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At Noma, cooking up a Nordic cuisine

By Denise Drower Swidey
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark - Earlier this summer, I was eating lunch at the current No. 1-ranked restaurant in the world, and my appetizer was moving. Not a whole lot - perhaps slowed by its crushed ice bed, inside the covered Mason jar it had arrived in. I shouldn’t have been that surprised. The server did introduce the dish as “very, very, very, very fresh’’ fiord shrimp. Was the head flavorful and the tail creamy, as the server promised? Was the accompanying brown butter emulsion the perfect foil? Hard to say, as I was more concerned with demobilizing the shrimp in my jaws before it tried to claw its way back up my esophagus. After the soft shell popped and crackled in my mouth, the taste was so fresh and clean that, for a moment, it did bring me right to the north shores of Zealand, Denmark’s largest island in the North Sea, where it had been caught only hours earlier in a Danish sound called Isefjord.

That fleeting yet transporting moment is what Noma is all about. The Copenhagen restaurant prides itself on intimately connecting the diner with the time and place of the ingredients, all of which - except the coffee, chocolate, and wine - come exclusively from the Nordic region. And Noma’s ability to forge that connection has a lot to do with how this relatively new outpost for culinary innovation has blazed a path to become owner of some of the world’s hardest-to-score tables.

It also helps explain why Scandinavia, a region whose culinary profile was long associated with its unappetizing Viking past, has become a hot travel destination for adventure-seeking foodies. In particular, Copenhagen, whose 1.8 million inhabitants account for about a third of the entire population of Denmark, has seen its food identity transformed. Once a culinary backwater, the city is now home to more Michelin-starred restaurants, per capita, than any other city. A strong case can be made that none of that would have happened without Noma and its fidgety shrimp.

The shrimp fell seventh in an 11-course, rapid-fire “snack’’ menu that arrived before the formal 12-course meal even began. (Lunch here is taken just as seriously as dinner.) Like a front-loaded fireworks grand finale, a new snack arrived on the heels of the last, with explosive, inventive presentations and flavors more brilliant than the previous. Sometimes they were in plain sight: The malt flatbread sticks dusted with juniper and pine powder to evoke the forest were actually hiding out as branches in the table’s wildflower arrangement. No snack required a fork to eat, and many arrived family-style, quickly establishing that this was nothing like the classic French restaurants that had served as Denmark’s equivalent of fine dining before Noma came to town in 2003.

After the snack blitzkrieg ended, I had a chance to catch my breath and really look around. Noma is located in an 18th-century rehabbed warehouse on the windswept North Atlantic Wharf in the Christianshavn district. The dining room, which reflects the ethos of the food, is a beautiful blend of old and new - with weathered exposed beams and sleek yet comfortable chairs draped with animal skins. The bread, made with Swedish whole-meal Öland flour, arrived bundled in a stylish brown felt wrapper befitting an expensive piece of silver.

Still, the setting could be mistaken for an extraordinarily up-market fishing shack. Yet this is the place that vaulted to the top of San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurants list, two years running, dislodging El Bulli, the recently shuttered Spanish shrine to molecular gastronomy, from the top spot it had owned for four consecutive years. The full answer for how Noma managed its remarkable ascent would become more apparent over the next 12 courses of my lunch, as well as in subsequent discussions with the partners who not only built a restaurant sensation, but helped their region let go of its forgettable food past to forge a new gastronomic identity.

The Nordic region encompasses Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, and their associated territories. The original concept behind Noma was to rely exclusively on ingredients from these countries, reconnecting with nature’s nearby bounty. Early on, in the hands of Noma’s chef and partner René Redzepi, the goal became far more ambitious. As he explained in an interview after lunch, he had no interest in playing culinary games, such as simply substituting Danish cream in a French crème brulee. He wanted to reimagine an entire cuisine. “How do you put the sum of your ingredients, the people, the soil, the weather, the staff, the religions, the history, the future, together on a plate so that it only belongs here, and it connects to all the aspects?’’ he said. “That is our job. That is what we are trying to do.’’

In the absence of any strong national food identity, the three most popular dishes in Denmark were pizza, lasagna, and shawarma, a pita bread sandwich. French and Italian menus dominated the country’s upper-tier restaurants. Most people were afraid of true Nordic cuisine, said Redzepi’s Noma partner, Claus Meyer, a well-known Danish chef and TV personality. And for good reason. “Nordic food is primarily renowned for its terrible gustative qualities,’’ he said, “rotten intestines of Arctic birds, and deeply fermented small fish in tins that explode from Sweden.’’

