The first act of a meal at Noma passes as a dream; rich sea snail bouillon sipped from its herb-smeared shell fading into a field of empty cockleshells in which two or three contain the sweet meat; a mussel constructed from the chewy lips of half a dozen mussels woven into a single shell; hot shrimp and cold shrimp heads; a sea star painted on a rough earthen plate with the most delicate cured trout roe and a splash of eggy cream.
You taste foods in ways you’ve never thought about tasting them before, sipped concoctions of plankton and rhubarb with them as if they were fine wine.
When something that looks very much like a raw moon jelly is set down in front of you, marked with the semi-circular squiggles you have seen a dozen times in world aquariums but not considered food, you trust René Redzepi and his enormous kitchen crew. You thrust your spoon into the mass. It is cool and slippery, strongly marine, with a subtlety of texture you never would have expected if you have crunched through jellyfish dishes from China or Korea. The squiggles at the bottom of the creature taste more like ... seaweed? ... than they do like fish organs. You are almost disappointed when a passing cook confesses that the jellyfish was fashioned from thickened squid juice, that the kitchen had failed to find a way to make raw jellyfish palatable. And still — you are glad that somebody was brave enough to take one for the team.
There were moments when my trip to Copenhagen last week seemed like a stroll through a panopticon, with a sense that everyone I ran into, from the customs agent in the airport to the barista who made my cortado in the morning knew exactly why I was in Denmark, and had both strong and conflicting ideas about it. If you drink in natural-wine bars, fancy hay-smoked mackerel with your ramen and gravitate toward the kind of taverns where the bar snacks might include cod’s tongues or mead-glazed cauliflower, Copenhagen can seem like a very small town.
If you are in Copenhagen to eat at Noma, which is to say wallow for a bit in the ball pit of New Nordic cuisine, your itinerary is fairly circumscribed to begin with. Nobody just happens to eat at Noma, especially a week after it has reopened in its new quarters, a converted naval ammunition bunker near the anarchist community of Christiania, on the shore of a city lake. The seat lottery process for the restaurant, often considered the best in the world, makes Powerball seem like a sure thing. You have flown to Denmark in mid-winter to dine on what Redzepi’s Instagram feed seems to imply will be cod head, those raw moon jellies, and clams that were alive during the first World War.
The owner at the merely awesome restaurant where you have lunch, who can make boiled salsify taste like the best plate of pasta you had on your last trip to Italy, smiles bitterly. He knows that you have not flown all that way to see him.
A few hours later, after a cab driver drops you off in the middle of what looks like a dark and lonely field, you are led past a succession of greenhouses, through a room that has the open, woody feeling of a modernist ski lodge, and at a seat that looks across a narrow lake onto the majestic, steam-puffing power plant that provides the power for most of the city. The dining room’s décor includes a kind of frieze made from dried squids. The cooks and waitstaff, often interchangeable here, worked for weeks alongside the carpenters, helping to build the series of intersecting pavilions that makes up the restaurant, and they are as proud of the clean-lined woodwork as they are of the cuisine.
Redzepi appears at your table.
“You may see a fox tonight,” he says, peering out into tall grasses illuminated by the restaurant’s windows. “They feast on the ducks that sometimes come to the shore. We are only a kilometer or two from the center of Copenhagen, but this is wild nature.”
Noma, as you’ve probably heard, is the Copenhagen restaurant considered by many people, including me, to be the most influential in the world, the place where the dominant strains in world cooking — localism, seasonality, sustainability and science — came together into a whole, aided by Redzepi’s strong sense of narrative. The renaissance in fermented foods probably started here, the small plates arranged to resemble tidepool ecosystems, and the tendency to incorporate homegrown labs into the nursery of cuisine.
The original Noma had a splendid run, from 2003 until just last year, and saw as its mission the reinvention of Nordic cuisine, using only ingredients found in the Nordic countries and the techniques Redzepi had learned working at the French Laundry and El Bulli. The World’s 50 Best site named it the best restaurant in the world four times. The diaspora of ex-Noma chefs stretches halfway across the world, and in Copenhagen there is an entire tier of restaurants, pubs, noodle shops and taquerias run by Noma alumni. As much as anybody in the world now, Redzepi owns the mantle: chef.
But Redzepi is almost maniacal about the need for reinvention. His MAD, an elevated annual food conference, may change themes, but it exists to answer the question, “What should a chef be?” Each of the season-long Noma pop-ups, for which he took his entire staff to immerse themselves in the food cultures of Tokyo; Sydney, Australia; then Tulum, Mexico, sometimes felt like an extended search for self. And while the original Noma, in an ancient former herring warehouse just on the far side of the Nyhavn Bridge, never quite felt stale, you could sense that Redzepi himself may have gotten a little bit tired of the sea buckthorn, fermented roses and over-wintered carrots that had become international tropes.
Is he happy in the new building, free of the old expectations? It seems like it, at least a little if you read between the lines. An extensive, multi-coursed take on a classic seafood plateau includes century-old mahogany clams; a giant, lightly scored oyster served in its shell; sea urchin roe studded with blanched, peeled pumpkin seeds; and a scattering of crunchy dried sea cucumber insides garnished with a glistening raw sea cucumber the size of a rugby ball.
The chopped horse mussel cooked briefly with diced aromatics, was a mere 50 years old, its ancient shell bristling with barnacles and fossilized algae. Quick-blanched squid was sliced into fragile linguine, bathed in seaweed-infused butter, and somehow reassembled into what looked like a figurine of the Michelin Man. There was a lidded beeswax bowl, fashioned by the staff, filled with tiny sautéed sea snails; a painstakingly dissected roast cod head; and ice with sour cloudberries and candied pine cones before a vivid-green plankton cake.
If you have dined at Noma before, you will recognize resonances; less a repetition of signature tropes than what are nearly literary allusions to Redzepi’s work. That plate of tiny clams may refer to both an early dish of mussels served on a plate of empty shells, and to a composition of tiny freshwater clams at Noma Tokyo. The high smack of the toasted sea cucumber gonads recalled an old dish of dried scallop and toasted grains. The server’s loving descriptions of the taste of the juice in a shrimp head or the flavor of kelp ice cream; the wobbly texture of the meat just below a cod’s eye socket; the faded, delicious odor of dried rose petals nudging the meatiness of tiny whelk — they are perhaps nonsense anywhere but here.
René Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant, once called the best in the world, reopens.
Refshalevej 96, 1432 Copenhagen K, Denmark. Phone: Dial 011, then 45-32-96-32-97. Prepaid reservations: noma.dk/ reservations
Lunch, noon to 4 p.m., and dinner, 6 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Wednesdays to Saturdays