offer made it the single most odd meal I had this year. Having said that, it was actually enjoyable overall and a few of the things we ate were really tasty. Those are pictured below, along with the menu and the bathroom (to give you an idea of what I’m talking about). You can see all the photos I took here.

ISA Entrance

Welcome to ISA

ISA Bathroom

Welcome to ISA’s Bathroom

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter at ISA

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter — this was really good

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & 'Dirt'  at ISA

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & ‘Dirt’ — a little sweet (and nuclear yellow), but pretty tasty

~ Best New (Temporary) Opening ~ 

Frej (Brooklyn)

My meal at the first incarnation of Fredrik Berselius’ cuisine (along with his then partner Richard Kuo) was one of the most enjoyable I had in 2012. I wrote a full review of it here, but suffice to say I am very excited about his new(ish) solo venture in the same space (Kinfolk Studios). He has imported a few pretty serious chefs to help out from his native Sweden, as well as enlarged the kitchen and dining room (plus made it a more comfortable space to eat).  I sampled some bar food there in December and will definitely be back for the full tasting menu — especially now that they have a full wine/beer/spirits program.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin at Frej

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin (photo courtesy of: Jose Moran, aka The Spanish Hipster)

~ Best New (Permanent) Opening ~

Empellon Cocina (Manhattan)

After reading all about Alex Stupak’s foray into Mexican cuisine (Empellon Taqueria) following his departure as (a very respected) Pastry Chef for wd~50, I was curious. Somehow I never made it to Taqueria, but I’m not sweating it too much, because the sequel is sooo good (as I think @jezmd would agree). Employing modernist cooking techniques yet keeping things extremely authentic, Stupak’s food at Cocina can be mind-blowingly good. In fact, I’m getting hungry just thinking about my meal there (and am plotting a return as I write this). One of my favorite dishes (despite its off-putting, gnarly appearance) was the lamb sweetbreads pictured below. Oh, and the bread they start you out with is off-the-charts good. In fact, the baking throughout all the dishes was stellar. Just go already.

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) at Empellon Cocina

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) — tasted as good as it looked bad

~ Best Burger ~ 

Little Big Burger (Portland, Oregon)

I ate more than my fair share of burgers in 2010 and 2011 (it’s New York, right?), and although my consumption slowed dramatically in 2012, of course I still had more than a few. At this moment, the one that stands above the rest was also the most demure. But it was definitely the best-tasting burger. Cooked medium (to order), and eaten together with some truffle oil fries, it was pretty darn magical. The few photos I have are here.

Cheeseburger at Little Big Burger

Cheeseburger Cooked Medium (To Order) with Tilamook Cheddar

~ Most Disappointing Burger ~ 

The Spotted Pig (Manhattan)

Talk about burger hype. Aside from Minetta Tavern (which somehow lives up to its stratospheric reputation, and won Best Burger in my 2011 list) plus a few others, The Spotted Pig’s burger is right up there in the NYC pantheon of burgers. And just look at it (pictured below) — it appears to be amazing, right? Well, sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, but the one time I had it (all $20 of it), the meat was shockingly bland and totally overpowered by the Roquefort cheese that’s slathered on top of it. Terrible? No … but no better than average in my book. At least the (copious amount of) shoestring fries served by its side were nearly perfect. Some of the other things we ate are pictured here.

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries at The Spotted Pig

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries

~ Best Fried Chicken ~

Mad for Chicken (Manhattan)

Yes, it’s still open. And yes, it’s still good. Great, in fact. Despite the crowded market for fried chicken in NYC (Asian-inspired or otherwise), this stands as the best I’ve had (so far) in the area. The only question is, do you like the hot & spicy or soy garlic wings better? You can find The Skinny Bib’s take on our meal snack here too.

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings at Mad for Chicken (NYC)

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings

~ Best Pasta Dish ~

Frankies 457 (Brooklyn)

This is kind of a toss-up, but the “House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter” at Frankies 457 in Brooklyn was probably the most satisfying pasta dish I had in 2012. It was made even more delicious by the glass of Lambrusco I drank with it (Venturini Baldini Dell’Emilia NV).

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter at Frankies 457

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter

~ Best Pizza ~ 

Don Antonio by Starita (Manhattan)

2012 was the year of the Montanara as far as NYC pizza went. The best one I had was at Don Antonio. The crust, with just a hint of donut sweetness on the crisp outside, demonstrates the brilliance of textural contract with soft, pillowy dough inside. The slightly smoked mozzarella works well too. Overall, it’s the perfect lunch (with a green salad on the side and some house red in your glass). If you sit at the bar, you can be in and out in under 30 minutes and have a civilized meal that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Montanara Pizza at Don Antonio by Starita

Don Antonio’s Montanara

~ Best Charcuterie ~ 

Soif (London)

This is sort of an excuse to list Soif in my round-up. From a restaurant group connected by an owner that’s in the business of selling natural wines, and with siblings that also serve up delicious, simple French fare (with a particular flair for charcuterie), Soif may be the best yet … even ahead of my beloved Terroirs. It’s more restaurant than wine bar, but can function reliably as either. Along with Douglas, I enjoyed some fine midday dishes, with the most memorable being the Jambon Persille seen below.

