Restaurant review

Noma Copenhagen: savor nature, savor life

Rholala, I finally got a hold of a table at noma Copenhagen, possibly THE most legendary Nordic restaurant in the world. The 3-star Michelin establishment has been sitting at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for consecutive years, and is known as one of the hardest restaurants to book worldwide. Noma is a pioneer in Nordic fine dining, to many, having dinner at noma is like a pilgrimage. Describing its reputation further is unnecessary since a quick search will yield an overwhelming amount of information. What I want to share is my pure personal experience and my reflections after the dinner. First, to sum up, was the food delicious? Honestly, the dishes at noma, just as I imagined, were without too many surprises. But was it worth it? I believe it was, it offered me refelections that went beyond culinary aspect, making me feel that I could become a better human (I know this might sound exaggerated).

While the taste of food is undoubtedly important, what I am trying here is to view a restaurant with a more open and inclusive perspective. One experience is worthwhile for me if it gives me either foodgasm or brain-gasm. Noma’s respect for nature is commendable, this philosophy is not only reflected in the dishes, but also in all details of the restaurant, including buildings and decors. I like to consider noma as a “food lab”, within it I explored the infinite possibilities of ingredients. I was constantly reflecting on the question “how can life be more sustainable”. I think it’s possible that noma, with its focus on nature, can bring more positive impacts to the world. Therefore, with this story, I invite you to join me on a culinary and educational adventure.

“Culinary Village” Away from the Hustle and Bustle

“Raw” — this was the first word that came to my mind upon my arrival at noma. It is located at the outskirt of Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighborhood which is known for free spirit and hippie culture, but you nearly find any trace of Christianshavn’s young vibe except for the noma sign covered with pop-art style stickers. In 2018, noma worked with architecture firm BIG and interior designer David Thulstrup to transform an ex-military warehouse for the Royal Danish Navy between two rivers into an independent “culinary village”. Surrounded by the serene beauty of nature, my eyes were filled with green colors of early summer.

After strolling the gardens planted with various herbs and vegetation, we were first invited to the waiting area inside a greenhouse to enjoy a cup of Honeybush tea, a hint of cinnamon and basil balanced and elevated its subtle natural sweetness. Sipping tea while being surrounded by plants and flowers in the greenhouse made us felt instantly relaxed.

As we walked pass the open kitchen towards our seats, we received warm greetings from the noma team that appeared very international. The 11 spaces of the noma complex are centered around this main work station, connected by glass-covered paths, which are both practical and visually harmonious. Integrating nature into everyday life is at the heart of noma philosophy. Through large floor to ceiling sliding windows, the natural ambience of the exterior garden permeates the indoor dining area. During my dining experience from just past five until nearly ten, we felt the spring breeze and experienced the changing surrounding before and after sunset – our eyes and taste buds were both satisfied.

For noma’s head chef and co-owner René Redzepi, the most important consideration for interior is to present everything with a “handcrafted feel”, emphasizing on materials as the decoration. At first glance, the interior dominated by wooden elements appears to be typical Scandinavian minimalist style, but in fact, many details reflect the essence of noma’s nature-revering philosophy. Each year noma releases 3 seasonal menus – seafood, vegetables, and game. During my visit, noma was offering the seafood menu. Marine animals are not only stars of the table, but they are also transformed into decorations in the room. The main door was adorned with sea snails, oysters, scallops, and razor clams. Looking up, mussel shells climbed up the beams, and seaweed hung freely. Once menu changes, the interior will also become anew. Using cooking ingredients as decoration, what a brilliant idea.

Letting Taste Buds Feel the Nature

No amuse-bouches were offered. The first course was a whole langoustine. I must say, noma’s “Anatomical Skills” were flawless. Langoustine was cooked to perfect: succulent, tender, retaining the natural sweetness of high-quality seafood. The big claws were sprinkled with saffron powder, whose herbal bitterness highlighted the subtle sweetness of the langoustine. The sauce in the sea snail bowl was labor-intensive, made by cooking seaweed for a long time until almost dried and repeatedly stirring in butter, resulting in a creamy sauce bursting with umami. The sauce tasted somewhat similar to miso, but more distinctly sweet. The dark green powder on plate was salt made from dehydrated plankton and pine, which I felt was more decorative as the other flavors were already strong. The shrimp head whose taste could be overly rich at times, were balanced by a sweet and tangy sauce made from various berries. Under the bowl of seaweed was an umami-rich blue mussel green tea broth with a nicely subtle “milky” aroma despite containing no dairy. Although the broth itself was quite delicious, I didn’t enjoy the smell of the seaweed when drinking from the bowl; its “fishy” taste was a bit strong even with bergamot zest on top.

