At long last, a table at Noma

EATING OUT: Can any dinner be worth more than €350? Noma makes the case with an offering that is not a meal – it’s a manifesto…

EATING OUT:Can any dinner be worth more than €350? Noma makes the case with an offering that is not a meal – it's a manifesto

WRITING THIS review is a little like dealing with the signature dish at its heart. Do I bite the flinching shrimp or put it back in the jar and save it until the end? Let’s crunch down. Dinner in Noma in the Danish capital Copenhagen was the most expensive meal of my life. I walked into an Irish bank and transferred €367.56 to a Danish bank for dinner for one with wines. It cost more than the return flight to Copenhagen.

Months earlier I joined thousands of others thronging the virtual gate in an unsuccessful online attempt to book a table. Now wafted on the magic carpet that is a press trip (and signed up to the most expensive all-stops option) I am pulling my chair up to a plain round wooden table in the world’s best restaurant. I am with four strangers and have butterflies in my stomach that are shortly to be joined by a live shrimp that I will kill with my bare teeth. It’s dinner with a generous dollop of added guilt.

We have walked into the thick-walled stone warehouse out of the first (and possibly last) warm night they’ve had in Copenhagen this summer. I’m fascinated to see who else is here. They don’t look like Veruca Salts whose daddies got the production line to spend the morning pressing screen refresh all those weeks ago. It’s hard to spot a suit or a Russian billionaire, or anyone visibly botoxed.


There are no tablecloths or menus. The concrete render is patchy and flaky. Overhead are ancient limed beams. The evening sunlight bouncing off the chilly waves of Copenhagen harbour turns the grey walls golden. And so it begins, a Russian ballet of chefs and waiters coming to the table, chivvying you through 10 “snacks”. First there’s a wicker basket of chilled towels to clean your hands as you’ll be using them to eat the food.

The first snack is the flower arrangement in the middle of our table. The “twigs” are a nutty malt flatbread and each nasturtium flower has a snail nuzzled in its heart. Like bolshie toddlers we are putting bits of flower arrangement in our mouths. It’s an epic ice-breaker.

There’s reindeer moss with powdered cep that tastes like a forest floor. A gorgeous curl of pork skin is deep-fried to prawn-cracker consistency, with a sweet-sour blackcurrant “leather” draped over it, culinary lipstick on a pig. There’s a leek with its roots deep fried and a nugget of seaweed butter. There are mussels in a fake edible shell (pasta dough dyed with squid ink and baked to a crunch in a mussel shell).

Then the infamous live shrimp in a Kilner jar full of ice. The lid is opened and as the warmth of the room washes over it, my shrimp, the size of my little finger, moves its horse-hairish feelers tentatively. When I lift it by the tail it surprises me by flinching with such strength that I yelp. I am not brave enough to let it move in my mouth. I bite down through the shell after dipping it in burnt butter mayonnaise. There is no explosion of flavour, just a small taste of seafood sweetness with a texture like biting through the casing of a flimsy biro.

I eat flowers, including the sunny yellow petals of a Jerusalem artichoke. There is a sublime wafer sandwich of chicken skin with a lovage and smoked cheese purée, topped with crispy ryebread. A smoked cod roe on a buttermilk crisp tastes like licking the bottom of a fishing boat in a good way. Pickled and smoked quails’ eggs come on a bed of smoking hay in a ceramic egg and break with a rush of warm golden yolk.

Then a flower pot comes with sprigs of carrot and radish leaves growing out of the “soil”. The rye crumbs undergo some alchemy that makes them cling to the vegetables like damp brown compost. The grass emulsion is a time machine to rolling down a grassy slope. I scoop it out with “soil” encrusted fingers.

And on it goes. The pace is relentless. There is no reverential silence. We finish the “snacks”, all of which are shared with a plate of freshwater crayfish.

Then the excitement calms. It’s a transition from the adventure playground into an art gallery for the main courses, which come on individual plates. The sliced green strawberries taste like kiwis. Sea urchins (like powdered ice lollies made from the essence of the sea bed) and beach herbs with a powdered cream and dill look like an alien planet. A round doughnut is sprinkled with powdered vinegar (the mirror sour sister of a sherbert dib-dab) and has a tiny fish poking through. A langoustine comes on a hot boulder like Jabba the Hutt.

You fry your own egg on a pan of hay-infused rapeseed oil. A chunk of cauliflower comes slow-cooked like meat and then caramelised. The vegetable that is nobody’s favourite is suddenly the standout main course. A plate of vegetables comes with unripe hazelnuts, again something I haven’t put in my mouth since childhood. Pieces of onion are turned into heart-breakingly beautiful coracles for a liquid of unripe gooseberries and thyme.

The first dessert, a Gammel dansk (a traditional herbed spirit) with milk meringues, catapults the 60-year-old French food critic back to his Catholic childhood and the mouth-feel of communion wafer. The second, a carrot and sea buck thorn dish, is an exercise in a restrained health-foodish finish.

After almost five hours, I don’t push back my chair burping foie gras gold-leaf-wrapped truffle fumes. I have eaten food I regularly throw in the compost and hedgerow, weeds that cost nothing but the wages of the chef whose job it was to find them. Straw spun into gold in the world’s best kitchen. This isn’t just a meal, it’s a manifesto from the bearded prophet René Redzepi, the chef who wants to save the world one mouthful at a time.

My inner cynic calls this a spoonful of ethics to help the elitism go down. But my inner child wrestles that voice to the ground and smothers it with one of the furry animal fleeces they throw on the backs of chairs here. Eating in Noma is pure and profane, profound and jokey, simple and jaw-droppingly complex. Not every mouthful made me swoon. But each one made me think, remember, laugh or flinch. You can spend more than this on a meal surrounded by rich people eating rich food to make themselves feel rich. This is something entirely different. It’s music and memory in mouth.

The Food Organisation of Denmark paid for my flight and accommodation. I paid for the meal


These were low-key rather than jaw-dropping and presented with flair at relaxed intervals. The emphasis was on biodynamic wines. Despite the variety and quantity, I woke the next morning with a clear head.

2010 Vin de France La Boheme Marc Pesnot

2009 Chablis 1 Cru Beauregard

2010 Riesling Bruck Peter Veyder-Malberg

2008 Bouchat, Guy Blanchard, Mercey-Macon-Bourgogne

2009 Anjou Blanc Les Bonnes Blanches

NV Le Clos Laherte Chavot-Champagne

2005 Poyeux Clos Rougeard

2006 Riesling Apatlese Erdener Treppchen

2010 Muscadelle, Robert and Bernard Plageoles, Cahuzac-Gaillac


Strandgade 931401 Copenhagen, Denmark 00-45-32963297

Online bookings for January 2012 open on Monday, October 3rd at 10am (9am here). A waiting-list system also operates for which you can book a specific date. A private dining room called the Staff Room is available for groups of up to 15 people, with a minimum spend of 25,000 Danish krone (€3,355)

Music: None except for the piped jazz in the loos

Facilities: Unisex and sleek

Wheelchair access: Yes

Food provenance: Ask and you will receive, down to the location of the hedgerow where a particular bunch of wild plants were picked

Added perks: A candle-lit bar for post-dinner coffee and petits fours and a tour of the kitchens, staff room, and backyard barbecue area

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests