Is New Noma really a world beater?
A top-rated restaurants leaves a nasty taste
In 2012 Rene Redzepi was named as one of the hundred most influential people in the world. His restaurant Noma (the name comes from “Nordic” and the Danish word for food “mad”) has won the best Restaurant in the World title four times since its opening in 2003, and this year re-entered the rankings at number two, despite the award’s ban on previous winners. Newspeak for New Noma: in 2018 the restaurant changed both its name and its premises, hence, technically, it is a different establishment.
For those who get exercised about such things, New Noma’s inclusion has been viewed as controversial, but having visited the Copenhagen flagship, such criticism seems to be misdirected. I don’t think New Noma is actually a restaurant at all.
In The Concept of Mind (1949), Gilbert Ryle gave what has become a classic definition of the category mistake in philosophy. The example is a visitor to Oxford who, having seen the colleges and chapels, asks, “But where is the University?”. The assumption conflates the physical infrastructure with the institution. Category error operates at New Noma in that it appears to have the structure of a restaurant, but its essence lies elsewhere.
One might more accurately describe it as an “immersive food installation experience”. Or as a bucket list destination for nerds. New Noma has waiters and things to eat and indeed cutlery, but it is a cult, not a restaurant. It is designed for people who like rules, not food.
New Noma is approached along a walkway by a lake in a formerly unfashionable area of Copenhagen. The building’s 11 rooms were designed by super-architect Bjarke Ingels to resemble a traditional Nordic settlement. Who knew that the Vikings lived in traditional Nordic Center Parcs? On arrival, visitors are greeted by what seems to be the entire staff, barking a slightly unnerving mass welcome. Instructions are issued at the table. New Noma changes its no-choice menu with the seasons, a rhythmic evolution which moves from fish through vegetables to game. Fourteen courses are served in precise order, with a “comfort break” built in. A pregnant lady in my party asked if she could take her “comfort break” off-schedule. She was told no. Each course is announced and lengthily explained, which actively discourages conversation.
Aside from the food, entertainment is provided by periodic group shouts of “Yes Chef!” from the brigade, pumping up that relaxing quasi-military atmosphere. After dinner, guests are escorted to the exit through New Noma’s prep quarters. I asked if I could have my coat, as it was a bit chilly in the game freezer. I was told firmly that it would be returned to me at the end of the tour. When GQ magazine reviewed New Noma, the journalist gushed that the staff offered “a form of affection and care that you may not receive from your closest relatives”.
Whilst this offers an interesting insight into the family life of the washed-up metrosexual, I personally find it quite agreeable when restaurant staff permit their customers to put on a jacket or visit the lavatory.
The 14 courses were un-food. Redzepi has done wonders in rediscovering foraged Nordic food and ancient ingredients such as deep sea crabs and horse mussels, as well as restoring traditional techniques such as salting, fermenting and drying to dazzling levels of technical skill, yet New Noma is far more interested in showcasing its own brilliance than in giving customers something delicious to eat. There was a jelly beetle that looked just like a real beetle, a beautiful feathered duck wing with a dismal little fried meatball clinging to its leg like a tumour, and a duck’s head from which we were invited to scoop out the brain. Visually smashing, viscerally disarming, but it didn’t taste that great.
The tartare of reindeer heart was OK, the pheasant broth with caviar quite pleasant, but there was nothing that sang in the mouth. We were informed that the 14 courses would “build to a crescendo”. They did not. They petered out in a jellied smear of “fruit leather” and yet another bit of duck carcass — a foot, I recall, but everyone was over it by that point. We just wanted to be allowed out.
When Noma opened a pop-up in Tulum, the Ibiza of Silicon Valley, 7,000 reservations sold out in two hours. Geeks get Noma. It pretends to be democratic and casual whilst being financially exclusive, which is reassuring to those with lots of money but no idea how to spend it. It’s Instagrammable, status-enhancing and most importantly tells you what to do. No fear of using the wrong fork or mispronouncing the wine list. The presentation is fantastically playful and a little bit gross. Its self-belief is infantile, intransigent and slightly terrifying. If Mark Zuckerberg was a restaurant, he’d be New Noma. But New Noma is not a restaurant, ergo this can’t be a restaurant review.
New Noma is at Refshalevej 96, 1432 København K, Denmark. Phone: +45 3296 3297 Mon-Fri 11:00-16:00
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