Jambon Persille at Soif

Jambon Persille

~ Best Non-Restaurant Meat Dish ~ 

Courtesy of Stone Barns Center (NY State)

As @catty pointed out a few days ago at brunch (at The Lambs Club if you must know), I really did win the food lottery this year — a few times, actually. But securing this bird was the real lottery. At the appointed date and time (9am, and not a second before … literally), I sent an email off to the good folks at the Stone Barn Center (i.e. the farm associated with Blue Hill at Stone Barns) to see if I would be one of the lucky few to win pay a lot of money for one of their highly sought-after heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. Actually I lied. I also sent an email from my wife’s account exactly 20 seconds after sending mine. And she got the turkey, not me! Anyway, suffice to say this is BY FAR the finest turkey I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a Bourbon Red and tasted like no other turkey any of us had ever eaten. So much so that my uncle, who hates turkey, couldn’t stop eating it. Let’s hope we’re as lucky next year.

Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center

Preparing the Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center for Thanksgiving

~ Best Restaurant Meat Dish ~

Hedone (London)

I won’t belabor the point. New Year’s resolution, you see. The “55-day-aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline” pictured near to top of this post was far and away the most superb meat I had at a restaurant in 2012.

~ Favorite New Brunch Spots ~

Allswell (Brooklyn)

In fact, I have ONLY been to Allswell for brunch, but many times. Aside from wanting to order nearly everything on the changing daily menu (they use Tumblr very effectively for this), they also have lovely service — which is child-friendly — plus a charming décor and ambience to boot. It’s casual but not annoyingly so, and the food is never casually executed in my experience. Their burger — which includes some well-aged beef in the blend, giving it a touch of appetizing funkiness — is also simple and delicious.

Allswell Dining Room

Allswell’s wallpapers are almost as memorable as their food

Reynards (Brooklyn)

I only had the chance to eat here once for a large family brunch. The interior design is spectacular and the brunch menu is equally alluring … as are the copious amounts of freshly baked goods they lay out next to the pass as you walk by to be seated at your table. The rabbit sausages I had there constituted one of the most satisfying dishes I ate this year.

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts at Reynards

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts

~ Meal with the Best View ~

Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise (Canada)

Not much to say here. Just look at this …

View from Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise

Now THAT’S a view

~ Best Coffee ~ 

Sweetleaf Williamsburg (Brooklyn)

This is by far my favorite café in the New York area right now. It is very serious about coffee, but doesn’t look down upon you if you’re not, and is laid back in a pleasant way (complete with a foosball table). They are very picky about whose beans they use to make their coffee though, and they generally know how to use the beans to the best effect. The barista in charge of quality control is often at the Williamsburg branch on Sundays (I am only ever in Brooklyn on weekends, so not sure about during the week), and it is worth seeking out a coffee made by his intuitive yet meticulous hands. The single best coffee drink I had in 2012 was the espresso he made for me from Sightglass Ethiopia, Shakiso, Mora Mora River Valley.

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso at Sweetleaf

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso

Macchiato at Sweetleaf

Macchiato

Cortado at Sweetleaf

Cortado

"Rocket Fuel" at Sweetleaf

“Rocket Fuel”

~ These Were a Few of My Favorite (Sweet) Things ~

Mast Brothers (Brooklyn)
Mast Brothers Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

La Tulipe (NY State)
Canellés from La Tulipe

The daily batch of Canellés

Sal's Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)
Cannolo from DiMare Pastry Shop

Cannolo

Mrs. London’s (NY State)
Lemon Tart at Mrs. London's

Lemon Meringue Tart #1

Bouchon Bakery (Manhattan)
Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery

Lemon Meringue Tart #2

Paul A. Young (London)
Brownie from Paul A. Young

Classic Brownie (as long as he makes these, and as long as I can manage to get hold of them, they will likely remain on my annual list)

Dutch Desserts (NY State)
Chocolate Tart

Chocolate Tart

~ Favorite Wines for Every Occasion ~ 

The following is a heavily syphoned-down list of wines I’ve tasted this year that struck a chord, and that also (mostly) offer value for their respective categories. There are ten wines in each category, organized from red to white, in chronological vintage order, and then alphabetically.

‘Weekday’ can be taken to mean good “everyday” wines (almost all are well under $20 a bottle); ‘Weekend’ means wines that are a little more special (mostly around $30 a bottle, or less); and, well, ‘Special Occasion’ is obvious.

