I often have difficulty recounting my dreams. I can remember them in my mind’s eye, can see the scenes, but I struggle to describe them, as though the road between dreamland and vocabularyville is unfinished, not fully paved with neurons. With effort, I can name some of the things that I saw (a house on stilts, my mother when she was young, a beach of mussel shells that gave way like quicksand), but if I am able to scrape together bits of narrative, the limits of grammar don’t do justice to the dream, perhaps because dreams are nothing if not exceptions to rules of time and concordance.
As I began to write about lunch at Noma, it felt a bit like describing a dream; not in the ideal sense (dream job, dream boy) but in the vivid unlikeliness of it all, starting with how the day began: I was going someplace very special for lunch, and I had to get up very early and take an airplane to make it there on time. I picked up Meg in a taxi in the pitch black morning and we drove to the airport, where there were people movers that looked like a hamster’s Habitrail. A man dressed all in black, wearing a hat and carrying no luggage asked us if we were the ones he would be having lunch with. His name was Yves-Marie, and he was a butcher. We recognized him from a picture we’d seen of him wearing a kilt.
Do you see what I mean?
It continued this way.
At the hotel there was another man in black waiting for us, a friend named Emmanuel who once recreated the orgiastic feast of a Roman freedman in the gardens of the Villa Medicis. We had coffee, changed, and then set out walking to the restaurant, dodging bikes and baby strollers as big as Smartcars.
The restaurant was in a large brick building on a cobbled quay. There were old wooden sailboats docked nearby and a big box of a building across the water. Torches were burning outside the door. We walked in. Chef René Redzepi and staff were waiting for us.
We were seated at a large round table in the center of the sunny dining room. There was Champagne, and moments later, a gray felt disk was put in front of me. On it were what looked like four pink and orange pocket squares.
“Sea buckthorn leather and pickled rose,” said one of the hot polyglot members of the brown-aproned army. We ate them and our tongues turned orange.
The centerpiece of nasturtium flowers was an hors d’oeuvre, not trompe l’oeil but its hyper-real opposite, actual flowers with actual snails, all to be actually eaten. Someone placed a mysterious jar on the table. There were live shrimp inside, still moving, and we dipped them in brown butter and popped them part and parcel into our mouths for their vivisection by bicuspid.
A tin like one that my grandmother always used to store cookies contained biscuits topped with magenta disks of Danish speck and pine sprigs.
Leeks arrived, their ends fried and frizzled. There was the famous terra cotta pot of radishes in edible soil and pickled and smoked quail eggs. Wafers of thin crisp rye bread and chicken skin sandwiched yellow split pea purée.
These were just the snacks.
Plates arrived from a deep freeze mounted with rocks, sea urchin snow and tiny raw shrimp swimming in a primordial ooze of foraged greenery, a sight that bordered on Land of the Lost kitsch but tasted unironically pure and delicious.
Scallops, unrecognizable in the form of translucent dried chips, fanned out from barley dyed with watercress.
Eventually they took the flatware away and we ate raw beef with our hands, pinching the meat between wood sorrel leaves and dragging it across the plate and into our mouths.
“Find your viking spirit,” we were instructed, a funny thing to say to a guy who trades in Wagyu, an intellectual in an ascot, and two girls from Ohio and Kansas.
Later, the rocks weren’t on the plate, they were the plate, each of us presented with a heated slab flecked with a creamy parsley blobs and rye crumbs, a langoustine lounging in the warmth.
These creatures were dead and cooked but Emmanuel made his slither and then Meg’s invaded a neighboring rock, starting the Great Langoustine War of 2010. This is what happens when adults are given lots of wine and asked to eat with their hands.
We had better luck.
The wines were all Austrian, by the way, all white but for a blaufränkisch the same color as the cold berries and beet hearts that covered a tender morsel of deer and bled onto our forks and plates.
We were moved to a different room for the desserts, more herbs, more snow, a bit of Danish dairy and cold berries.
At 6pm, lunch was over.
This nordic cuisine was new to me, these leaves of nasturtium, wild thyme, chamomile and wood sorrel, these icy shellfish, dark breads, and virgin butter feeling totally foreign and yet archetypal and known. I still don’t know if this food was good in spite of its austerity or because of it. But it was all so much fun, and I think that true joy can be hard to find in these revered bastions of gastronomy, where pleasures may abound but joy remains trapped under expensive linens or immobilized by the strict delineation of the roles of cook/server/client, designations that surely exist at Noma but with transparent borders, the cooks bringing food to the dining room and a full view of the glassed-in kitchen from most tables. All parties must participate.
It was surprising to have so much fun at this Very Serious Restaurant, but then the day was full of paradoxes. René Redzepi’s food is at once exactingly technical and utterly natural, if not literally wild. Diners arrive expecting to worship reverently but are instead encouraged to play with their food. The ingredients are sometimes unrecognizable (even the ones I was familiar with) and yet remain completely themselves. Though heavily orchestrated, the experience feels organic.
I don’t know what any of this means, if it means anything at all. And if it was a dream, whose was it? If it’s the stagiaire’s then it’s an anxious one, filled with endless rows of quail eggs to be peeled. It’s likely Redzepi’s, manifest in two services every day. I’m doubtful that my own subconscious could come up with such scenarios, these living foods, this cast of characters. But then my brain has surprised me plenty of times before in the predawn with things I could not, awake, willfully imagine. The best dreams are like that.
And so, perhaps, are the best restaurants.
Noma Strandgada 93, Copenhagen, Denmark +45 3296 3297 website
See all of my photos from Noma here.
Foodsnob is practically a regular.
Clotilde brings Noma home.
Read a NY Times profile of René Redzepi.