A friend of ours bagged the 'banqueting' or private dining room at Noma this week. I don't think it's all that well known that Noma has a room like this, let alone that it is a) probably easier to book than a table in the downstairs dining room, and yet, b) if you have ten people it costs no more.
Always exciting to see what they are up to at Copenhagen's most famous restaurant – frankly, I'd be happy to perch on the back step out by the bins to try this food.
This was part of an edible flower arrangement as we embarked upon our journey through the strange, brilliant mind of René Redzepi.
Pork scratchings with blackberry leather – an inspired pairing, surprisingly porky with a nice sourness from the berries. Obvious potential for a commercial product I'd have thought.
Next was Noma's very clever edible mussel shell made (I think) out of seaweed – at least, it reminded me of the kind of seaweed snacks you can buy in Lawson stores in Japan, with an actual mussel in situ. It arrives on a plate of real mussel shells, covered with another real shell just to confuse you. Wonder how many guests have chomped down on the wrong bit…
So, we were actually 13 around the table – two consultants from a posh hospital in London and two wealthy Greek emigrés, also from London, all of whom had flown in specially and were flying out first thing the next morning; two Danish jazz musicians (brothers, one of them with his gorgeous, new Indian wife), me, Lissen, Lissen's brother, and some Danish film people.
I was surprised by how many baulked at the next course, the raw – live and kicking – fjord shrimp.
I have had them before, and I suppose they are a bit of a challenge. They were quite frisky. I have a theory about these shrimp – that they might be the reason why Noma hasn't yet won its third Michelin star: I suspect that the pasty-faced men in cheap suits from the tyre company don't appreciate this kind of Viking coarseness. They don't get it. They would probably rather see the shrimp puréed, deep fried and served up its own fundament with an inedible garnish. I do actually get their point, but it's not the point of Noma and, well, they ought to lighten up a little and go with the flow.
Perhaps the next course might be more their kind of thing: a hay-smoked quail's egg. A staggering mouth-, and nose-full, the sweet, smokey egg popping lightly, almost with a sigh, in your mouth.
Next, a dish which René first showed me how to make about eight years ago for a BBC radio programme. It is still on the menu and now a classic: radish in the most luscious herb cream with fake soil made from malt and hazelnuts.
This was followed by a quite striking visual prospect: traditional Danish doughtnuts (æbleskiver) with fermented sprats and, concealed within, a chunk of pickled cucumber. Like something from the mind of Hieronymous Bosch. It looks like the fish have been caught mid-dive: the Japanese have something similar in which small fish and tofu are gently boiled together and the fish seek refuge in the cool heart of the bean curd.
I admit I struggled with this – not because of how it looks, but more the blend of sugary batter, fish, pickled cucumber and the very tart vinegary dust sprinkled over the them, in imitation of powdered sugar. It is a challenging mouthful.
Next, one of Noma's latest innovations – fermented peas, in the style of miso. They call it 'Peaso', and it tastes of peas, or rather, of an especially vivid memory of peas. How peas ought to taste, but rarely do. Great. Another new invention with commercial potential.
Dish of the evening coming up: razor clam, wrapped in a parsley gel with horseradish 'snow'. I wanted about ten of these. Elegant, delicious, conceptually sound – a triumph.
Though Noma's private dining room has plenty of light via a wall of windows overlooking Copenhagen harbour, the night was drawing in at this point. As I would rather drop my trousers in Oxford Circus than use a flash to photograph my dinner (taking pictures of one's dinner is embarrassing enough behaviour and, though I try to do it as surreptitiously as possible – like an international spy, I like to think – the effect is probably more like a paedophile in a playground), the images diminish in quality hereon in. This is a dish of dried, shaved scallops with various grains and a Squid ink sauce.
Ah, squid ink. One of the world's great ingredients.
As the light dimmed even more, there came a pine-themed dish with asparagus. The flavour of pine always conjures for me shades of Toilet Duck, but chefs can not be responsible for their guests' associations, and it did pair really well with the early season (for Denmark) asparagus.
And, almost impossible to see, a staggeringly beautiful plate of vegetables, herbs and small, coin-sized discs of soft bone marrow – a kind of contemporary gargouillou.
And, as the quality of photos deteriorated dramatically hereafter, next, for no reason other than I am a very proud father and this is my blog so I can do whatever I like, instead of the rest of the meal, is a photo of Asger and Emil.
One last word specifically on the private dining experience. The food at Noma is intimate and cerebral, so, for me, the downstairs dining room is a better environment in which to appreciate it, preferably with a maximum of one dining companion. Somehow, even though Trevor and the other members of the Noma team who brought us our food did an excellent and entertaining job of introducing the dishes and ingredients, something was lost in the melée.
This is not really food to socialise over, especially when you haven't met some of your co-diners before and you are trying to get up to speed with who they are, what they do and why some of them are dressed like extras from Star Trek.
It's a small but subtle point which I hadn't really thought of before – I was just excited to get to eat at Noma once again. I had spoken to René earlier in the day and he had asked when I was coming to eat at Noma. Confused, I replied: 'I'm coming tonight at seven.' 'No,' he said. 'I meant, when are you coming to eat downstairs?' And now I know what he meant. That's where the real Noma experience is to be savoured. .