As Noma comes to a close, how does its legacy and Vegetables Season stack up? A pilgrimage to Copenhagen sees FACT find out.
Over many years, I applied for reservations at El Bulli, while having a pound of flesh extracted by a now-defunct law firm. You did not just “get into” El Bulli. One applied for a seat during a six-month dining window. I hurled my name into its yearly reservations lottery.
Never accepted, I never made it to El Bulli. The restaurant closed in 2011 with three MICHELIN stars and a coveted, five-time World’s 50 Best Restaurant win. It was, arguably, the most decorated restaurant of all time. Until, Noma.
Noma – if you’ve never heard of it – is a modern Nordic waterside restaurant responsible for a renewed near-fetish-level interest in foraging and the reason why kombucha and fermented things have cropped up on menus worldwide.
Lauded and copied, Noma is also one of the most influential restaurants ever, with 3 MICHELIN Stars and a MICHELIN Green Star. When chef René Redzepi announced that Noma would close at the end of 2024, I vowed to visit, not to repeat El Bulli.
So, here we are, walking down Noma’s long garden path. Tourists congregate to take selfies against its sign. Like the late summer sky over us, Noma enters the twilight of its reign, although future projects and past incarnations tell me this Phoenix, too, shall resurrect.
Artichokes guild the front door, hinting at the 18-course “Vegetables” season. Noma resembles a restaurant, but it’s more of a laboratory with dedicated testing areas and walk-in chillers stacked scobys bobbing in kombucha. Chefs in an open kitchen furiously build courses like a fleet of roadies assembling the Super Bowl halftime show. Each barks militantly, “Yes, Chef”, like in the smash hit movie The Menu.
Noma’s relaxing decor is fancier than homely, but not by much. Indoor plants hover over honeyed woods. A wall of sliding glass doors overlooking Noma’s gardens welcomes in a gentle, late summer breeze.
Noma’s unconventional style meanders throughout our five-hour dinner. This brings us to the food, wine and juice. I sense I would enjoy a second dining more. I suspect eating at Noma is like watching a Christopher Nolan movie for some, where it starts to click into place after a second round. The dining experience lingers at times unresolved, partly confronting your preconceptions. To that end, Noma is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. A culinary odyssey that will not delight everyone simply looking to be blown away plate after plate. Instead, the Vegetables Menu is like the latest album from a band long into its stride. Each track showcases the maturity of their craft but, perhaps, with fewer bangers than one would like.
Noma’s recent Kyoto popup leaves fingerprints. A delicate, toothsome king oyster mushroom sashimi in a hazelnut milk dipping sauce launches the menu. A spoonful of soy tofu – the texture of soft panna cotta – buttressed against a rubble of green rice. Cloud-soft triangle of white mould – grown inside a temperature-controlled incubator – then wrapped in a tart, sweet blackcurrant leather – a clever, meticulous dessert bite that renders us near speechless. We drink delicate sakes and natural wine, together with chilled Japanese teas.
Some of Noma’s dishes almost rely on nature alone. A bowl of flower soup in bloom floats over a chilled tomato water. That morning’s crudite – foraged from the restaurant’s gardens – over a broth of more tomato water and miso. Blanched ripe tomatoes steeped in – you’ll never guess – tomato water laced with lemon verbena.
At times, sheer artistry is casually executed like it’s nothing: Danish garden peas cossetted in a blackcurrant leather belt send my shoulders back into the chair in astonishment. A magnolia flower of white chocolate dusted in a powder of dried berries drives us home.
A lot is written about Noma. Much of it is hyperbolic, some comical, some outright scathing. Would I return? Noma challenges this, too. It was not my most enjoyable meal during a weekend assault on Copenhagen’s MICHELIN Guide. Geranium and Alchemist can fight that one out.
Not everything’s positive. Noma’s cyborg service team convey a certain exhausted menace behind the eyes, except for our server Joseph, who seemingly enjoys working here. Maybe he is new. Foodwise, the millet and young garlic dumpling pelted with marigold flower confetti is like eating a mouthful of glitter. I find myself furiously licking the inside of my mouth like a peanut butter-logged dog.
Then there’s the bill: £1,350 for two tasting menus plus a wine and juice pairing. At this price, some believe I should levitate out of the restaurant in a near-catatonic state of euphoria. I hear you. What’s that saying about anticipation again? I do wonder if Noma is being lapped by its peers. Is that partly why it’s closing?
Still, the Noma experience embodies MICHELIN’s three-star credo of “exceptional cuisine, worthy of special journey”. I leave glad that I came. A “What If” emptied. It’s a tick on my life’s bucket list. Noma’s influence will outlast its operation, making dining out all the better,
GO: Visit https://noma.dk for reservations and more information.