I’m writing this at nearly 1am. I just had to, I couldn’t wait.
Tonight, some friends and I were in Copenhagen and got the chance to dine at one of the world’s greatest restaurants: noma.
a devotion to my readers and desire to tell a great story jetlag, you’re getting my live, unvarnished thoughts from an incredible evening.
There are so many accolades you can throw at noma, namely that it’s been awarded the title of World’s Best Restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2021. The Michelin guide also awarded it 3 stars, a rating awarded to only 137 restaurants in the world.
Put simply, head chef Rene Redzepi is a culinary genius, and noma is his masterwork.
noma seeks to honor the best of what nature has given Copenhagen and the surrounding region. They forage for ingredients that they include in their vast array of creations, depending on each season to give to the talented chefs unique ingredients that tell the story of the Nordic lands, forests, and seas. There are no menus at noma, you arrive for an experience that falls into one of three “seasons”: Vegetable, Game & Forest, and Seafood.
Always wanting to challenge himself and his staff, Redzepi has closed noma on multiple occasions, taking his staff on the road to places like Mexico and Australia to take residence there to explore local ingredients and learn from local chefs, and closed his original restaurant completely to reinvent itself and move it to its current complex (known colloquially as “Noma 2.0”) in Copenhagen. It’s speculated that noma will once again close in 2023 and emerge elsewhere to celebrate 20 years of culinary brilliance.
But none of that mattered today. What mattered, to me at least, was hopping in a taxi near Copenhagen’s central train station with three friends from Clubhouse, saying “noma”, and being whisked to an unforgettable experience.
Arriving at noma
noma doesn’t announce itself as much as it emerges from its surroundings on Refshalevej Island near central Copenhagen. We saw what looked like a phalanx of greenhouses among grassy fields as our taxi pulled up to an unassuming metal sign indicating we had arrived.
A staff member waited under an umbrella to check us in…and that was it. No grand entryway or anything. Upon checking in, we started to see the brilliant choreography of service, which would surprise and delight us our entire time there.
There were no radios or anything. Suddenly, as if it were at the exact time they had planned for us to arrive, another staff member invited us to follow her into the greenhouse. We walked through a verdant assortment of greenery that invigorated our sense of smell and instilled in us the freshness of what we were about to experience, as many of the herbs that would grace our dishes were grown where we stood.
We were offered a choice: tea or beer, our orders arriving promptly in moments. As we sipped on our drinks, we faced outward, looking out over distant fields and closer at plants near us.
I even noticed a bee flying around, ever the busybody, surely knowing its role in the pageantry of the evening.
Behind us was an unassuming white building, stoic in its decor.
What awaited us in that building? We didn’t have to wait long to find out. Our attendant came to greet us once again, inviting us to leave our drinks where they were, and enter the restaurant.
We walked down a long path between the plants towards what we surmised was the main building.
As we walked along, we passed the greenhouse on the right in the above picture, which turned out to be the test kitchen for noma. Chefs were hard at work but they all turned toward us to wave hello (I think I even saw Rene Redzepi himself!).
We continued toward a large wooden facade. Next to the facade was a table overrun with vibrant fruits and vegetables of all shapes and sizes, letting us know what was to come.
Before us was the wooden facade and a simple door. Our attendant had left us, it was up to us to open the door ourselves to find what lay inside.
I never expected what happened next.
When you go to a restaurant with some of the superlatives that grace a place like noma you expect big metal-filled kitchens, a constant din of utensils, and the general melee of the effort it takes to produce world-class cuisine.
We didn’t see any of that.
Instead, we saw almost the entire restaurant staff welcoming us. As we walked from the entryway to our table in the back of the restaurant, every noma team member stopped what they were doing to welcome us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was warm, genuine, and ensured our noma experience began with something special.
I mentioned the choreography of service earlier. It was clear that the team at noma put in the effort to get every last detail correct in how we were greeted. I couldn’t wait for what was next!
Our table was one of six four-tops in a room that was spacious yet still felt intimate, close enough to be aware of conversations at other tables without feeling like you were sitting on top of the table next to you. Floor-to-ceiling windows led to the same verdant greenery that we had been standing in only minutes before. The wooden tables were simple and Scandinavian, no tablecloths to be found. A simple, vibrant medley of flowers was the centerpiece of each table, a lit candle close by.
The design of the room followed the tables. Exposed wood graced every surface, the simplicity of Scandinavian design shining through, as one would expect from a place so closely-linked to its surroundings.
I sat with my back to the windows, which meant I had one of the best seats in the house, as I could easily peer into the kitchen, located at the center of the restaurant, to watch the noma staff at work.
One of many team members greeted us yet again and set in motion a culinary experience I will never forget.