A variety of seaweed was marinated with a sauce made from “very sweet shrimps” and barley koji, complemented by seaweed oil and grated fresh horseradish. The seaweed was of different textures and had taste. The enzymes produced during the barley koji fermentation combined with the rich umami of sweet shrimp enhanced the flavors of the seaweed. The horseradish hidden in the seaweed added just the right amount of sharp contrast. Humble looking, complex taste, I didn’t know seaweed could be so tasty.

“Our entire team occasionally goes out to sea with a group of fishermen to learn about fishing. Sometimes they encourage us to try tasting seaweed caught directly. At first we had doubts, but we tasted anyways. The different flavors of various seaweeds were indeed quite surprising!” One server told us the inspiration behind the seaweed dish.

Lightly cooked mussel paired with julienned Japanese quince and golden beetroot, recommended to be eaten in one go. Beautifully presented, it sadly didn’t highlight the mussel, as its taste was overshadowed by the sweetness of quince and beetroot.

Faroe Islands sea urchin paired with sliced hazelnuts, hazelnut oil, and a hint of rose oil. The hazelnuts were crisp, almost resembling a root vegetable, and their nutty aroma perfectly matched the sea urchin’s sweet and rich flavor. A faint floral note emerged in the aftertaste, adding a refreshing and unique touch. The container was misleading though, I thought there was more content in it haha.

Ultra-thin, semi-transparent squid “sashimi” has a nice crunch and chewiness at the same time, what a delightful texture! Underneath was a piece of barley koji grilled for a few seconds, offering a chewy texture and smoky flavor. Squid and grilled koji were combined with a BBQ sauce reminiscent of sweet soy sauce, topped with star anise and other spices, sorrel leaves. The flavors are possibly very familiar to Asian people. To me, it was comforting, warming, nostalgic.

The cod roe dish looked intricate, but the ingredients acted like a “dysfunctional family”. The cod roe was well-prepared—free of any unpleasant fishiness, rather it had fresh sweetness, and melted in the mouth texture. Paired with soybean miso, fresh wasabi leaves, and crisp made with varies nuts. Each part was delicious on its own but together, they didn’t make much sense because the nutiness and soy flavor overpowered the high quality cod roe.

The hand dived scallops were seared on one side, paired with a ginseng tea cream sauce. The tea liquid and cream unfortunately were separated, and the flavor didn’t penetrate the scallops too well. One side of the scallops was super tender, the other slightly overcooked. Overall, I think the flavor profile and texture needed much improvement.

Striving to use all parts of each ingredient, noma dissected a fish head, cooking each part separately according to its distinct texture. The cod tongue was incredibly soft and tender, rich in fat and melting in the mouth. It was topped with a mildly spicy sauce, combined with the ground nuts & spice. It offered a rich and flavorful taste. The fish eye tart was less satisfying, because the huge amount of roe overwhelmed the fish eye’s texture and flavor.

On the left the dish was described “the muscle under the cod’s throat,” accompanied by grilled ramsons, while the right shows the cod’s jaw. The throat meat was both pleasantly firm and succulent, its seasoning combining young garlic, parsley, scallions, etc. was too familiar to my Chinese palate, therefore lacking a “wow” factor. The jaw meat, flavored with smoked pumpkin and tomato, had a mix of mild tangy taste and sweetness, adding to the seafood a nice “earthy” flavor. Unique and interesting combination.

Burbot BBQ skewer, paired with cockles butter sauce and pickled Japanese cherry leaf. The burbot had a firm texture, it was marinated with miso and grilled over charcoal. Its sweet savory flavor is somewhat similar to regular Japanese yakitori. However when dipped in the rich, buttery cockle butter, wrapped with pickled cherry leaf, the burbot was immediately more interesting, thanks to the rich buttery taste from the sauce and subtle sour taste from the cherry leaf.