First, though, are five sparklers that punch above their designations (i.e. NV Champagne, Cremant and California) — and most certainly their price tags (listed in alphabetical order).

 Favorite Sparklers That Won’t (Totally) Break the Bank
  • Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige Brut NV
  • Drappier Brut Nature Sans Soufre NV
  • PLR Legacy Blanc de Noirs NV
  • Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Cuis 1er Cru NV
  • Roche Lacour Cremant de Limoux 2009
Weekday Wines
  • Weinhaus Ress KM501 Rheingau Dry Riesling 2009
  • d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab (Australia) 2010
  • La Petite Bellane Côte-du-Rhône Villages 2010
  • Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini (Greece) 2010
  • Le Coin Sauvignon Gris Bordeaux 2011
  • Principe Strozzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2011
  • Fattoria Viticcio Chianti Classico 2009
  • Alambrado Gran Selección Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 2010
  • Château Florie Aude Bordeaux 2010
  • Domaine du Mistral “Plan de Dieu” Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2011
Weekend Wines 
  • Domaine des Deux Roches “Chatenay” Saint-Véran 2009
  • Evening Land Pouilly-Fuissé 2009
  • Donnafugata “Tancredi” Sicily 2006
  • Fattoria Viticcio “Prunaio” Toscana 2006
  • Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2007
  • Oddero Nebbiolo Langhe 2008
  • Dashe Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley 2009
  • Owen Roe Syrah “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley 2009
  • Boekenhoutskloof “The Chocolate Block” Western Cape 2010
  • Domaine de Nalys “Les Dix Salmes” Châteaneuf-du-Pape 2010
Special Occasion Wines
  • Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne NV
  • Château Bel Air Lagrave Moulis en Medoc Cru Bourgeois 1989
  • Godmé Père et Fils Champagne Brut Grand Cru 1999
  • Podere Il Carnasciale “Il Caberlot” Toscana 1999
  • Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain “Rangen de Thann” Pinot Gris 2000
  • Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Ornellaia” Bolgheri Superiore 2006
  • Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004
  • Haut Roc Blanquant Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2005
  • Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005
  • Dominion Pingus “Flor de Pingus” Ribera del Duero 2009

Out of all these, the two most memorable wines of the year for me were the following (because of the wines themselves, as well as the company and setting):

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004 — at Brooklyn Fare

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005 — on Christmas Day (the wine was a birthday present from my brother, and its outfit a holiday gift from my wife)

So there you have it: 2012 in a nutshell. All the best for 2013, and let’s stay in (better) touch.

Happy belated New Year!

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – Letting the Outside In

Thew New York branch of L'Atelier, based in the Four Seasons Hotel, is well worth a visit. The new head chef has introduced a number of new items to the menu and the cooking is as faultless as ever. It may not be the hippest dining destination in the city, but the food remains delicious.

“Each dish is like a jewel,” the gentleman sitting next to me exclaimed, as his painstakingly plated creation was set before him. “The question is: does it taste as good as it looks?” he said, and then proceeded to ‘mmm’ and ‘aah’ quietly to himself as each subsequent plate arrived….

The London branch of L’Atelier was a frequent haunt of mine when I lived there. The food was consistently delicious and I loved the casual interactions with the staff that were encouraged via the sushi bar style layout. You could sample any wine by the glass before buying it, and had the pleasure of observing the chefs meticulously cook and plate each dish before it reached its intended destination.

Over the years, Mr. Robuchon has brought this concept to many a metropolis across the globe. The model has been branded by some as “the McDonald’s of fine dining,” as virtually the same menu may be presented whether you happen to be dining in Taipei or Las Vegas. With so many destination restaurants now celebrating particular regional cuisines and the provenance of their ‘unique’ ingredients, some have branded Robuchon’s restaurants as increasingly irrelevant; such critics argue that this was how fine dining used to be, but not how it should be today.

L'Atelier New York Dining Room (Image: Four Seasons Hotels)

The New York outpost of L’Atelier has many things working against it. It is oddly housed inside the soaring ceilings of the I.M. Pei designed Four Seasons hotel, all the way in the back corner. There are both tables and bar seating, creating a somewhat discombobulated dining space. It is not sufficiently closed off from the adjoining hotel bar, and the bar music and clatter is audible as you dine. Plus, the menu can take a while to decipher, and the accompanying explanation the waiters are seemingly required to recite can leave you even more perplexed.

But, as my dining companion stated, “Once the food began arriving, everything was perfect.” I concurred.

In January, the restaurant welcomed a new head chef. Christophe Bellanca who previously worked at the three Michelin star Pic in Valence and has graced the prestigious New York kitchens of Le Cirque and Aureole. Christophe is only the second current head chef in the group to truly come from outside the Robuchon stable, perhaps a sign that Mr. Robuchon understands that in order to sustain his success, he must allow new ideas and creative energy to flourish within his kitchens. The New York menu, which changed markedly about a month ago, now includes around eight dishes that are all Bellanca’s own. These dishes even permeate into the tasting menu, and with them breath new life into this venerable culinary ‘workshop’.

