It’s a regular weekend in Amsterdam when an email pops into my inbox. From my position on the sofa, I lazily read the subject line: “Noma reservation spots open with us November 2”. My eyes widen. I sit up straight. I read on: “We have a booking for 8 people for dinner, but most of our friends dropped out. Do you or anyone you know want to come with us to Copenhagen?” My heart starts racing. Is this some kind of scam? A rapid internet-stalk of my mysterious Noma benefactor reveals nothing untoward: he seems to be who he says he is. And besides, he’s not asking for any money – if it is a scam, it’s a pretty weak one.
I realise that if I want to make this happen, I need to act fast. I can’t be the only food blogger he’s emailed. And if I am going to fly to Copenhagen to meet up with several complete strangers for dinner, I’d rather not go alone. But who do I know who’s crazy enough to drop everything and sink several hundred euros into one meal? I ask the Honey Badger, but this is a bridge too far – even for him. My mind is racing. The clock is ticking. Maria: fellow food and travel writer, ex-colleague, and (above all) friend – she might just say yes. A couple of frantic emails and phone calls later, I find myself writing back to Mr Noma: “We’re in.”
At six o’clock we meet in a bar – a kind of ice breaker before the big event. The venue was chosen by Mr Noma, and it’s thick with smoke and local beer – like a brown café in Amsterdam 10 years ago. We’re incongruous in our smart clothes and our non-smoking and our penchant for pre-dinner cocktails. I panic. What if the Noma date is a complete disaster? I order a beer to calm my nerves and channel my inner extrovert. I talk – about anything – I can carry this off, I can.
Reeking of cigarette smoke, our motley crew gratefully tumbles out onto the pavement for a brisk and bracing walk to the restaurant. By this point, I’ve got to know people a little: Mr Noma is in fact a patent lawyer, who’s on an extended vacation with his Finnish date. Then there are two parents from New York with their grown-up son, who smiles a lot but doesn’t say much. I wonder how on earth they ended up here? The wonders of the internet… And there’s Maria, of course, whose blog HeartRome has sent her all over the world, and her sister who is staying from Australia – I’ve never actually met her before, but she’s so much like Maria I feel like we’ve known each other for years.
Once outside the restaurant, I take a deep breath. The door opens, and a crew of at least 20 impossibly young and attractive staff clad in grey aprons greet us like celebrities. I wonder how they manage to drop everything and do this every time a new set of guests turns up, but I guess that’s for them to know and me to find out. For all the high staff-to-guest ratio that you find at Noma, that’s where the comparison to other high-end restaurants stops. Because here, there’s no starched white tablecloths and 10 sets of cutlery. There’s no bowing and scraping and feeling like you can’t make a sound. The tables are rustic and wooden and simple – as is the cutlery, on occasion (wooden spoon, anyone?). There are wooden beams everywhere and pottery crockery and comfy chairs. And people laugh – not just us, but the staff. We joke around with them and they’re both gracious and irreverent enough to joke back. The atmosphere is infectious.
At this point, I’ve written 750 words without even mentioning the food. But of course the food is why we’re here. We’re told that we’re going to be eating a 16-course tasting menu “at a good pace” – which is just as well because 16 courses at Dutch service speed would take all night.
And just like that, the first appears: a fresh apple, hollowed out and filled with tiny balls of the inner-apple flesh and a kind of miso-flavoured oil. Freshly sliced scallops were “alive until two minutes ago”, we’re told, and come with a light, cool mussel broth. I’m afraid I’m not going to do justice to any dish we ate with my descriptions – not least because I’m 99% certain that a lot of what we tasted were things I’ve never even tried before and therefore have no reference point.
Possibly my favourite dish arrives next: on a bed of autumn leaves are three little tasters: the first is plum wrapped in kelp (seaweed); the second is a nasturtium flower stuffed with a black, crispy ball of something liquid and berry-flavoured in the middle; the third is a branch-shaped cracker topped with (wait for it…) ants! They taste crunchy and lemony, which we remark to the waiter.
“We don’t have citrus fruits in the Nordic countries – we have ants,” he explains. In other words: when life gives you ants, make lemonade. You couldn’t make this shit up.
Next up is a beautiful, delicate dish of sweetly earthy radishes on a malty, biscuity pastry base. Then, milk curd comes with fresh white shavings of creamy walnuts and a parsley juice that tastes so healthy it’s probably a superfood.
What looks like ravioli with pesto is in fact sea urchin, wrapped in a type of cabbage that has the texture of daikon, topped with a pesto-like dressing made from pine needles.
My favourite (shit, did I already mention I had a favourite? can I have another one?) is freshly caught lobster with layers of baby onion that are as sweet as the lobster itself, dressed in lavender oil. So delicate, so fragrant, so perfectly formed.
A firm disc of butternut squash comes with barley milk. Meanwhile, steamed king crab arrives on a pile of beach pebbles with a cured egg yolk sauce that is at once delicately light and richly decadent.
Charred “greens” could be anything, to be honest – I recognise only sage and fennel. But they are all dressed in an umami-centric scallop paste that elevates them beyond the status of local greenery.
It’s worth mentioning that in the 11 courses we’ve had so far, meat hasn’t featured at all. No foie gras, no pork belly, no marbled cuts of beef. And while I love meat as much as the next carnivore, not only do I not miss it – I love the fact that I don’t feel heavy and bloated this far into the meal.
The only meat we do eat is roasted wild duck: it was presented to us earlier in the evening before it went off for final preparations in the kitchen. We taste everything from the legs to the brain (a creamier version of liver, in texture and in taste) and all that’s in between.
From there, we move straight into desserts, of which there are three. Again, I’m not usually great with desserts after drinking the amount we have (of course, we’ve gone with the wine pairing arrangement – because why not?) but at Noma they are light and natural enough that I feel no sluggishness or ill effects.
The first is perhaps the dish I like the least: a quenelle of slightly bitter plum purée with mashed potatoes and a lightly whipped cream that (I think) tastes of amaretto. Nope, I can’t see potato desserts taking off any time soon, but it’s still interesting to try.
What looks like an ice lolly designed by wood nymphs appears next: blackcurrant wood ice cream is wrapped in roasted kononi (whatever that is – it has a tart, berry-like flavour and skin-like texture) topped with tiny leaves and flowers.
Finally, chocolate-covered moss and mushrooms look like a grown-up version of the Teletubbies, and taste like – well, nothing like moss or mushrooms.
Over coffee (which also has some insane credentials that I don’t even remember due to the 16 glasses of wine I’ve drunk by this point), we settle up the bill. Magically, our waiter knows exactly how many ways to split it (you don’t want any awkwardness about who’s paying when these kinds of figures are at stake) and politely averts his eyes while I have a small heart attack. I hand over my credit card and add a tip to make it just shy of €500, thinking of that MasterCard commercial about “priceless” experiences and totting this one up to that list.
After dinner, we get a tour of the kitchens, the lobster tanks, the fermentation rooms (they have dozens of shipping containers, all at different temperatures, all fermenting away), the creative spaces where they come up with the next nutso idea… We hear about the insanely long hours these people work, and then how many years they’ve stuck it out – working for Rene Redzepi to the exclusion of all social life is, it seems, worth it. We all develop little crushes on the Australian, the Spaniard, the American – this place attracts talent from all over the world. And then we put on our coats and step back out into the real world.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see Mr Noma, Ms Helsinki or the New York Family ever again. I do know I’ll always remember the experience I shared with them as one of the most intense of my life.