Noma in Tokyo: an unforgettable triumph

7 Feb

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Noma in Tokyo was a fantastic experience. Was it worth it to fly to Tokyo for a short weekend just to eat at Noma? Absolutely. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. A meal that was meticulously thought out, philosophy on a plate.

I’ve been trying to reserve a table at Noma since at least two years ago. More seriously, I had tried to get a table in time for my European trip the previous year, but after oversleeping my 4am alarm by 20 minutes, I quickly found I had fallen about 2,000 persons behind on the waitlist for June and July. When I heard that Noma was going to be in Tokyo, I tried to register for the ballot but the Mandarin Oriental website crashed for about 30 minutes when the reservations opened. So I put my name on the waitlist – and to my fortune, someone cancelled. It was a stroke of amazingly good luck, since there are about 58,000 people on the waitlist for the meal.

Food. On every benchmark, I thought this meal was of the highest quality. Ingredients were impeccable and sourced from all over Japan – Hokkaido, Kyushu, Okinawa, and many places in Honshu. (Nagano being a particularly fertile foraging ground). The Noma cooking style was preserved – humble vegetables (e.g. turnip, pumpkin) cooked as lovingly as a top-grade piece of meat, emphasis on crispy and dehydrated textures, unusual plant oils, foraged flavors, aging and fermenting to create umami. There were as well a number of riffs on sushi and kaiseki – the masterful rice course managed to evoke both sushi and kaiseki, the “dashi” of yeast, parsley and lemon poured into the turnip course. As well, for returning Noma diners, there were multiple throwbacks to their famous dishes in Copenhagen – ice shrimp, beef tartare with ants, shaved ankimo, cep mushroom cookies, pumpkin and caviar… (for a rundown of the differences between Noma in Tokyo and Noma in Copenhagen, the blogger kayoubidesu has two sets of photos for comparison). Some of the most interesting dishes to me were Noma’s takes on Japanese ingredients which as far as I know they have not used in Copenhagen – citrus, tofu, black garlic, etc.

If the Noma team came to Tokyo to create something entirely unique, they have succeeded. If they aimed to create a menu which will be savored for a long time in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been there, they have succeeded. And if they have been gunning for those three Michelin stars in Tokyo, I think they have achieved it. Simply put, an unforgettable triumph.

Tokyo after Noma. I see Noma’s influence as having introduced more possibilities into the Japanese food repertoire – Nagano ants, raw shijimi, wild kiwi, matsubasa berries, playing fast and loose with kaiseki tropes. Perhaps we can see more of these ingredients in Tokyo after Noma leaves? And perhaps a couple more restaurants will adopt a more irreverent attitude to kaiseki.

Noma after Tokyo. The confines of Danish locavorism (constraints Rene Redzepi has adopted to allow creativity) has led to a certain style of food at Noma. Can we expect some Japanese ingredients at Noma when they return to Copenhagen? Will their Japan experience loosen the geographical limits they have set themselves? This meal has after all proved that the kitchen can turn out neo-Japanese cuisine of the highest standard. It will be interesting to see if after this Tokyo stint Rene Redzepi believes that the Nordic geographical restriction is an existential condition of his creativity, or if he believes he has instituted enough systems in place to maintain the kitchen’s creativity such that the geographical restriction can be loosened.

The move of all 77 staff to Tokyo is only one in a long line of Noma innovations.  Rene Redzepi is an innovator not merely in the kitchen, but also in the food media – launching the MAD conference in Copenhagen, hiring Mr Altinsoy, formerly a food blogger to curate the conferences for the first few years. Regardless of whether he is the best chef in the world from a technical standpoint, he is surely one of the most important chefs in our day and age. His influence reaches across the media – the restaurant, his cookbooks, the MAD conference, the MADfeed, and now transplanting a entire restaurant halfway across the globe and committing it to radically reinterpreting the menu in a new country.

But it would be remiss to think it was all down to the sole genius of Rene Redzepi. In fact, it seems a huge part of Noma’s success comes down to Redzepi being a humble and inspiring leader and manager of his staff, who are highly devoted to him. His approach to creativity is a collaborative affair –  each member of the cooking staff is able to contribute via Noma’s “Saturday Night Projects“, where they cook a dish for the entire kitchen team to try.