An amuse bouche consisting of three layers – foie gras cream, a port reduction, and parmesan foam – was delightful and set the theme for what was to come: each element was clearly discernible and worked together in concert to create something greater than the sum of the parts. At once rich, sweet and salty, and packed with umami, it deftly balanced the inherently strong flavors. It was also amazing that the foam smelled exactly like freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Seared Foie Gras and Kumquat Compote with Pain d'Epices

My dining partner and I opted for the tasting menu which, for $190, provides the expected quotient of luxury ingredients, and its nine courses are nearly devoid of missteps. The opening course of white asparagus gazpacho with Ossetra caviar was surprisingly refreshing, with the vegetal flavor remaining dominant amongst the briny roe, luscious cream and sweet pepper accents, all of which served to enhance the primary ingredient. The Hamachi sashimi had an ever-present complex acidity that danced confidently with the delicately minted avocado.

The signature Robuchon crispy langoustine papillote was succulent and faultless, yet somehow did not live up to what came before or after it. A seared morsel of foie gras had not been properly deveined, but it was delicious when eaten together with a single kumquat (and accompanying compote), which made for an unusual yet successful pairing.

Long Island Caramelized Duck Breast with Candied Nuts & Salsify Confit

The crisp mustard-seed encrusted skin of the sea bass provided a welcome kick that melded perfectly with the jalapeño and cilantro garnishes, the fish itself being both pristine and impeccably cooked. An extra course of sweetbreads was presented and, under a leaf of lettuce, lay hidden a stash of finely diced bacon which elevated the dish with a persistent note of smokiness.

While the menu does not actively promote the sources of its ingredients, the waiters can tell you just about anything you want to know about where your food came from. Both the Long Island caramelized duck breast and seared Idahoan Wagyu hanger steak were evidence enough of excellent sourcing. Serving as alternative endings to the savory portion of the menu, neither meat course was boring or overly heavy, and I particularly enjoyed the fresh wasabi served with the perfectly saignant beef.

Cranberry and Mascarpone Cheesecake

Desserts included the most beautiful cheesecake I have ever seen, though its cranberry sauce was slightly too cloying. An extra dessert of the famous Robuchon Bulle de Sucre was also nearly too pretty to eat, but similarly over-celebrated the ingredient with the star billing. These minor sins were more than forgiven, however, when the final dessert of Araguani chocolate cream, bitter chocolate sorbet and crumbled ‘Oreos’ arrived. This was as intense and delicious a chocolate dessert as I can remember demolishing – eminently satisfying in every way, and the perfect finale to what was overall a superb meal.

If you have not visited L’Atelier before, or have not been to the New York location, it is indeed a good time to go. I am pretty sure that once the food starts arriving, you will be glad you did.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Four Seasons Hotel New York
57 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Note: I was invited to review L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon New York and did not pay for the food or wine, only the service.

Kajitsu – Zen and Veganism in NYC

Kajitsu serves exquisite vegan Japanese food in the Buddhist fashion; it's good and interesting enough that you probably won't miss the meat - I didn't.

Kajitsu, the name of the discreet subterranean Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, means ‘a fine day’, which is something you can be assured of having should your diurnal cycle happen to conclude within its enlightening confines.

Upon entering, don’t let chef Nishihara’s youthful glow fool you. He spent over 12 years learning the intricate art of kaiseki cuisine; 10 in Kyoto and two in Nagano, where he specialised in producing the multicourse affairs of hand-made buckwheat soba noodles. He brought all of this experience with him to New York two years ago and, for some unknown reason, no one really seems to have noticed. That is, if you ignore Messieurs Michelin, who promoted the restaurant to two stars in last year’s guide.

Kajitsu serves shojin ryori cuisine, a purely vegetarian form of gastronomy that was popularised in the 13th century by Chinese Zen monks in Japan, and is still served in Zen temples today. And, if these monks’ food is anything like what I recently sampled, no wonder they always seem so happy.

The meal was a fascinating vacillation between the paring down and joining together of exquisite ingredients.

Fried Trumpet Royale Mushrooms with Fresh Persimmons & Pine Nut Cream (with Gyokuro & Lahpet)

Our opening course set the tone for what was to come. The most delicately fried cubes of Trumpet Royale mushrooms had been wedded to fresh persimmons and pine nut cream. The green and golden pyramid was presented insideindividual clay dishes which resembled blossoming flowers. The ingredients bled umami on the palate (luckily not the plate), with the sweet and tangy persimmon ably dabbing up the spillage.