Inspired by Spain’s culinary turnaround, Redzepi and Meyer were hopeful they could achieve something similar in Denmark. They would rely less on the molecular gastronomy techniques pioneered by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià (under whom Redzepi trained), and instead let the locally sourced and foraged ingredients do the talking.

A year after Noma opened, the partners decided to confront Nordic food’s bad rap head-on. They gathered members of the regional “gastro-intelligencia’’ for what they billed as a New Nordic Cuisine symposium. They hammered out a 10-point manifesto that emphasized purity, freshness, seasonality, healthfulness, regard for animal welfare and the environment, and a commitment to promote Nordic products.

The symposium sparked a fire in the food community. Before long, Noma’s tables were booked solid. In 2007, Noma received a second Michelin star. Then, in the spring of 2010, Noma grabbed the world’s attention when the San Pellegrino list gave it the top slot. While the Michelin star is the classical mark of excellence for European restaurants, the Noma team quickly learned that the San Pellegrino list is far more influential in turning a restaurant into a phenomenon. “San Pellegrino cannot be compared to anything,’’ Redzepi said, standing in the Noma kitchen, “because it’s the biggest marketing tool that exists in our industry.’’ That industry-setting list helped transform not only El Bulli, but also Napa’s French Laundry and London’s Fat Duck. When Noma received the top spot, they got 100,000 reservation requests the next day.

And the attention is spreading to other parts of the region. The chef behind a different Copenhagen restaurant, Rasmus Kofoed of Geranium, won this year’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition. The silver and bronze winners were from Sweden and Norway.

What’s so special about the food at Noma? It’s the hybrid of pure and inventive. There are fresh radishes, potted in sheep yogurt mousse in terra cotta, complete with an earthy-tasting layer of edible “soil.’’ There’s a simple mix of salad root, juniper, and green strawberries, the last element being a Noma-inspired fad that has spread across Denmark. There’s a dish called “rye bread, chicken skin, lumpfish roe and smoked cheese’’ that literally turns the traditional Danish smorrebrod (open-faced sandwich) on its head - the impossibly crispy chicken skin on the bottom in the bread’s spot. Finally, there’s a duck egg course that offers as much tableside theater as nourishment. Diners cook the egg themselves on a piping hot, cast-iron platter that arrives at the table resting on a bed of damp hay, adding freshly foraged greens to the skillet at the very end.

As impressive as all of these dishes are, does this New Nordic Cuisine differ that much from the locavore movement spawned decades ago by California’s Alice Waters? I posed that question to Claus Meyer. (The Noma partner and self-described “gastro-entrepreneur’’ is so busy these days that our interview took place as he was getting his hair cut at an upscale salon.) He argued that Waters is all about defending the values and “good things of the past.’’ New Nordic Cuisine, he said, doesn’t have a rich heritage to defend, so it’s “about creating something great for tomorrow.’’

What’s next for Noma? Redzepi is following up his successful first cookbook with another. And then there’s his pursuit of that elusive third Michelin star. “We have all this success, which is also a big problem for creativity, surprisingly enough. It’s better to be climbing,’’ said the 33-year-old chef. The actual star, he stressed, is less important than the quest. “It’s a goal.’’

Meyer was so inspired by the success of reconnecting the Danish with their natural culinary resources that he is applying the same model to a new country: Bolivia. Next year, Meyer and a nonprofit organization he paired with plan to open a cooking school and restaurant complex in La Paz. The plan is for chefs from around the world to come work with Bolivians to unlock their region’s culinary potential and hopefully help stabilize the country’s economy. Following the Noma playbook, he also plans to hold a symposium there.

Bolivia as the next foodie hotspot? Why not? As Redzepi said, “If it can happen in Copenhagen, on a corner, on the dockside, of course it can happen anywhere.’’

Denise Drower Swidey can be reached at dswidey@comcast.net.

If You Go

Noma
Strandgade 93
1401 Copenhagen K
011-45-3296-3297
www.noma.dk
It’s not easy to get a reservation. Noma seats 34 at lunch and 44 at dinner, and is closed on Sundays and Mondays (when many members of the kitchen staff take the day to go foraging together). The restaurant normally takes reservations at the beginning of the month for dates three-plus months in the future. The 12-course meal is about $257 with an optional wine pairing for about $193. A seven-course meal is about $202.