|Photo courtesy of The Daily Telegraph|
Matthew Norma, The Daily Telegraph, August 7, 2012
Of all the global champions foregathered in London, none may strike you as an unlikelier world number one than the Dane hosted until Monday at Claridge’s. Were there a restaurant Olympics, the testers would be swarming over René Redzepi with the avid scepticism caused by the Chinese swimmer who shaved such an aeon off her previous personal best that she finished her race 17 seconds before it began.
For anyone whose notion of Scando-cuisine begins and ends with the herring, the emergence of a Danish chef – Redzepi – as the planet’s finest will seem the culinary equivalent of the late King of Tonga whizzing past the sprint lords of Jamaica to take the 100m gold. For the past three years, his Michelin two-starred Noma in Copenhagen has topped San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s top 50, besting Ferran Adrià when El Bulli was in business, and leaving such deities as Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry was the standout London pop-up of 2011, for dead.
“Are you excited?” asked a front-of-house guide, steering us toward the threshold of the year’s most avidly anticipated pop-up. Excited at finally tasting Redzepi’s work? A tranquilliser dart was required for at least one buttock.
In a ballroom elegantly tarted up for the visit – bookcases featuring the Noma cookbook alongside Great Expectations and the collected works of Barbara Cartland were an engagingly eclectic touch — the initial sense of reverence could not survive the first of eight courses. Noma is a portmanteau, the “no” elided from Nordic, the “ma” shortened from the Danish word for food, which is mad; a cute linguistic coincidence given that this palate-cleansing starter appeared on the menu — which Redzepi holds back until the meal is over to build drama and suspense — listed plainly as “Ants”.
“This is hilarious,” guffawed one of us. It’s unprofessional to get the giggles in the presence of a world number one, I know, but what’s a chap to do? This red variety, with the flavour of lemongrass, crawled over cabbage leaves in a kilner jar. Next to it stood a plant pot containing “vegetable, soil and grass”… carrots, radishes and nasturtium flowers rooted in a dark emulsion of herbs, with what looked like weeds for the grass. “Use your hands,” instructed one of the waiters who, along with the chefs, introduced each dish with lengthy spiels, “and eat everything”.
The fruits of foraging that Redzepi has made so voguish certainly lends theatricality. Yet the charm of putting the ant into an Ant ’n’ Dec Bush Tucker Trial can stretch a very long way, and it was a relief that the next course was a tediously conventional crushed raspberry, in a teacup garnished with hibiscus flower, served with scones and a handsome pot in which caviar was smeared over crème fraîche. “Nice,” one of us said, “and an improvement on the weeds.”
Though accurate, “nice” is not an adjective that naturally goes with a number one ranking — would you call Roger Federer’s forehand “nice”? – and a sense of anticlimax took hold. Every dish was technically immaculate, clever, creative and beautifully presented, but where last summer Keller produced two dishes I will never forget, only Redzepi’s ants will linger in the mind.
In his defence, the Norse food god had devised a menu built almost entirely around unfamiliar British ingredients. Next up, though, was a Brittany oyster. Poached in buttermilk for 30 seconds, and served with samphire on a mound of chilled crustacea shells and pebbles, it had a pleasingly meaty texture, but the two ostraconophobes (n: person with a fear of shellfish) in our party were reassured that this was not a delicacy to make you think you’d died and gone to Valhalla.
A tartare of beef, eaten rolled up with the hands, and dipped in a smear of tarragon and a powder of juniper, was excellent, while sourdough bread came with two sensational butters — “virgin”, more like cream, and a fabulous goat’s milk butter.
Slow-roasted celeriac was served with wild sorrel and a delicate black truffle sauce, and while we all loved it, it was at this stage that one of us started fantasising about the perfect ham ploughman’s. Food of this kind, however gorgeous and artful, does tend to have that effect.
The impressively un-self-important Redzepi popped over to carve his Romney Marsh neck of lamb, slow roasted in “piso” (a witty reinvention of miso, made from fermented yellow peas), which looked sweet resting on its bed of hay, and tasted far sweeter. “I really enjoyed that,” said one of us, before walnut ice cream with frozen berries and a powder of frozen cream, “but I expected some fish,” (he was right; the menu was unbalanced), “and I wouldn’t come back in a million years.”
Undoubtedly this is a chef of rare talent and inventiveness. No doubt he’s wonderful, wonderful in Copenhagen. But Keller’s tasting menu smashed this one into oblivion, and on this form Redzepi struck me as less the Federer of the pots and pans than the Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish compatriot whose stint as women’s tennis number one despite not having won a major title, some feel, devalued the rankings.
A Taste of Noma at Claridge’s is sold out for the rest of its residency. For information on Noma’s main Copenhagen restaurant, visit noma.dk.