This Tokyo sojourn is no doubt going to create an even more special spirit for the entire Noma team.

He says: “It is more than worth it because of what it has done for us as a team. We are closer, we know each other better. This is a team-building exercise like no other. We feel joy when we come back from a day off.”

He adds: “Some have never travelled outside Europe. It’s a big thing for them. We become in the West so focused to the point where we don’t know what’s going on in Asia.” – [The Straits Times]

Two of the biggest food events this year are Noma moving to Tokyo, and the Fat Duck shifting to Melbourne for 6 months. But I don’t think we should look forward to a spate of transplanted restaurants anytime soon. Noma has a unique and adventurous philosophy of cooking.  – humble vegetables cooked as lovingly as a top-grade piece of meat, emphasis on crispy and dehydrated textures, unusual plant oils, foraged flavors (such as sourness from the formic acid of ants) borne of the limits he has set himself. To take the example of ants, serving them requires curious eyes to see the possibilities in the ingredient, the skill of the chef in composing the dish, and finally the courage to exhibit the dish to the public, not all of whom will be as open-minded as the kitchen team. Diners come to sample this adventurousness, to have their ideas of a dinner tested as only Noma can test them.

Bravo!


Notable links

*I’ve supplemented some of my dish descriptions with descriptions from the blogs of Robbie Swinnerton, Mesubim, and kayoubidesu, where they go into more detail.


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Mt Fuji just visible… (you need to squint for this one)

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1. Botanebi with flavors of Nagano forest

  • Botan ebi from Hokkaido, with ants from the forests of Nagano. Sour bursts of formic acid. I believe it was served with a bit of sea salt or a dash of soy sauce for saltiness.
  • With forelegs still twitching, the prawns were recently killed (and I believe had been spiked in the spine to immobilize the hind parts)
  • The sweet crunchy jelly of top class botan ebi looked like glass, and I could not imagine it being any sweeter or better.
  • Each of the ants were frozen to death, and then chopped in half
  • To me this was a shock and awe course, a statement of intent – the ants encapsulated Noma’s philosophy, all over the best ingredients Japan had to offer (symbolized by Hokkaido botan ebi). The ants, now a signature, were originally an expedient ingredient to provide sourness, since Noma chose to cook with only Scandinavian ingredients, ruling out lemons and other citrus. In fact the ants on prawns were a perfect pair with…
  • 4.5/5

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2. Citrus and long pepper

  • The two dishes seemed a couplet. If the first dish of botanebi with ants was a celebration of the inventive powers of necessity in the absence of citrus, the second dish of citrus reminded us of that original ingredient. I believe the Noma team rarely, if ever, cooks with citrus nowadays. (Though they have lemons in their test lab). This was a perfect dish of 4 types of citrus – pomelo (bampeiyu), mikan (mandarin orange), two types of buntan from Kochi [one named Pompeii buntan].
  • With roasted Rishiri kombu oil for a umami, nutty flavor. Pine salt and ground kinome (AKA sansho), whole kinome, Okinawa longpepper.
  • The nuttiness of seaweed oil contrasted beautifully with the sweetnesses of the four citrus, and the longpepper provided the bite of spiciness, the kinome provided both sourness and a light menthol taste.
  • 5/5

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3. Shaved monkfish liver

  • Smoked, frozen, and then shaved. On a salted crisp of toast. The ankimo was a bit icy, and we were warned to eat it quickly. This felt like eating generous shavings of sea foie on an undersized toast. The richness on ankimo was somewhat tempered by the cold temperature and the small pieces it was shaved into, when it came into contact with the warmth of the tongue it melted into a savory butter, thus the second and third bites were somewhat better than the first.
  • 4/5

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4. Koika cuttlefish “soba”

  • An homage to udon. Cuttlefish that had been cut into noodle strips with roasted kelp on top, it was at first very salty eaten on its own. But dipped vigorously into the accompanying pine broth with rose petals, the floral scent washed off the excess sauce on the soba, and it became a delight to eat
  • 4/5

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5. Æbleskiver

  • This was my first encounter with this traditional Danish bread served during Christmas. It is usually served dipped in marmalada and sugar
  • It was bread with the texture of a pancake, with wasabi on top, and steamed mustard greens inside for freshness. A simple but heartwarming dish
  • 4.25/5