I dined at noma with 3 other friends, all of us unanimously agreed that the desserts were the highlight of the evening. The two main desserts were not only uniquely paired but also delivered sensational stimulation to my taste buds with each bite. The first was a vegan “ice cream” made from hazelnut milk, paired with birch syrup, seaweed oil, caviar, and bergamot zest. The plate was chilled to maintain the optimal temperature. Although the “ice cream” contained no dairy, it showcased a nice creamy taste with nutty aroma, combined with a silky and light texture. The rich flavors of caviar were balanced by birch syrup’s sweetness and pine tree-like aroma, as well as the fresh tastes from bergamot and seaweed oil. Various layers of textures and flavors are so well-balanced.

The oyster-like dessert looked so realistic that the server had to remind us, “This is all edible.” The shell was an ice cream made from cream infused with plum kernel and quince seeds, using a real oyster mould for shaping. Natural colourants like plankton powder, poppy seed powder, and charcoal powder created 12 shades of green, brown, and black for the realistic colors on the shell. The filling included candied quince, crispy milk crumbs, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, then finally a spray of oyster jus and Gammel Dansk. First my mouth sensed a salty and savory flavor reminiscent of seawater, then the melting ice cream enveloped the tongue, releasing almond aromas. Combined with the sweet and tangy quince and some crunchy milk crumbs, a hint of Gammel Dansk Bitter, the sweet oyster had a harmonious and unforgettable flavor.

The final two sweets. Surprisingly, the highlight here was clams. A snobrød-like croissant was coated with noma’s homemade clam syrup and clam tamari, creating an appetizing golden, glossy look. The croissant’s texture was just perfect – crispy on the outside with many layers inside. The buttery taste of the laminated pastry, the sweet syrup and mildly salty tamari created a satisfying balance. Inside the real clam shell was a Lingonberry jelly with pickled plum. Slightly sweet and tangy, refreshing, not bad as an ending to the meal.

From noma to “nomad”: Noma 3.0 project

Admittedly, not every dish at Noma is remarkable, but what truly impressed me throughout the experience was noma’s consistent nature-centric philosophy and the stories behind each dish. I love how the noma team passionately and relentlessly explores the possibilities of both luxurious and humble ingredients. Dining here felt like stepping into a science museum, allowing me to learn about how unexpected ingredients can be transformed into gourmet dishes.

Starting in 2025, Noma will temporarily close. Head chef René Redzepi and his team of nearly 200 people will live a “nomad life”, exploring the world, discovering more interesting flavors and uncovering potential of food from different countries. They might set up pop-up restaurants in various cities before eventually returning to the noma village in Copenhagen. Viewed by many as a beacon in Nordic fine dining, noma is bold enough to step back at its peak time, because it has a belief that continuous learning is essential for sustainable business development.

Spending nearly five hours at Noma, my brain was constantly stimulated by the vast amount of information, making me realize that there’s much more to learn beyond the food itself—about the relationship between nature and human, about business operations and development. My observation of noma also aligns with my overall impression of Copenhagen, a city where sustainability is seamlessly integrated into daily life. The idea doesn’t feel as forced here, it is not a marketing slogan used by businesses and politicians, it’s neither a concept that requires constant reminder.

If you have the chance to dine at Noma before it temporarily closes, I suggest you see yourself as a blank canvas, and let noma be the artist free to create. Dining is like art. The final œuvre might be an abstract, impressionist, or expressionist work, how you understand and appreciate it will be highly personal. However, what’s certain is that the canvas will be filled with more new colors that inspire you in a certain way.


Experience based on dinner on May 30, 2024

Additional thoughts

  • Although noma is considered a world top restaurant, there is absolutely no pretentiousness, no dress code either. Unlike some fine dining restaurants where servers consider themselves more knowledgeable than the guests and communicate in a top-down manner, staff at noma treated guests like friends.
  • Storytelling elevated our dining experience much! I don’t think the dinner will be as memorable if we were only informed about the composition, without knowing how they find the inspiration, how they source, treat, and pair the ingredients, etc. I appreciated those who took time to share much detail. However, there were occasions where we received different information regarding the ingredients / cooking method of one same dish. Such communication can be a bit confusing.
  • Most noma team members are passionate, and are highly capable of telling stories of the restaurant and the dishes, but not all members have the same level of enthusiasm.
  • We ordered several non-alcoholic house made drinks for pairing, but the drinks didn’t seem to really complement the dishes. Some tasted a bit unbalanced.
  • I understand there are controversies related to stagiaires payments at noma. This article does not comment on the treatment of employees, as I have no insights into it.

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