Shortly after our visit in the summer of 2014, Noma announced its plan to temporarily shutter main operations on Copenhagen’s scenic waterfront and take up residency on the 37th floor of Tokyo’s soaring Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Moving an entire restaurant to a foreign country 8,684 km away is no easy feat, so one can imagine our skepticism upon hearing the news. We had no idea what the Noma team’s game plan was. Would it just bring its Noma Copenhagen dishes to Tokyo and give food enthusiasts half a world away the opportunity to sample sorrel and other traditionally Scandinavian ingredients? As it turns out, Noma Japan was not a run-of-the-mill pop-up, but an important, ground-breaking vehicle that allowed diners to understand Japanese food differently.
Getting the Reservation
Once tickets became available we, like tens of thousands of others worldwide, cued up in our virtual line in hopes of being a part of this momentous culinary occasion. To our giddy delight we received a coveted confirmation email 2 weeks later, and the planning began. It takes a great deal of commitment to make a reservation at a restaurant on the other side of the world and seven months in advance—particularly for those of us who find it difficult to plan the coming weekend. But we were elated to get to travel to one of our all-time favorite cities in what may be our final opportunity for a long while, given our impending new arrival.
When surveying the top restaurants in Tokyo, one notices that the vast majority of them are French (e.g., L’Effervescence, Florilinge, Robuchon, Ducasse, Esquisse, L’Osier, Apicius). Most of these menus feature nouvelle cuisine using Japanese ingredients, or in some cases, pure French cuisine classique meant to cater to the nostalgic Japanese palate. Japanese diners don’t want to book a ticket to Paris; instead chefs train in France and bring the haute cuisine techniques and flavors back to Japan. Hence, the endless patisserie shops in Tokyo (many of which are better than their Parisian counterparts). In addition to French flavors the Japanese also have a sweet spot for anything American; in fact, some of the longest lines in Tokyo are formed for Hawaiian pancakes at Eggs n’ Things, chocolate at Max Brenner and gourmet popcorn at Garrett Popcorn Shops. (As an American I can’t help but find cueing for pancakes totally incomprehensible, but a very small part of me wonders if the Eggs n’ Things in Japan is superior to those in the States.)
But I digress. My point is this: Rene could have easily taken the oft-traveled route and brought Nordic region products and dishes directly from Noma Copenhagen to Noma Tokyo, and the result likely would’ve been lauded as a success. But the Noma team is not about idling in its comfort zone, so it took a risk largely sidestepped by other culinary powerhouses. (Only risk rewards number one positions.)
For almost two years, Rene and the Noma team flew back and forth from Copenhagen to Tokyo in order to prepare. They tirelessly researched the varied Japanese landscape to gain a deeper understanding of seasonal ingredients, developed strong relationships with local purveyors and farmers and learned about the beautiful, complex Japanese culture. This creative deep dive helped them to dissect the traditional Japanese Kaiseki menu and re-imagine it through a unique Noma lens. The result was a innovative interpretation inspired by the Japanese landscape and traditions—traditions that have existed in Japan for centuries, but which for foreigners were perhaps as eye-opening as Egg n’ Things is for the as-yet uninitiated Japanese lined up in Omotesando.
In addition to carving out its own unique perspective on Japanese food, the team also had to contend with logistics. Moving equipment and finding lodging for a staff of ~60 is no easy task, even for the most seasoned project manager. Luckily arrangements were made for the entire Noma staff to live on-premises in the luxury Mandarin Oriental, an experience many staff members refer to as “summer camp for adults”. Each front-of-house staff was paired up with a bunkmate from the kitchen, which worked out well given that the two groups work different hours. Finally, prior to departing for Tokyo, everyone was given a beautifully designed tote bag (with the Noma logo on one side and each team member’s name on the other) filled with thoughtfully curated goodies including a book on how to speak Japanese, mobile WiFi and a phone charger. Details like these speak volumes about Rene and the team and make them special and different from their food world counterparts: The Tokyo pop-up was not an exhibition of ego, but a once-in-a-lifetime personal journey and adventure for each member that could only be accomplished in the context of a team. The camaraderie of Noma is quite special, and as a diner at the pop-up one couldn’t help but absorb the energy and enthusiasm of the front of house staff and chefs dashing around. They were undoubtedly as excited as the diners, creating an exhilarating atmosphere that I have yet to experience elsewhere.
Lets get to to it!
Every one of the dishes offered was incredible, and to write about each one would take an inordinate amount of time, so I will just highlight a few below. (At the end of the day I know it’s the pictures you want to see anyway.)
The meal started off dynamically: We were presented with a live shrimp from Shimaebi sprinkled with ants. The little crustacean was doing everything he could to evade human consumption; and while I generally have trouble eating anything that is moving in front of me, I was not going to chicken out on this epic lunch. Down the chute he went. The shrimp was delicious and sweet, while the ants added a wonderful flavor. No sucking on the head in this scenario.
Another incredibly strong and surprising dish was the bowl of assorted citrus. The flavors mixed well with the spicy red pepper, and kelp oil was like nothing I have ever tasted before. Jose and I worked hard to spoon up every last drop (as imagine most of the other diners also did).
The caramelized scallop was incredible! The texture was airy —very different from that of a standard scallop—and once it hit our lips it immediately started to melt.
The freshwater clams and wild kiwi tart was truly out of this world! I honestly can say that I have never tried anything quite like this before. The laboriously shucked clams all had slightly different flavors and were like diverse yet complementary instruments in a symphony, creating a complex yet soothing bite. What I loved most about the clams was the lingering quality of the flavors, which lasted beyond the next dish.
This dish brought me right back to my childhood days of Fruit Roll-ups, except it was far from fruity. The flavors of this leathery treat were rich and the ant paste brought the perfect match of acidity.
The rice dessert was a distinctively Noma creation heavily rooted in extensive research and a deep understanding of Japanese cuisine. This dish was an interpretation of the final course of a Kaiseki meal, the rice course. It was beautifully executed, light and refreshing.
THE WINE PAIRING
I can’t say enough about our experience; everything about it was unique and so thoughtfully considered. Rene looked relaxed and happy, like a child experiencing something for the first time. He kept the smile even through the never-ending picture ops and peace signs. The meal is one that will go down in the books as not only as memorable, but as a rarefied glimpse into what a truly magnificent restaurant can accomplish. It should’ve served as inspiration not only for the lucky diners, but also for Japan’s culinary elite to evolve the heretofore conservative Japanese culinary scene. Noma is no longer about showcasing Nordic landscape, but about putting any landscape on a plate and capturing a sense of time and place, food that would not make sense in any other place. And that’s why it is the best restaurant in the World.
Deeply excited to see how this trip will inspire the direction of the restaurant going forward.
Checkout our pics below from our meal at Noma Copenhagen this summer.