So immersed was I in this dish that I was taken aback when a fellow diner at the other end of the chef’s counter snuck up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “I also photograph my food,” he offered. I felt like telling him, “That’s probably not something you want to gloat about to a stranger – even if he also has the peculiar habit of recording every potentially memorable bite he consumes – especially now that you’ve got the chef’s attention, numbskull.” Rudely ignoring my internal rant, he continued, “I was so eager to taste this course that I forgot to take a picture of it before I dug in. So I was wondering if, um, I could take a picture of yours.” My dining partner and I couldn’t help but smile, and let him complete his simultaneously innocuous and brave task before shuffling back to his stool to show off the stolen image to his other half.

The next course, a seemingly simple carnelian yellow and “scarlet-tinged” minestrone soup consisting of kabocha squash, bell peppers (which I normally hate – and yes, hate is a strong word), yellow yuzu and the mild but flavorful shichimi togarashi (seven spice), maintained my interest throughout, with citrus and chili notes peppering my tongue while I enjoyed the savory yet ever-so-sweet sweet broth.

And so it went: complex followed by ‘simple’.

Our third course was fittingly composed of three separate dishes, each more elaborate than the last. Let’s just say it involved wheat gluten which had been fashioned to resemble yellow maple leaves with orange edging; three rice cigars wrapped with tofu skin, crowned with beads of ‘land caviar’ (cypress seeds) and complemented by the best ginger I’ve ever tasted, and an immaculate pile of braised enoki mushrooms with nori, daikon and a radish wedge that provided a peacock-worthy splash of color.

This was followed by soba noodles with dipping sauce. While this is a dish you can order in any number of Japanese restaurants, the noodles won’t likely be made in-house and certainly won’t taste or feel like this – the texture was springy and superb – and the unusual addition of fresh wasabi was a welcome one.

Chef Masato Nishihara Whisking the Matcha

The main course was certainly the triumph of the evening, both in visual affect and deliciousness. An assembly of vegetables – some raw, some steamed, some fried; some warm, some cold, some neither – resembled autumn leaves that had been raked together into a pile similar to those you see at the end of proud homeowners’ driveways. The foliage was sprinkled with edible ‘pine needles’, which were actually brittle green tea noodles. This was both substantial and without a doubt one of the tastiest dishes I’ve eaten in some time, endlessly dazzling in its variety of textures and tastes, with no dud notes to speak of. Lying next to the leaves was a wooden wrapper, beneath which lay a row of cedar-smoked, green wheat gluten and portabella mushrooms that was surrounded by soft walnuts and a sticky combination of red miso paste and salsify. This was also surprisingly, and quietly, good.

A straight-forward bowl of steamed rice dotted with chestnuts was pleasant enough, but it was the trio of pickles residing next to it that made a good case for being a dish on its own.

Desserts continued down the same path, each containing only a few ingredients that were perfectly confident spending time with themselves. A diminutive mochi pancake with dates and sweet azuki bean paste was branded with the logo of the restaurant – a circle/square/triangle image descended from an ancient Buddhist story in which the master tells the student that once he realises the meaning of these three shapes he will truly be wise. I am, alas, still pondering.

Soft and delicate, the pancake led us to our final unassuming course of rice cracker candy and green tea. The chef whisked the matcha right in front of us and, while there was not much liquid in the bowl, it packed a punch. The surprise of the meal was learning just how good a sweet rice cracker could be – it was out of this world (well, definitely from out of this country), and perfectly offset the intensity of the frothy green tea.

The meal hadn’t actually lasted that long, and my companion and I lingered for another hour or so talking about relationships and food. At one point, the chef came up to us and smiled as he presented us with an extra nibble: a mini sweet potato ice cream ‘hamburger’ with a single walnut topping. This was subtly divine, and I was glad that the crunch of the light rice cracker ‘bun’ – coupled with the flavour of cool, sweet yams – was my final bite of the evening.

As I left, I felt completely content and not the least bit bloated. Despite a successful pairing of five sakes, I also felt remarkably lucid. The meal was something of a revelation as, without basic kitchen foundations such as dairy butter (the food is suitable for vegans), chef Nishihara was able to create a delightful meal that never seemed wanting in any regard.

In fact, his food resembles the enigma of traditional Japanese culture I experienced when I visited the country some years ago: it has been developed over a long period of time; it is undeniably beautiful and painstakingly considered, and it has a sea of emotions bundled up at its core. You may or may not experience the emotions, depending on your state of mind at the time, but they are worth discovering.

Given that the seasonal menu changes with the months, there is much still to be unearthed from this serene and (still) hidden goldmine.