We were seated just after 5pm, natural light flooding the dining room with warm accent lighting from lamps above each table. We were offered a choice of pairings to accompany our meal: wine or juice. Two of us selected the wine pairing, and the other two elected the juice pairing. We were immediately served our first set of drinks. I went with the juice pairing, thinking that the juices would be a bit wilder than anything I was used to without having to worry about the alcohol from the wine blunting any of my senses.
A juice with a rose base and jasmine infusion was quickly poured as the wine was described to those drinking it.
The wait staff was intelligent, kind, and personable. There was not a hint of pretension as they answered any question we had with a genuine friendliness that kept up the spirit of our warm greeting moments before.
They informed us we would be enjoying fifteen courses tonight and confirmed whether or not any of us had food allergies and, before we knew it, our noma experience began!
We began with noma’s take on a summer salad. A vibrant array of berries, flowers, corn (it’s corn!), and other vegetables sat beautifully in a cold broth.
We dug in. Admittedly I’m not the biggest vegetable-eater out there but put aside my preferences and just decided to eat whatever ended up in front of me. Each bite was a sensory experience, with fresh flavors and crisp textures changing each time. The flavors were wonderful and my goodness was it a beautifully-crafted dish!
Thinly-sliced cauliflower was perched atop a crunchy waffle, which seemed like a wafer of sorts. Bright florals punctuated the scene with pops of color.
The cauliflower had its own crunch, which was enhanced by the crunch of the wafer supporting the cauliflower slices. It was an exercise in textures. It wasn’t just THAT it was crunchy, it helped me develop the ability to appreciate two different kinds of crunch in the same bite as one enhanced the other.
We continued with more juices/wine as our third course arrived: a grilled padron pepper, the skin of the pepper removed, that was stuffed with sunflower seeds. A rhubarb came alongside and we were invited to squeeze it like a lemon over the pepper before biting into it.
I’m not much into peppers but the rhubarb helped me cross that bridge well enough. The soft charred pepper flesh gave way to the familiar texture of sunflower seeds, again testing a mix of flavors and textures along with a more monochromatic color palette.
Up next was something unlike anything I had ever tasted. Dolma inside of cucumber skin sounds exotic enough, but the main ingredient inside was: nuts with mold on them! White mold, safe for consumption, it needs to be said.
The cucumber skin was delicate and light, each bite bringing the spongy feel of the mold. I can’t quite explain it, other than to say it was incredible. One of our wait team brought a sample of the mold for us to see.
It honestly took everything I had to not just grab one of the disks and take a big bite out of it, that’s how good the dolma was!
We had clearly departed from the familiar and were now along for the ride, the dishes proving to us we could handle complicated flavors and textures. Our next course had very strong flavors that worked together incredibly well: new season garlic in an onion jelly with cream.
The vibrant colors gave way to a strong, dark jelly with small, potent chunks of new season garlic. The flavors were powerful but the garlic cut through the richness of the jelly really well.
We returned to rich colors with a radish pie for the next course. Small slices arranged purposefully made for a beautiful dish with another crunchy wafer underneath.
A small bit of horseradish in the center added some spice to the course, which cut through the rich flavors of the radishes really nicely.
Up next was a course that pushed the creative boundaries. When fermenting things like kombucha, a layer of bacteria and yeast appears, commonly known as scoby. noma took scoby and made it into a dish, with smoked pumpkin and chili oil.
The microflowers were necessary to enliven the dish a bit. While this dish definitely looked, er, different, the texture wasn’t that different from a piece of ginger that you’d see at a sushi restaurant as a palette cleanser between courses. By this point we were on board with whatever would come next.
What came next actually looked familiar and also reminded me of a sushi restaurant. I also think it was the best-looking dish of the evening: a tempura-fried marigold flower with a dipping sauce of cured egg yolks and rye whiskey.
The marigold was feather-light and crispy beyond all expectations. The cured egg yolks enriched the flavors and allowed the crunchiness of the tempura’s texture to shine!
This was almost as good as the mold (add that to Sentences You Never Think You Would Say)…almost.
Course after course of food came our way, bursting with flavor as we made our way to the main course.
There was the egg cooked with beets and ramson (one of the only obvious animal-based parts of the Vegetable season meal. It wasn’t vegetarian or vegan, just highlighted vegetables)
And the incredible crispy potatoes wrapped in sea lettuce on a foam, yet another dish where something light and delicate gave way to a texture with a bit of crunch.
Honestly, the vegetables hadn’t really been that big of an issue for how picky of an eater I can be. I went with whatever they put in front of me and gave it a shot.
But then the grilled young artichoke came, with a savory sauce in the heart of it.
I don’t like artichokes.
The dish was beautiful and I thought to myself, “Ok this will actually help things. If I don’t like it at noma, I’ll have a better retort ready for the people who are like ‘oh you’ll like artichokes you probably just haven’t had them cooked the right way’.”
I had an artichoke cooked by the best restaurant in the world…and I still didn’t like it. Others at the table did, so I can confidently say it was just me!
