Before coming to Copenhagen, I’d heard talk of the somewhat elusive Noma Restaurant, which has been called the world’s best in recent years. I figured I would try to get a reservation once I arrived, only to find out that the restaurant requires reservations three months in advance. Slightly disappointed, I resigned to the fact that getting a reservation was next to impossible, and that I would have to get my fill of Nordic cuisine elsewhere. That is, until I got a call from my friend at 11:30 on Tuesday night.
I was aware that it was probably a little late for a casual call, so I picked up the phone to make sure everything was all right. I was surprised to hear a chirpy, perfectly fine voice on the other end. Without beating around the bush at all, my friend bluntly asked me if I would want to go with her and two other girls to Noma for lunch the following day. An awkward silence ensued as I tried to decipher whether or not she was joking. Once I figured out that she was, in fact, serious, I immediately accepted her offer and found myself having trouble falling asleep because of my anticipatory thoughts about what I would be eating the next day.
I had heard wild stories about the things people had eaten at Noma, live shrimp and moss among them. Most of what I had heard about Noma, however, was through articles I had read about new trends in Nordic cuisine. Noma has risen to the forefront of culinary discussions because of its modern take on flavors native to the Scandinavian region. The restaurant’s cuisine makes use of the ingredients in their most basic form, attempting to showcase the flavors of the food as they exist untouched in nature. However, I believe my experience at Noma was very different than most others’ have been—I found Noma to be a subtle reflection of Danish values, something that might otherwise have been difficult to appreciate if I hadn’t spent almost four months living in Copenhagen.
The meal began with five (yes, five!) appetizers, the first of which had been sitting in front of us the entire time. The waiter told us that our first appetizer was actually sitting in the flower arrangement in the center of the table. He instructed us to remove the branches and dip them into the prepared crème fraÎche. From that moment on I knew the food would be whimsical, using natural, but still unknown flavors in an unconventional way to keep us guessing the whole way through. All the appetizers that followed were equally interactive: we had to look through a plate of shells to find a muscle in an edible clamshell, open a large egg to reveal two small smoked quail eggs inside, and pull vegetables straight out of flower pots.
The meal continued with eight main courses, which were each paired with juices made from native fruits and vegetables. Although the meals became slightly more straightforward, the waiter still delighted in having us guess what fruits and vegetables were used to make each juice, proving to be much more difficult than it sounds. This seemed to be a part of Noma’s brilliance—the surprise that is generated at the consumption of such natural ingredients should theoretically not be the case. We go to restaurants expecting to see ingredients masked to the point where they’re no longer recognizable, while a diner at Noma is forced to acknowledge the true flavor of the food by first paying tribute to the environment from which it came. The courses came as follows: (1) apple and Jerusalem artichoke with garden sorrel and coriander, paired with a cucumber juice (2) Biodynamic grains and watercress with dried scallops and beech nuts, accompanied with carrot juice (3) Limfjords oyster and sea weed with gooseberry and butter milk, with a sea-buckthorn juice (4) pike perch and cabbage with verbena and dill with lingonberry juice, (5) pickled vegetables and bone marrow with gooseberry juice, (6), venison and walnuts with bitter greens and juniper, paired with juice of elderflower, (7) cucumber and elderflower, (8) and finally carrot and sea-buckthorn. The chef who cooked each of the meals would come out and explain both the ingredients of a dish and the inspiration behind its creation, creating an overall brilliant dining experience. However, the most satisfying part of the experience was stretching my imagination—I was forced to think about and respect the food before eating it.
Hearing the menu may seem pretentious, but the restaurants appeal lies in its obvious modesty when compared to restaurants of a similar caliber. This is due to the pervasive culture of Danish hygge. Hygge has become an almost accepted part of life for me in Copenhagen. The word doesn’t have an English equivalent, but the word that comes closest is ‘cozy’. The concept of hygge, in my own experience, refers to the relaxed atmosphere created by friends, the ambiance, and feelings of contentment. Noma, to me, was a near-genius blend of fine dining and hygge. When walking into the world’s best restaurant, one might expect for the environment to be highly sophisticated and stuffy. This was not the case at Noma—there was an obvious sophistication in the food, but the environment allowed for relaxed, comfortable eating and was conducive to creating both a thought-provoking and delicious experience. Nowhere was Danish culture more obvious than in eating world-acclaimed food in a chair covered with sheepskin in a building that sits modestly on the edge of the harbor.
They say Danes are some of the happiest people in the world because of their ability to maintain low expectations. When things turn out well, Danes are happy because they weren’t expecting it, and if things don’t work out, they haven’t set their hopes too high. The food at Noma definitely played into this game of expectations, leading the diner to think one thing and having him or her taste another. Before going to the restaurant, expectations are obviously high because of the notoriety it has received. These expectations are literally checked at the door when entering the restaurant’s unassuming, cabin-like setting. The food itself is so unconventional that expectations are played with yet again. I most definitely was not expecting to be eating my first meal from what I thought was the decorative centerpiece in the middle of the table, but was pleasantly surprised when I discovered it tasted unexpectedly delicious. It’s become my theory that Noma is such a successful restaurant in part because of its dedication to the Danish philosophy of never expecting too much, leaving oneself open to the possibility of being pleasantly surprised.
I respected Noma so much because I was able to understand the elements of Danishness that had been preserved despite the notoriety the restaurant has received. I can now understand why it takes three months to get a reservation; the idea of being able to enjoy whimsical and intelligent food in a down-to-earth environment is a rare experience. I’m of the impression that food is so important because it creates memories. This is a food memory that I will never forget, not just because of the food but also because of what I learned about Denmark and the pervasiveness of its lifestyle that the world is starting to catch on to.