Kajitsu
414 East 9th Street|
New York, NY 10009

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley – Petrusalvation

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
The Berkeley
Wilton Place
London SW1X 7RL
Website
Map
Online bookings

  • Menus: prix-fixe lunch menu at £20 (2 courses), £28 (3 courses) or £50 (3 courses plus wine pairing chosen by sommelier); dinner is £80 for the 3-course à la carte menu, £85 for the ‘du jour’ menu (weekends only), £98 for the ‘prestige’ menu & £120 for the ‘gourmand’ menu (weekends only)
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr page

I was pleasantly surprised by the generally wonderful food I ate during a recent lunch at Marcus Wareing’s plush premises, which still retain the refrain of red Bordeaux from their previous proprietor’s rein. Nearly every dish was unabashedly redolent with robust & clearly delineated flavors that sang on the palate, while service was professional & well-meaning. Sure, the backdrop may be a bit dated & smack of economic excesses; and yes, the clientele seems to fit a particular stereotype, but the food certainly makes the attractively priced prix-fixe lunch tempting. And once you’ve had that, you might be tempted to explore further should your purse strings be flexible enough to cope. It’s not the most exciting or trendy restaurant in London right now, but the cooking certainly sets the bar high.

Curing my curiosity

I had been in London for a week, mostly for what turned out to be an exceedingly stressful and long week of work. However, after visiting Mrs. LF’s family in France on our second weekend in Europe, and returning to London with two days off before heading back to the US, I was looking forward to some relaxation, and hopefully a good meal…or two.

The day after our arrival the weekend prior, we had the good fortune to dine at the chef’s table of Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, and his first in London. I hope to post about that meal next, as we had a great time – Baby LF included – and generally enjoyed the food. My only other fancy meal for the trip was originally supposed to be at Pied à Terre, the dual Michelin star stalwart on Charlotte Street, at which I enjoyed a meal with my parents a number of years ago. However, with news that its head chef Shane Osbourne was to be departing rather soon, my dining colleague and I decided it might be more fun to try somewhere else.

In fact, in planning my London trip, I had originally thought about trying the seemingly good value prix-fixe lunch menu at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, despite the fact that I have never been a great fan of the current name adorning the restaurant’s masthead. Having never met the man in person or tasted his food, ‘who am I to judge anyway’ is a fair enough question. I guess I have just never liked the way he comes off on camera, or in press comments/interviews, or through accounts of him from people I know. However, I was informed by my partner in crime that the kitchen’s current head chef was definitely a talent (formerly holding the position of sous-chef at noma in Copenhagen) and, as I had always wanted to see what all the fuss was about anyway, it seemed like a grand idea – or at least a grand setting.

The restaurant’s Bordeaux red tones remain the same, even if the name has changed

If you enter the hotel from Wilton Place, just off Knightsbridge, you head straight to your right, through an open and pleasant informal dining space. Once through this area, two doors stand before you, they are opened (of course you would not open them yourself at a 5-star hotel), and you enter a fairly intimate rectangular dining room.

As I was the first one to arrive, I was seated on a cushioned bench at one of the three squat tables that serve as the waiting area, and I must admit I felt rather awkward on my own seated next to two smartly dressed older couples who were enjoying aperitifs and some nibbles before taking their proper seats. After fiddling with my phone for a bit, I was about to order some Champagne as this seemed to be what one should do (and I never say no to some good Champagne), but my partner in crime arrived just in time to prevent a minor fleecing of funds from my wallet.

As you would expect, the dining room tables were traditionally and faultlessly appointed, with perfectly ironed linen, fancy napery and so on and so forth. As many UK readers will know, this restaurant was formerly called Petrus, and was run by Gordon Ramsay Holdings before Marcus and Gordon went their separate ways in not such an amicable fashion. Ramsay recently, and rather ridiculously if you ask me, opened a new restaurant of the same name not that far away from the original one. Old habbits, and aging egos, die hard it would seem.

In any case, the dining room that David Collins designed in 2003 for the original Petrus remains largely the same so far as I could tell, with rich claret being the color of concentration. The metal gridding adorning the windows is reminiscent of a wine rack, reinforcing the theme. Tables are very well spaced, and parties of two are seated at four and eight o’clock. It is a formal room and most of the guests on the day we dined were probably over 50 and all very well turned out. I wondered if the food would be as traditional as the setting.

Tour de flavor

We were presented with a number of menu options, but in the end decided to go with the prix-fixe menu, which gives you two options for starters and mains and three choices for desserts, plus the amuse bouche(s), pre-dessert and petit fours that you expect at a restaurant that is catering for an inspector or two from a particular tire company. All in all, I thought it was pretty good value at £38 if the cooking would hold muster, and even better at £50 with a wine pairing thrown in.

In order to be completely transparent, for one reason or another – either because of our photo snapping or because of the name on our reservation – we did receive a few extra courses, which we had not asked for and for which we were not charged (these were: starters 1 and 3, which came with accompanying wines, plus possibly an additional pre-dessert).