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6. Sea urchin and wild kiwi

  • This dish was the one that had changed the most since Noma started, as multiple conversations with the staff informed me. Originally the tart was made with freshwater shijimi clam from Aomori prefecture – and Rene Redzepi wanted to showcase its raw qualities, since shijimi is usually served cooked. This was a labor intensive dish that required the team to wake up at 5am to start cleaning the clams. However, diner feedback was not positive enough to continue such a back-breaking dish. So they have instead created – a roasted seaweed based shell, with a sour puree sauce of kiwi and coriander, and wasabi. A load of creamy tongues of Hokkaido uni was lavished upon the tart. This was seafood pizza of the highest order – the tart sauce of kiwi-coriander-wasabi was the highlight.
  • Kiwi ended up being used again later as a dipping sauce for a simmered sweet potato dessert
  • 5/5

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7. Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts

  • A soft and sweet tofu, with crunchy walnuts and a miso & yuzu & parsley sauce. This dish was primarily textural in contrast
  • 4.25/5

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8. Scallop dried for two days; beech nuts and kelp

  • One of the most polarizing dishes – for me this was one of the weaker dishes in the meal, but others loved it. Scallop dried for two days into fudge, cooked into caramel, with beeswax and a little butter, aerated. This was like a sponge composed out of scallop sand, with every grain of sand a punch of umami. Served with beech nuts and Raus/roasted rausu kelp. I did not like it as much due to overwhelming onslaught of scallop tastes – which made me question the balance of the dish
  • 3.5/5

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9. Hokkori pumpkin; cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms

  • Perhaps my favorite dish of the meal – Hokkori pumpkin cooked in katsuobushi, with cherry tree oil, sakura blossoms that were dried and salted, with roasted kelp sticks, and a sauce made of fermented barley koji and butter. The sauce was sour in a rustic way, but the pumpkin it surrounded was very mellow – not starchy, sweet, fragrant from the cherry tree oil, and very balanced. You bit into pumpkin and smelt cherrywood. An intelligent homage to sakura.
  • 5/5

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10. Garlic flower

  • A visual stunner, origami black garlic flowers, which had been cooked down at 60 degrees after a 30 day fermentation period. Rose oil, Nagano ants underneath. This tasted like a sticky jelly, with a fruity taste. I felt the dish was a bit one-dimensional, the entire effect being the emphasis on the fruitiness, sweet-tart flavor of the black garlic.
  • 4.25/5

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11. Roots and starches with ginger

  • All vegetables from below the ground – chorogi (a small gourd-like root), mukago (tiny mountain potatoes), burdock root, water chestnut, lily bulbs, egg yolk cured in beef “garum” (I have no idea what beef garum is – if we go by the Roman “garum”, I guess beef guts?) Peanut based sauce.
  • All of the roots were from underground. This dish was very starch heavy, and overall was only pleasant.
  • (3.75/5)

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12. Wild duck and matsubasa berries

  • A Japanese duck from Akita prefecture, surprised by a hunter into a net, and then strangled to ensure no blood is lost. Hung and dry-aged for 3 weeks, smeared with a sauce made like soy sauce, but from rye, and then roasted on a yakitori grill.
  • It was served in multiple pieces – Filet, breast, thigh, drumstick. The breast was soft, the thigh flavorful, but the drumstick extremely tough and nigh inedible. The matsubasa berries (Schisandra repanda) formed a tart dipping sauce.
  • I felt this was one of the weaker dishes – while all the meats were flavorful, there was nothing stunning about the duck. It was also the only dish where there was an outright flaw – an extremely tough leg drumstick.
  • 4/5

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13. Yeast and turnip cooked in shiitake

  • Turnip, cooked in a shiitake mushroom broth. A sauce of toasted yeast, parsley oil, and lemon verbena.
  • When I was at Shigeyoshi, there was a beautifully lacquered bowl – and when I opened it (half expecting some treasure from the sea) – I found a turnip, simply cooked and resting in a light dashi. This Japanese reverence for the humblest root vegetable is mirrored by Redzepi’s own.
  • The broth of yeast, parsley and lemon poured into the turnip course mimicked a soup course.

