Noma Japan has opened! We went for lunch on Day 3 (January 12) and it was stupendous. What a setting, what a meal. And what a chef!
But this blog post represents the definitive blow-by-blow, course-by-course run-down of our meal. I'll be adding/fine-tuning the dish descriptions a bit more over the next few days, but here we go…
Please realize, this is not a definitive account of Noma Japan. That's because chef René Redzepi is already changing and adapting, evolving and swapping in new dishes.
I find that even a week later, I'm still thinking – still dreaming – of that exeptional banquet. For those unable to make it over here, please enjoy vicariously!
You can’t help but be wowed by that setting. From the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, you look out toward the distant hills and the unmistakable snow-capped, sunset-silhouetted cone of Mt. Fuji. It is hard to think of a more auspicious backdrop as you settle in for the three-hour, 16-course banquet.
That view is immediately forgotten, though, as soon as the floor staff start serving the food…
Course 1: The magic kicks in from the very first dish, jumbo shrimp served atop a platter of ice. They are superb, premium sashimi quality and so fresh they’re still dancing their final quivers.
But it is the seasoning – "flavors of the Nagano forest" the menu calls it – that defines this dish. A dozen tiny wild black ants are carefully arranged on the shrimp, their little pinpricks of sharp acidity acting as a perfect accent for the sweet, pink flesh.
"None of the other courses are as provocative, although ants are used so routinely at Noma, their presence should come as no surprise…"
Although the shrimp served on the day we were there were shima-ebi – a brace of them each – other varieties are also being used, depending on whatever is available on the day.
Course 2: Four varieties of citrus – bampeiyu (pomelo); mikan (mandarin orange); and two types of buntan (from Kochi) – adorned with pine salt, kinome (sansho leaf), slices of piquant Okinawan long peppers pickled in apple vinegar, dressed with an oil made from roasted Rishiri kombu seaweed.
Course 3: Monkfish liver that has been smoked, frozen and shaved onto crisp bread – from bread baked by the folks at Sucre Coeur in Osaka. You've never seen an-kimo like this before: outrageously good.
We didn't get the wine pairing, but by this time we were ready for a glass or two. Starting with this one…
Course 4: Cuttlefish "noodles" in the style of zaru soba. Served chilled – "We just can't do that in Europe", says René, "people demand their food hot!" – they came with an iced broth of rose petals from Ishigaki (Okinawa).
Koika cuttlefish "Soba", with rose petal dip
Course 5: Clam pie. Premium shijimi (freshwater clams) shucked individually by hand and painstakingly arranged on a tart crust infused with kombu seaweed and seasoned with a sharply, deeply acidic paste derived from wild kiwi fruit (one of the chefs also mentioned grated wasabi in this, but it wasn't there for us).
Unbelievably intricate work... René told us that there are 45 to 50 of the clams per portion. And it takes 6-8 chefs over 4 hours to shuck and clean 7 kgs of the suckers, starting early in the morning. "We only do it because we think it's worth it" he told us...
Course 6: Even René's take on tofu is a revelation. Freshly ground from organic beans, the soy milk is set with a special coagulant, steamed for 20 minutes and topped with dainty white morsels of walnut collected last fall from wild trees. There was a layer of miso and parsley sauce at the very bottom.
Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts
Tofu will always taste like tofu. But this is some of the sweetest in all Japan.
Time for some sake: This was an amazing unfiltered, naturally feremented brew from Terada Honke, in Chiba.
Course 7: At this point sous-chef Thomas Frebel comes out and tells us he has a dish for us that they're still working on. No complaints whatsoever about being guineapigs for this experiment – especially since it involves uni (sea urchin)...
Inside the cabbage leaf, a generous serving of Hokkaido bafun uni, seasoned with a rich sauce made from maitake mushrooms and miso. Superb; a great contrast of textures, even if the central spine of the cabbage was a bit too fibrous.
Course 8: Probably the least spectacular of the dishes to look at (and the hardest to get a good image of). But it was undoubtedly one of the highlights.