The main course
Finally, after eleven courses, we finally arrived at the main course.
Now, before I get to the main course, a quick aside. My buddy was the one who got the reservation, and noma staff reached out to him about a week before we arrived asking about food restrictions. None of us had any allergies but a few of us really didn’t care for mushrooms, including me. I didn’t want to make a huge thing of it though, since I’m not allergic to them, I just normally wouldn’t choose mushrooms on any menu at any restaurant ever.
The main course was: mushrooms. Lion’s mane mushrooms, specifically, roasted and topped with pumpkin along with a sauce infused with roses and a side salad reminiscent of our first course.
The colors were vibrant, the smells were enticing…but would I be able to get past my mental block about mushrooms?
Yes. I ate the mushrooms. And they were DELICIOUS. Roasting them made the mushrooms taste like meat to me and the sauce was a rich and savory accompaniment. The side salad had pops of sweetness from the berries and tartness from the flower petals. It was a smart main course and I sincerely enjoyed it.
[similar to the artichokes above, noma actually helped me be able to turn down mushrooms in the future! “Sorry, I only have mushrooms at this one restaurant in Denmark” will be my new excuse]
After the main course, we had some time before our desserts began. Night had fallen, and the smart lighting design of noma was more apparent, so I grabbed some pictures.
Everything was subtle and warm, every light there for a purpose.
In the kitchen, some were still cooking while others had finished for the evening and had begun cleaning. I captured some candid pictures of those still working while staying out of their way.
Our dessert courses began in similar fashion to our main courses: with a salad. Chocolate from Tulum in Mexico was served with berries, dried fruit, and a variety of herbs, including basil and mint.
The chocolate was rich and intense, with almost no hint of sweetness to it. The sweetness instead came from the berries and dried fruit with an occasional bite into basil or mint leaf to liven things up. This was the one dish where I felt like you had to be intentional in what you put on your fork. If you weren’t precise, you could end up with just a mouthful of herbs, which went against what I felt was the spirit of the dish.
The next course honored one time’s most enduring sweets: honey. What looked like a tartlet was placed before us, containing oatmeal-based ice cream, honey, and topped with just a hint of bee pollen (which is a VERY powerful taste).
The elements of the dish worked together incredibly! I had tasted bee pollen before, so I was ready for it, but others in my party were in for a bit of a surprise when it hit their palette for the first time!
I loved the ice cream, texturally everything was smooth and similar but just different enough to make it compelling.
Our final course was presented to us in a box with an acrylic lid. It was the most delicate dish of the evening, a fitting conclusion to a menu celebrating delicate vegetables.
Inside the box was marinated honeycomb, which had been filled with a variety of natural and flavored honeys.
It was incredibly delicate but absolutely genius, because so little separated vastly different flavors. I couldn’t tell you what each flavor was by any stretch, but never in my life had I enjoyed something quite like that. Each chew felt like a new course! It was the perfect ending to a perfect meal.
We settled up the bill and got ready to re-enter the regular world. The darkness of night gave us a new and fresh look at the incredible architecture at noma.
As we began walking down the same pathway upon which we had entered, we saw the test kitchen once again, with pictures up on the wall. Were those pictures of future dishes? We might need to come back and find out.
I took one last look down the walkway around me, noticing the sunflowers along the pathway and tried to gather my thoughts. A smile crept its way from my face as I remembered what was simply the best meal I’ve ever had.
Summing up the experience
I’ll try not to make this too dramatic, even though it’s late and I haven’t been able to sleep. It all started with the greeting for me. That they would plan the service around a warm greeting, especially in a culture where everyone tends to mind their own business, made everything begin so perfectly. The wait staff’s effervescent descriptions of each course, each wine, and each juice gave us the confidence to enjoy everything as it was meant to be enjoyed. I had never eaten at a modern, creative restaurant like this before, the wait staff made it seem approachable instead of pretentious.
In a place where the food was (rightfully) the highlight, it was the people of noma that stood out. The team was well-trained and seamless, with each person knowing their responsibility at each stage of the meal. It wasn’t just about what to do, but when to do it. It was a metaphor of sorts for the dishes we were enjoying, each course seemed to either complement the one before it or set us up for one coming after. Each ingredient was placed on the plate with exact precision so each bite would be new, exciting, and impart upon us the flavors of the season, each flavor coming at the perfect time.
Maybe that’s the point of noma’s vegetable season. Maybe it’s to make us slow down and enjoy the complex, smaller things in life piece-by-piece. As we left, the world seemed to smell a bit different and my eyes picked up more details in the quiet darkness of that last walk towards the taxi stand. Maybe it’s about reacquainting us with the joy of those small, delicate things in life.
I don’t know if we did noma the right way or the wrong way, but we approached it with open minds and left with full bellies and fuller smiles. It was a special night that I will never forget.
Have you been to noma? What did you think? Tell me in the comments below!