Those of you who have been reading this blog for long know that I don’t do many restaurant reviews. But it’s not everyday that I get a chance to eat at the Best Restaurant In The World, with food prepared at the hands of one of the most influential people in the world. So here’s
Those of you who have been reading this blog for long know that I don’t do many restaurant reviews. But it’s not everyday that I get a chance to eat at the Best Restaurant In The World, with food prepared at the hands of one of the most influential people in the world. So here’s my experience dining at noma Japan on January 17th, 2015.
It all began early last year when Chef René Redzepi announced he’d be mothballing his restaurant in Copenhagen and moving his entire staff to Tokyo to open noma Japan for just 30 days. Culinary world abuzz with news of Redzepi’s ambitious plan, I knew getting a reservation would be a challenge. Keen on getting a coveted table, I’m not ashamed to admit that I called some people and begged. Predictably, their responses began with an apology and I started to think the only way I was ever going to dine at noma was to fly to Denmark. Network exhausted, I enrolled in the lottery along with 60,000 other eager diners.
Imagine my excitement when a few months later, I found an email in my spam folder informing me that I’d won a spot, and that I could now fork over ¥96,720 JPY (about $850 USD) for a table for two. The email came with a stern warning that the reservation had to be paid for within 10 days to avoid forfeiture. Because the email had landed in spam, a number of those days had passed and I quickly rushed to my computer, credit card in hand to pay up. After entering my details, I clicked “submit” only to be told that my card had been declined. After trying a few more times, my phone rang. It was my bank calling to inform me that someone in Denmark was trying to charge $96,720 USD to my card… Oops!
A nerve-wracking week (and several calls from my bank) later, the problems seemed to have been fixed and I finally managed to pay for my reservation just one day before my table went to someone else. Now all I had to do was wait… for 6 months.
It’s with this anticipation and a slight bit of trepidation that I rode up the elevator to the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. Emerging from the mood-lit elevator into a bright atrium, I was greeted by a crowd of smiling apron-clad Danes, eager to strike up a conversation. As I walked into the restaurant I couldn’t help but notice a potted tree with outstretched limbs weaving in and out of the wall. The tree, relying on the wall for support, and the sterile white wall adorned with nothing but the gracefully gnarled limbs of the tree seemed like a perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of the chef, his ingredients and the terroir.
You see, Redzepi has made a name for himself by allowing only Nordic ingredients to be used in his Copenhagen kitchen, many of them foraged rather than cultivated. The name noma itself is a portmanteau of nordisk (Nordic) and mad (food). Sure, many chefs claim to be local and sustainable, but most (including myself) have a pantry of staples that come from around the world. I mean think about it… going 100% local would mean most of you would not be able to use something as basic as black pepper to season your food.
This focus on locality is so integral to Redzepi’s culinary ideology that when he wanted to experiment with Japanese ingredients, his only option was to move his entire restaurant. Indeed, the Chef confirmed that he’s left his Nordic staples at home and that 100% of the ingredients he’s using in Tokyo were sourced on and around the islands of Japan. To pull off his culinary metamorphosis, Chef Redzepi made seven trips to Japan over the past year, scouring the archipelago from snowy Hokkaido to tropical Okinawa, gathering knowledge and ingredients. It would have been quite suitable then, to rename the restaurant washo as a portmanteau of wa (Japanese) and shoku (food)
On the day of my visit, the first course was a plate of Shimaebi (striped shrimp) adorned with nothing but ants. I know, what most of you are thinking, but before I get to the ants, let me tell you about the shrimp. If you’ve ever had Amaebi, you know they are sweet, and if you’ve ever had Botanebi, you know they are creamy. Well, imagine a marriage of the two along with a good dose of umami and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how good these little guys are. These Shimaebi from Hokkaido were so fresh, they looked poised to leap off my plate; so imagine my surprise when I heard a ruckus at the next table and looked over just in time to see a shrimp making his grand escape!
Now, do you remember what I said about noma only using local ingredients? Well, in Denmark, they can’t grow citrus, so when Redzepi wanted the sharp tang of lemons for his food, he had to get a little creative. Ant venom contains formic acid, and if you close your eyes as you bite into one, they’re a bit like a vesicle of lemon bursting in your mouth. Unlike Denmark, Japan has no shortage of local citrus, but using ants has become such a trademark of noma that the chef used ants from the forests of Nagano for this dish. Still, I finished the shimaebi wishing he’d explored some native Japanese citrus like sudachi or shiquasa for the shrimp.
