Some meals are inevitably more memorable than others. As the ultimate full-sensory and cross-cultural experience, food has an uncanny ability to create memories that last a lifetime. On a recent date night, my wife and I discussed the fine-dining capabilities of mapo tofu for an hour, that’s however all I really remember from that meal. Ask me in a week’s time, I might have problems reciting any of the dishes we ate. When it comes to our very first fine-dining meal though – despite recently celebrating its 10 year anniversary – I remember almost every detail. From the manager’s welcome (short; bald; in a suit), to the first amuse-bouche (a smoked duck egg with a nuclear taste blast which left us in a mutual, silent staring contest fuelled by our digestive systems’ disbelief). The three hours that followed provided countless further memories, and the pure adrenaline that pulsed through my body once we walked out of the door is something I will never forget. Drawing that first breath of cold, Danish, spring air, it was very clear I had just experienced something that would have a lasting impact on my life.
“…a nuclear taste blast which left us in a mutual, silent staring contest fuelled by our digestive systems’ disbelief”
To be honest with you, I’ve been chasing that exhilarating feeling ever since. Sometimes I get close, but nothing truly compares to how I felt about this specific dinner. Its novelty, and the way it shattered my expectations, blew my mind in a way that just can’t be recreated. I understand that now. And I’ve made my peace with it.
“Its novelty, and the way it shattered my expectations, blew my mind in a way that just can’t be recreated”
The story of this meal starts in a student dorm in the southern Swedish city of Lund. My girlfriend and I had just moved into a shared apartment with a kitchen so small, only one of us could cook at a time. (This was actually a very practical set up: you could simultaneously cook and do the dishes without actually moving your feet). I had given up my bachelor crib with a beloved balcony for the move – a painful separation that was quickly soothed by the realisation that I had a partner-in-eating who was as equally nerdy about food as me.
It was 2008, and a spur-of-the-moment idea made us take the jump from a diet of pasta arrabbiata and frozen fish pies to a pact that would see us save all our spare change, to be spent on dinner in the region’s best restaurant after a year of saving. We were dirt-poor students at the time, both working in student restaurants for the free booze. This was the only way we could ever afford to visit an expensive restaurant.
“A friend told us about a place that had just received its second star working exclusively with Scandinavian ingredients”
Many fish pies later (shrimp being the favourite), the year ended with a realization that we had a sizeable amount of cash and no idea where to spend it. After quick deliberation we concluded that we wanted to dine at a restaurant “with Michelin stars”, but the Michelin Guide hadn’t reached Southern Sweden back then, so we were forced to look across the Öresund bridge to Copenhagen. A friend told us about a place that had just received its second star working exclusively with Scandinavian ingredients and through the lack of any other input, we called in and were offered a table four weeks later. We booked it, and swore at the ridiculousness of having to wait so long for a table.
The aforementioned smoked duck egg was only the tip of that evening’s iceberg of revelations. Other items included a chicken skin wafer with rye bread and vendace roe that will crumble to perfection on my imaginary palate for all of eternity; slow-cooked lamb came served with wild garlic alongside a short-blade Swedish “Mora” knife for cutlery; and a plate of razor clams came with parsley oil and horseradish ice that froze my brain in the most pleasant manner. The meal also included timely curiosities such as a dessert of maltodextrin walnut dust (evidence of the El Bulli-style molecular gastronomy that was still cool at that time) that left us mesmerised with a strange and exorbitantly dry powder which stuck to the upper part of our mouths. Alongside all the food we sipped on birch sap and a lot of free water (we couldn’t afford any wine) and my girlfriend went on for years afterwards about the exceptional quality of the water.
Our meal that night was a mind-gobbling experience that sparked a fire in our minds. A fire which has since grown into a full-fledged blaze of food-nerdism across all levels. What lingered (besides my girlfriend’s obsession with the water), was the realization that Nordic localism had fine-dining legs that could actually go some distance. The initial fear that we might miss out on a classic, French-style dining experience for our first fine-dining meal together was quickly overcome, and to this day I’m convinced that our experience at Noma set the gold standard for my strong affinity towards minimalistic fine dining.
The girlfriend with whom I shared this meal is now my wife, and we still collect coins in a bowl all year only to empty it on our anniversary and blow it all on a babysitter and a special meal. Some have been quite extraordinary, but none will ever compare to that one meal we had at Noma on April 2nd, 2008.