Canapé 1: Crispy Fried Chicken, Pickled Mustard Seed Mayo & Waffle

First out of the kitchen was a warm and delectable little morsel. The textures of crispy chicken skin and soft waffle were appealing, with a slight trace of good poultry flavor and an excellent creamy mustard giving it some verve. If someone in America’s Deep South tried to distil some of the classic dishes from that region into a refined party canapé, this quite possibly would have been the result.

Canapé 2: Taramasalata, Radishes & Herbs on Melba Toast

One of my dirty kitchen secrets is that I quite enjoyed a particular supermarket’s tub of taramasalata when I lived in the UK. Slightly pink, creamy and salty, it always did the trick for a quick no-hassle snack. This version, besides being extremely beautiful to look at – with the micro herbs and delicate radish slices – was miles removed from the commercial stuff. It was definitely the best taramasalata I have I’ve ever had, including versions from well-known Mediterranean restaurants and a few home kitchens. Another extremely refined nibble that was not shy in the flavor department.

Canapé 3: Smoked Aubergine Dip with Mint Yogurt & Melba Toast

Sticking with the Mediterranean theme, we were given some more crisp melba toast in a basket, with a wonderful dip of eggplant and mint yogurt, which was quite ambitiously salted, but this worked due to the creaminess of the yogurt and the faint sweetness of the mint.

I was surprised with all three canapés as I had expected to be served very traditional French or British foods at the restaurant, and we had already been flown to the South of the USA and back to Greece. I was wondering what would come next.

I would give this opening trio of snacks an 8/10 as they were bursting with flavour and pretty original, at least within this context, and compared to my expectations.

Amuse Bouche: Butternut Squash Soup, Ginger Foam & Ginger Crunch – Served with Peanut Breadsticks

Our next course came in a narrow glass that contained what appeared to be some sort of deep orange milkshake, replete with whipped cream and toppings. It was in fact a butternut squash soup, which had a lovely creamy texture and was perfectly seasoned. The slightly sweet accent from the froth on top and the spice of ginger elevated this dish to live up to its appetizing presentation. Another strong dish, another 8/10.

Starter 1: Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil

We both received the next dish which, in my opinion, was one of the more beautiful plates I have had the pleasure of looking at in while. Luckily, the taste again lived up to the promise of the presentation. This dish was all about the sweetness of the Scottish scallops being married to the bright acidity and tang of the finger limes and lemon vinegar. Some additional sweetness was provided by dainty wild strawberries and a few sprigs of Thai basil. This cold plate warmed my heart and reminded me of my frozen plate of sea urchins at noma a few months prior (possibly because of the connection between the Orkney Islands and the lone Scotsman who caught the sea urchins at the Northern tip of Scandinavia). 9/10.

Starter 2: Smoked Goats’ Cheese, Shallot, Mint & Potato Bread

Next came the starter I had actually ordered from the menu. This was pure genius and not at all what I had been expecting to find at a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. It was probably not such an expensive dish to put together, but its rich flavors proved you don’t need fancy ingredients to make something taste amazing. The shallots had been beautifully cooked and were hence exceedingly sweet. This allied well with the smokiness that ran through the dish, from both the cheese and the char on the potato bread. The yogurt was excellent, as it had been in our canapés, and the mint – which arrived in both liquid and leaf form – not only added a pretty visual accent, but a significant layer of flavor too. I almost licked my plate clean. 9/10.

Starter 3: Langoustine, Black Pudding, Blood Orange & Leek

Another unannounced dish was presented shortly thereafter, and this one was also a looker. A classic combination of black pudding and langoustines was executed very well, but it was again the minute but flavorful accents that set this above other versions that I’ve had of this pairing. Besides its citrus notes, the blood orange added good acidity to cut through the sweetness of the langoustines and the richness of the black pudding. The langoustines were very close to the texture and sweetness of the ones I had at noma, and they were cooked very well, retaining their moisture and soft texture. 8/10.

Main Course: Cornish Pollock, Orecchiette, Dead Nettle, Preserved Lemon & Olive

Unfortunately, one of the two dud notes in this thus far edible symphony was my main course. I have had Pollock a few times before, and it has never been my favorite of fishes, but I thought in such a kitchen they might be able to elevate this humble craniate to new heights. Sadly it was not to be. The fish itself seemed a little too dry to me, and it just didn’t have much flavor. The same couldn’t be said of the accompaniments, which were actually excellent…on their own, that is. I really enjoyed the robust flavors that came from the green nettle (mimicking pesto in texture), the particularly sweet tomato (did they add a sweetening agent?), some bittersweet preserved lemon and purple olives. The homemade pasta they came with was first-rate too, cooked as al dente as you’d get in a proper Italian restaurant. So if it had just been a bowl of pasta with sauce, great, but unfortunately the fish and the rest of it just didn’t integrate at all and I almost didn’t see the point in finishing the fish itself. 6/10.