My prayers for citrus were soon answered, and the chef’s delight at the variety of Japanese citrus was evident in the next course: a salad made with Buntan, Hassaku, Mikan and Iyoukan. The segments of citrus were drizzled with konbu infused egoma (wild sesame) oil, and garnished with sansho (Japanese peppercorns), kinomé (sansho leaves) and pipātsu(sliced long pepper)
Stripped of their membranes, the citrus burst into a bright pool of sweet an sour tastes in my mouth, each citrus with its own unique flavor, mellowed by the rich nutty oil. The sansho is evergreen and citrusy at first, but leaves a tongue tingling numbness that pairs beautifully with the back-of-the-throat heat that the pipātsu delivers. Refreshing and clever.
I kind of wish I could have had this dish for dessert because it was hands-down the best course of the meal. With ribbons of shaved frozen ankimo (monkfish liver) on a paper thin sheet of toast, it narrowly missed the top stop as the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. In Japan, we normally roll and steam ankimo before slicing and serving with scallions, grated daikon and ponzu. Ultra-rich and briny, there are few things I like better with a glass of sake than a thick rondelle of ankimo.
In chef Redzepi’s innovative preparation, he brines and freezes the ankimo before turning the
m into undulating ribbons of bliss. Because it’s not cooked, there is no fat loss, and the proteins have not coagulated, resulting in a liver that’s buttery rich and satiny smooth. The toast that the ankimo is drapped over is paper thin, making it visually diaphanous, but grilled to within milliseconds of being burnt, the crunchy texture and robust smoky flavor are a bold contrast to the liver.
The next course came in two parts: konbu cured kouika(cuttlefish) cut into thin noodles served on a traditional zaru(strainer), and an ice chilled broth made from pine needles and rose petals. Cuttlefish has a fairly neutral flavor and a firm, yet creamy texture making them the perfect foil to absorb the assertive umami from the konbu. In Japan, this technique is known as kobujime (cured with konbu) and it’s a fantastic way to preserve, while enhancing both the flavor and texture of seafood.
The broth, which was more like a tea, was made by steeping dried foraged pine needles and adding fresh rose petals to the brew. It had a distinct evergreen flavor with a tart finish that made for a refreshing juxtaposition to the rich briny cuttlefish. That said, the broth was relatively thin, and so the warm flavor of the rose petals clinging to the noodles overwhelmed, and I found myself enjoying the dish more by taking a bite of noodles and then sipping the fragrant tea.
Unlike the more common Murasaki Uni (purple sea urchin), Bafūn Uni are smaller with a muddy colored shell, but like most things in life, you can’t judge an uni by its cover. At the peak of its season in July, Bafūn Uni are so sweet and loaded with umami that they taste like they’ve been dipped in sugar and MSG.
In this dish, the uni rests on a razor thin crust that’s buttery and flakey, just as a crust should be, but with an inky green color and abundance of umami thanks to the addition of konbu. With a smear of tart, herbal sarunashi (wild kiwi) and parsley, and mounds of sweet Bafūn Uni, this tart was extravagant to be sure. Unfortunately, it’s not uni season, and I would have liked to have had less contrasting tastes and more complimentary ones.
As I was finishing up my tart, I noticed that the table next door was receiving the same tart with shijimi, instead of uni on top. I asked (more out of curiosity than anything) about the discrepancy and was offered the shijimi tart as well!
Under a creamy hued blanket of shaved raw walnuts, lay what was quite possibly the best tofu I’ve ever eaten. Made in the restaurant just prior to service, and paired with a house-made miso, the tofu literally disintegrated into a pool of cream as it entered my mouth. The miso, with a lip-smacking balance of sweetness and saltiness sung with the warm citrusy notes of yuzu.
This aerated scallop “fudge” was served with roasted bunanomi (beech nuts) and konbu infused oil. The pieces of scallop fudge were ultra-light, and disintegrated in my mouth like a briny Aero Bar. It was clever and fun, but the fudge left a gritty texture behind that had me wishing the chef had extracted the scallop essence rather than just grinding them up.
The Hokkori kabocha in a konbu butter-broth was one of the prettiest plates of the meal, unfortunately it was also one of the most forgettable dishes. The kabocha was undercooked and bordered on crunchy. The crispy cherry blossoms were beautiful and lended a nice texture, but the process of soaking them in water to reduce the salt before drying them drew out all of their flavor. The only redeeming component of this dish was the Uamizuzakura oil (cherrywood oil), which imparted a marvelous smoky flavor, but it wasn’t enough to rescue the dish from the butter broth, which tasted like a watery mayonnaise that begged for some kudzu to add body.
So if you’re wondering why it took two courses to get the extra shijimi tart out, it’s because these dime-sized freshwater mollusks from lake Jusan in Aomori are individually shucked to order. Hats off to Redzepi for doing what no Japanese has ever thought to do in serving these raw. Since shijimi are freshwater bivalves, they lack brine, leaving you with the subtle taste of the clam, which starts off sweet, and crescendos to a blast of umami as you chew. Unfortunately some things(like orange juice and toothpaste) just shouldn’t be mixed, and wild kiwis and shijimis fall into that category. The combination yielded a sharp mineraly metallic taste at the back of my palette that was very unpleasant. Still, there’s so much potential here… Gyoujaninniku (ramp) and beef marrow pesto anyone?