Scallops dried for two days are made into a thick fudge, with beeswax "and a little bit of butter" (as served in CPH). But the Japan version gets an exta treatment: it gets aerated into a light, spongey texture. Underneath this there were crunchy little beech nuts (foraged in the autumn) and kombu seaweed oil, this one darker and richer than the kombu oil served with the citrus earlier. What a dish. This one blew us all away!
Course 9: Slivers of Hokkori pumpkin, a delectable variety of winter squash that was simmered with kelp and arranged on the plate with fronds of kombu seaweed and salted-dried cherry blossoms. This was served with a milky koji-based sauce accented with cherry tree wood oil. Definitely one of the prettiest of all the dishes. And one of the tastiest.
Course 10: Then another jaw-dropper. Mysteriously beautiful, metallic shiny black leaves, which René just described to us as "origami garlic flowers". Of all the dishes, this was the one that brought it home just how much work had gone into this meal.
They were made from black (fermented) garlic, were flecked with salt, and had a texture somewhere between liquorice and fruit leather. We just picked them up and nibbled… and nibbled… trying to pin down the flavour. It wasn't "garlicky" at all, but it did have hints of that rich allium sweetness you get when you cook down garlic low and slow. Intriguing. And so good!
Course 11: Preserved egg with root vegetables. Slices of lotus root; kuwai (a.k.a. three-leaf arrowroot); mukago (propagules of yama-imo yams); chorogi (Chinese artichoke). The egg yolk is "cured in beef" (now you know)…
Technically this was one of the best courses. In practice, it turned out to be a bit too substantial, sapping our appetite ahead of the main course. But each of these starchy corms added a bit too much heft to the meal, at a stage where we were just about to embark on the "main" dish. Nice gari-style ginger pickles with them, though, to perk up the palate.
Sake part 2: Inemankai, from the community of Ine on the Tango Peninsula in northern Kyoto Prefecture. Sweetish, but with a nice clear acidity too. And a beautiful reddish tinge that comes from the akamai (red rice) they use to ferment it.
Course 12: Wild duck, caught by the traditional way, in nets. Then hung and dry-aged for three weeks, roasted and served whole – though already carved. Superb!
… and with our second wine of the meal.
Course 13: Turnip. "Cooked in yeast" was the initial explanation. But it went a lot deeper than that, involving the mycellium of cultivated shiitake. And a beautiful green broth made with parsley.
Course 14: Rice and sake lees. The first of the dessert courses was also a standout. Crisp rice starch wafers, on a gelato of sake-kasu (lees), on a base of cooked mochi rice (sweet rice) – with a sauce prepared from foraged wood sorrel (oxalis), which is one of the wild herbs that were from the start a signature of Noma in CPH.
Course 15: Dessert part 2: yaki-imo sweet potato. Cooked down "just about all day" in raw sugar until amazingly caramelized. Best sweet potato ever.
Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day
It was served with a beautiful green dip, also from the wild kiwis (but sweeter and less acidic than the paste with the clam pie).
Course 16: The very final offering was a treat to the eyes as well as the taste buds. Fermented mushrooms, enrobed in chocolate. Served with little twigs of wild cinnamon to chew on with our Tim Wendelboe coffee. Minds and palates well and truly blown.
This is more than a labour of love by René and his team. It's an insane, madcap project that is really pushing the envelope on what can be done with Japanese ingredients – and what the Noma team can achieve.
We were there on Day Three, and the effort and intensity that has gone into the project was clear on René's face as he worked alongside the wait staff, bringing us dishes, explaining the ingredients and the processes.
As I wrote in my review:
"Less than two weeks in and the menu is already evolving, as Redzepi adjusts and swaps in new dishes. By the time Noma Japan comes to a close (on Feb. 14), everything is likely to be even more finely honed.
"Even after that, the ripples from this bold, imaginative experiment will continue to spread. Redzepi sees this as a step to take Noma in Copenhagen to the next level. Meanwhile, here in Japan, a generation of chefs and customers have had their eyes and palates opened wide, beyond the confines of Japanese tradition.
"A magnificent success."
And this was our menu:
PS: For another take on Noma Japan in a very different style, check out this fantastic review in emoji by Tejal Rao, who is the restaurant critic for Bloomberg.