Measuring my steps, I’d say the path to one of the most talked about fine-dining restaurants in the world is round about 100 meters long. On your left side, a harbor inlet of the Nordic sea and on your right, a buzzing flower and vegetable garden. And at the end of the path, the portal to a gastronomic wonderland.
On a late summer day in 2019, this path was walked by my wife, aka my most trusted food partner, and yours truly. Two seasoned diners, unusually excited about the meal before them, exchanging smiles and arriving, finally, at the most photographed wooden door in Copenhagen.
“And at the end of the path, the portal to a gastronomic wonderland”
We were visiting Noma, or the “new” Noma, for the second time and the reason for the revisit was very specific: Vegetable Season. It was a meal I had been looking forward to eating since the concept was first announced and few edible things in the world intrigued me more at that moment. When executive chef and owner, René Redzepi, closed the doors of the restaurant’s original location in a warehouse on Strandgade (home today to the Noma-family’s restaurant, Barr) and opened Noma 2.0 two years later on the grounds of a former military weapons depot just 1.5km down the road, he re-thought the entire restaurant concept from the ground up. In doing so, he introduced a menu structure that allowed the restaurant to focus on Nordic seasonality by rotating between three key seasons throughout the year: Seafood in spring, Vegetables in summer and Game & Forest in autumn.
“…Seafood in spring, Vegetables in summer and Game & Forest in autumn.”
As groundbreaking as this move to three ultra-focused and fully independent menus a year was, the real shocker of Noma 2.0 was the summer menu’s commitment to being 100% vegetarian. For a restaurant that constantly aspires to be the most recognised fine-dining destination on the planet, this was unheard of. Yes, iconic chefs like Alain Passard have gone down similar paths but even he eventually reintroduced meat into his menu at L’Arpége. Making the world’s most talked about restaurant fully vegetarian was a whole different game
“The first iteration of vegetable season in 2018 sent seismic ripples through western gastronomy.”
The first iteration of vegetable season in 2018 sent seismic ripples through western gastronomy. The photo of the meal’s centrepiece–a giant shawarma skewer made of celeriac–spread across social media like wildfire and Redzepi’s brigade of culinary wizards made their vegetarian menu THE thing to eat in 2018. For this second iteration in 2019, the hype was considerably less but expectations equally high. “The honeymoon is over.” Redzepi told me himself during our dinner, adding: “It might not look like it but this year’s menu is considerably more complicated to cook and produce compared to the first edition.” We were more than eager to find out what Redzepi meant by that.
When the restaurant’s wooden door swung open for us that day, it revealed the well-oiled machinery inside this Willy Wonka-esque temple of modern gastronomy. A quick walk past the busy kitchen with its seemingly endless line of smiling faces ended at our table right next to the window with a view of the waterfront. Just like during my first visit, I marvelled at the chapel-like space with light coming in from all angles through countless windows, emphasizing the strong sense of (Nordic) place that’s omnipresent throughout the whole Noma experience.
Then, the food started coming and first up was a dish evidently engineered to break the internet, flatbread with flower petals and bee pollen shaped like a colourful, delicate butterfly, delightful and borderline too pretty to eat. After that, a move to minimalism with a single, grilled green pimiento stuffed with a backstory. “It took us two years to get one of our farmers to grow a Pimiento Padron in Denmark of the quality we wanted” the waiter told us. It’s fair to say that it was worth the wait, this pepper was a million times better than any specimen I’ve ever eaten in Spain. The snack trilogy ended with a tantalising aronia seed and blackcurrant ‘leather’ parcel filled with beetroot, delivering the exact reason you come to Noma – to eat something you’ve never eaten before.
Whilst the friendly Noma brigade kept us entertained, serving us a mix of natty wines and tantalising juices, we inhaled the staff’s good vibes. People enjoy working here and that feeling is transferred to guests in their every move. Back to the food, a peeled, raw onion arrived next. Lifting the top revealed an onion broth jelly with a quenelle of whipped cream and peeled beechnuts – a smooth palate cleanser which opened the next chapter of our meal, the ‘mold’ food. For this second vegetable season, the Noma research lab came up with a fascinating new ingredient in realising they could grow Koji buckwheat mold, in a controlled manner, onto foods resulting in a trifecta of white mold dishes for the menu. First, a mold ‘taco’ shell filled with an aerated cheese mousse and preserved truffles, shortly followed by mold-preserved green asparagus with a yeast sauce. To finish, a molded egg yolk with more preserved truffles served in a seaweed tart. These three dishes tasted strikingly similar, leaving a hint of cheese-like umami on your palate comparable to the rind of a ripe Brie. Not necessarily the tastiest section of the menu, but certainly the most memorable. We were deep in uncharted culinary territory.
“…delivering the exact reason you come to Noma – to eat something you’ve never eaten before.”
A couple of dishes later we experienced the “holy grail” of vegetarian fine dining in the main courses. First, fat morels and king oyster mushrooms came served on a barbecued pine skewer stuffed with roasted grains and fried sourdough. The dish was a full home run that flew out of the vegetarian ballpark and right into the space called “no-one cares whether you’re eating meat or not” – an extraordinary dish. Then, the savoury finale: A plate full of the season’s bounty, mostly from the Noma garden, with flowers, pine shoots, pickled & raw vegetables all arranged in bite sized portions surrounding leafy greens in a seaweed and truffle sauce. “Mix and match, try everything with everything” were the instructions from our waiter.
“We were deep in uncharted culinary territory.”
For dessert we ate first a green woodruff ice cream laced with birch kombucha, then a proper thought-provoker in the shape of a thin, white chocolate bar with bee larvae. he latter added a welcome crispness but was no biggie. The petits-fours were a bowl of berries. No pralines, no nibbles, just perfectly ripe gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries and currants. A final testimony of Noma’s utter commitment to seasonality and terroir.
As we walked out of the world’s most famous restaurant that day, a thick layer of grey rain clouds had spread over Copenhagen. In the car my wife and myself quickly agreed, from a sheerly food perspective we had enjoyed seafood season at Noma, more. It had been a tastier and lighter meal in contrast to the butter, truffles and mold aromas of vegetable season, which had been slightly overwhelming at times. But we also agreed that it didn’t matter, because Noma’s genius kitchen wizards had added another layer of possibility to our edible universe. They had proven how infinitely inspiring vegetable-focused food can be, and provided a glimpse into the green pastures of vegetarian diets which exists beyond the realms of fake meat proteins and lab-engineered burgers.
“Noma’s genius kitchen wizards had added another layer of possibility to our edible universe.”
It’s easy to understand the hype surrounding Noma – no other restaurant follows the path of innovation as vigorously as René Redzepi and his crew of culinary trailblazers. Although Redzepi revealed during the evening that from 2020 onwards, the menus would start to re-feature the previous season’s most successful dishes to allow the team to invest more time in traveling again, it’s crystal clear that Noma’s innovation factory will keep on producing utterly inspiring and thought-provoking foods that are yet to find a counterpart in modern dining. A restaurant that without any doubt, will continue leading the way to not just an age of vegetables, but also to a whole new alternate universe of eating. What a treat.