Men at Work

Our waiter asked us if we would like a tour of the kitchen as we waited for our desserts, and we certainly had no reason to decline. It turned out Marcus was not in the kitchen – I would guess he was in St Pancras Renaissance Hotel at the then soon-to-open (and now opened) The Gilbert Scott, his second London restaurant – but his head chef, James Knappett (who is on twitter, by the way), was present and had a lot of interesting things to say. I think the three of us actually ended up talking for nearly half an hour, and we learned a lot about the restaurant’s extremely high quality of sourcing of ingredients, plus the serious effort they put into making as many things as they can in the kitchen from scratch (including all of the pastas, for instance). It was also great to see them finishing all of the plates going out at the pass.

Pre-Dessert: Cubed Cake (Possibly Caramelized White Chocolate) & Honeycomb

After our seventh-inning, and eight-course stretch, we returned to our table, where we were met with another delight. I am not sure exactly what this creamy cube of a cake was called, but it was delicious, with a decadent dark chocolate layer on top, and some crumbled honeycomb whose crunchiness and mellow sweetness worked perfectly with it. 8/10.

Pre-Dessert 2: ‘Manhattan'

Given my current city of work, it was a shame that the other real shortcoming in my meal was the ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert. I really can’t recall much about it except that both my dining partner and I didn’t like it at all. It was a shame considering it was quite an attractive little glass. I prefer not to score this as, if I did, it would probably be around a three and disproportionately bring down the score for the overall meal. My strong reaction to it was probably due to my dislike of the flavors inherent within the glass (I remember something like blackcurrant and/or kirsch, neither of which I care for much).

Dessert: Custard Tart, Rhubarb & Black Pepper

We both ordered an evolved version of Marcus’ Wareing’s now classic British dessert, which originally made it through to the final event in the first series of The Great British Menu television, and, and was served to HRH herself. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I did enjoy most elements of the complicated plate, with its pink, creamy Hershey kisses, candied rhubarb, crispy crumbs and ice cream. The custard tart itself was very good, but I thought there was too much going on otherwise – it all seemed a sideshow, a distraction. The flavour of black pepper did come through very strongly, and I had mixed feelings about how this interacted with the sweeter-than-expected rhubarb flavour and the firm custard itself. I think the original version may have been better, though I never tried it. I would personally pare this down a bit more, at least presentation-wise. 6/10.

2005 santadi latinia (sardinia)

The sommelier recommended a sticky wine from Sardinia to go with dessert and it was pleasant enough though it didn’t get my palate racing. It was also quite aggressively priced, but I couldn’t complain given the extra courses and wines we had been given.

Bonbon Trolley

We were both totally stuffed at this point and, despite my noted sweet teeth, I couldn’t bring myself to sample a single sphere from the prodigious and immaculate bonbon trolley. 😦

A splendid surprise

As I pointed out at the beginning, my expectations were not very high before our meal, and most of the food we were served far exceeded them. For the most part, each dish had been technically very well prepared, and the unifying theme – as there didn’t seem to be a particular type of cuisine being served – was the fullness of the flavors. Out of the all the dishes we tasted (and that was a fair many), the only dish in particular seemed lacking in this department was my companion’s starter of mackerel, cucumber, beetroot, carrot, finger lime and chilli.

Pretty Picture, Muted Flavors

It looked beautiful (see the photo above), but it just didn’t function well as a whole, and was quite bland, with the star of the show – the mackerel – leaving something to be desired. (I must add that his main course of beef cheeks and bone marrow was completely the opposite, with deep flavors that begged to be eaten). The only other thing we both didn’t like was the cute little ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert, but this is nitpicking. The fact is the food here certainly belongs in a small handful of the best London ‘fine dining’ restaurants.

Marcus, Part Deux

The service throughout the meal, which was delivered by a diverse cast of characters, was generally very good. Besides one person who I think took himself a tad too seriously, everyone was knowledgeable, friendly and professional. The interaction was definitely on the formal side, but this is what you expect at such a venue.

If I still lived in London, I don’t think I would be chomping at the bit to return asap, but I certainly would like to explore more of the menu as I think the kitchen is performing at a very high level. And if I had a business meeting or formal occasion to celebrate, this would definitely be one of the places I would consider. I guess this is proof that you can’t always judge a chef by his TV cover(age). Good show.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is a seriously thick, heavy, leather-bound tome of over 40 pages, which has some great wine from excellent producers. There is a good selection by the glass and half bottle too, although it seems very aggressively priced across the board, with mark-ups of 4 times or so common throughout. You can see a list of the wines we had by the glass that the sommelier chose for the pairings with our dishes.

The wines we drank

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley once, and it was for a weekday lunch. Please note above that we received two extra starters – with accompanying wine – plus possibly an extra pre-dessert, for which we did not ask and did not pay of, likely as we were either known to the house or simply because they saw that we were interested and taking photos of the food*

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley on Urbanspoon

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.”