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14. Rice

  • In a traditional kaiseki meal the mains end with rice. Rene Redzepi upended that expectation. Rice was served, but instead as the first dessert. And even then, it was not served kaiseki style but sushi style. A vinegared mound of rice was at the bottom of the bowl; on top, sake sorbet on top, and rice crisps. A sorrel juice was poured in
  • The cucumber notes of sorrel, the cold of sake, the crisp textures (a Redzepi signature), and the vinegared rice came together deliciously. I thought this was the spiritual heart of the meal – a meeting of philosophies from Denmark and Japan. (Sorrel from Fukuoka?)
  • Masterpiece (5/5)

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15. Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day

  • Sweet potato from kochi, bubbling in sugar. This brought to mind the old carrot from Noma, slow simmered in butter. A reverential treatment of the humble sweet potato, highly caramelized. A tart and fragrant green dipping sauce, made from wild kiwis from Nagano, geranium and elderflower
  • (4.25/5)

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16. Wild cinnamon and fermented mushroom

  • Wild cinnamon sticks, covered in sugar – peripheral sucking sticks.
  • Fermented cep mushrooms in chocolate, with a sour-ish taste

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Drinks (juice pairing)

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  • turnip / yuzu / black currant shoots
    • despite being labelled, I did not detect any hint of black currant shoots

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  • cucumber / fresh nori

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  • pumpkin / green gooseberry

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  • mushroom

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  • sweet koji water / juniper berries

 

Drinks (wine pairing)

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  • 2010 Les Béguines / Jérome Prévost / Gueux – Champagne

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  • Daigo no Shizuku / Terada Honke / Kozaki – Chiba (5/5)
    • A truly complex and masterful unfiltered sake. This smelt and tasted uncannily like roasted sunflower seeds. It was so good, we bought a bottle for ourselves to savour.

When the baton was passed to Terada, the new chief hoped to make his own mark by pushing the brewery’s methods even further back, to the Edo Period (1603-1868). The “kimoto” method, which relies on just three ingredients–rice, water and the bacteria living on the walls of the brewery, is far more time-consuming because workers have to mash the rice by paddles until it reaches the right consistency.

Although the brewery now can’t brew enough sake in the winter to sell through the autumn, Terada says the moves at first nearly destroyed the company.

“A lot of orders stopped coming in once we changed. People said the sake tasted too different, too strange,” he says. “Most sake drinkers prefer a refined, clean taste. In their estimation, sake is good if it has almost no flavor. But you can taste a lot of things in ours.

“We lost several old customers at the start, but we also discovered that there were quite a few people looking for an alternative to mainstream sake. People tell me that they can really taste the rice in ours, and that they don’t get hangovers–that’s because we use no additives. But it also makes their stomachs happy because it delivers lots of bacteria friends to the ones already there.”

Inside a hall at Terada Honke, workers in down vests and traditional waist aprons sing in unison as they churn steamed rice that will become “Gonin-musume”and Terada’s even cloudier invention, “Daigo no Shizuku,” which is unpasteurized and unfiltered. – Asahi Shimbun

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  • 2012 Le Mont / Alexandre Jouveaux / Uchizy- Bourgogne

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  • 2011 Bianco R / Le Coste / Gradoli – Lazio (3/5)
    • Not great – this one tasted really natural – I could pick out the faint hay notes that uncomfortably brought to mind manure.

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  • Yamahai Junmai Nama-Genshu / Hanatomoe / Yoshino Nara (4.5/5)
    • Overripe banana to the nose, sweet and dry. Aged in the bottle for two years

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  • 2011 Racines / Claude Courtois / Soings en Sologne – Loire

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  • 2013 Les Mirabelles / Mark Angeli / Anjou – Loire
    • A pleasant and uncomplicated dessert wine to finish

2 Responses to “Noma in Tokyo: an unforgettable triumph”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] Bangkok or Hong Kong, and as much as I enjoy kaiseki, in Japan only Ryugin (twice) and Kojyu (and Noma, but that’s not a typical experience) have blown me away.  That means I’ve only had a truly […]

  2. Best dishes of 2015: a roundup of a year of travel | Kenneth Tiong eats - January 2, 2016

    […] Noma Tokyo, Japan Jan ’15 […]

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