Black garlic, popularized in Asia for its supposed health benefits is a secret weapon in many chef’s arsenals. That’s because the multi-week caramelization process (it’s a Maillard reaction not fermentation), converts the starches and sugars into umami producing amino acids while taming the volatile sulfur compounds that make fresh garlic so pungent. The resulting espresso black garlic is like a sweet reduction of konbu and miso with an incredibly complex flavor and heaps of umami.
Chef Redzepi pureed the garlic and air dried it into a perfectly chewy leather that’s sweet like candy with sharp bursts of tartness from the ant powder dusted on the bottoms. I could snack on this stuff all day long with a bottle of Mourvedre.
In the center of this plate is an egg yolk, cured atop a slab of salted beef. Earthy and meaty, it’s a marvelous addition to the light raw peanut milk and medley of unadorned Japanese root vegetables such as mukago (dark brown at bottom left going clockwise), chorogi, gobo, kuai, renkon, and yuriné that surround the yolk. Nutty, creamy, sweet and with a subtle bitterness while boasting a symphony of crispy textures, this was unexpectedly good.
While this looks more like something our hunter/gatherer ancestors would have enjoyed rather than the main dish from a 2-Michelin star kitchen, it zeros in on chef Redzepi’s style of taking good ingredients and treating them in a way that highlights their best qualities without covering anything up. This wild duck from Aomori prefecture was aged for 24 days, allowing the natural enzymes to do their thing, rendering tough bits edible, and the tender bits melt-in-your-mouth soft. Roasted and sectioned, you get the whole du
ck, and nothing but the duck. For those that need a little sauce, the duck comes with a blood purple puree of matsubusa berries which are bracingly tart with just a hint of sweetness. I embraced my inner-caveman and devoured this thing, gnawing off every tasty morsel of meat, tendon and skin.
The final dish was a half turnip poached in a shiitake and yeast broth, finished with parsley oil. The turnip was sweet, tender and delicious, but the real star was the yeast broth. Because I work with some vegan clients, I use nutritional yeast a lot to boost the amino content of food in a meat-free dairy-free kitchen. It had never occurred to me though that unprocessed yeast could be similarly flavorful. While the broth had a distinct yeasty aroma, one sip and and I was sold. Savory, complex and intensely flavorful, the broth paired beautifully with the verdant parsley oil to make for a stomach settling denouement to this wild meal.
Between crispy, light as air rice wafers, and cubes of crunchy milk, lies a scoop of sake kasu ice cream. Made with glutinous rice, sake and sake lees, the ice cream had a unique mouthfeel that was somewhere between rich and refreshing. Bathed in a pool of tangy sorrel with salty cubes of crunchy dehydrated milk, this was a dessert that got more points for creativity than taste.
This bubbling cauldron of caramel was the second dessert. It’s a Ninjinimo (carrot potato), which the chef simmered in shiroshitatou (unprocessed sugar) for a full day. Between the reducing sugars in the potato, and the shiroshitatou, this humble dessert had a singular flavor unlike any caramel I’ve ever tasted before. Served with a tart wild kiwi sauce, this unassuming masterpiece begged for a glass of imoshouchu (sweet potato shochu)
The final dish, after fourteen courses of earth tones, came in an earthenware vessel with a vibrant green carpet of moss. The sticks at the top are the roots of a wild cinnamon plant from Kochi, while the “cepes” below are actually fermented shiitake and matsutake mushrooms covered in chocolate.
The twigs released the warm recognizable flavor of cinnamon with a hint of ginger when chewed, and the the mushrooms provided an intensely earthy flavor that transported me to a mountain forest in rural Japan.
So, is noma Japan the Best Restaurant in the World?
No, but the original noma in Copenhagen just may be. My main issue with noma Japan is that it feels like the kitchen is still finding their way around the ingredients and techniques native to Japan. It would have been nice to see more use of forageable native herbs like seri, fuki, itadori and gyuojaniniku, instead of relying on European favorites like parsley and sorrel. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen the Chef’s take on more Japanese curing and fermentation techniques like kasuzuke (cured in sake lees) and nukazuke (fermented with rice bran)
That being said, noma Japan was the most innovative restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of dining at. Put simply, Chef Redzepi is a culinary genius with balls of steel. The audacity to dream of opening a new restaurant, in a foreign land, using unfamiliar ingredients for only thirty days is worthy of respect, but to do so and pull it off at a level amongst the best in the world is nothing short of miraculous. This leaves me wondering about the magic Chef Redzepi could weave if he were given more time to explore all that this diverse country has to offer. It’s also why I hope I can make it to Denmark to dine on his home turf some day.