See what it’s like to dine at Noma, twice ranked as the best restaurant in the world.
Calling Noma ‘the best restaurant in the world’ isn’t hyperbole.
The Copenhagen restaurant literally received the auspicious culinary designation the day before our 2021 Game and Forest dinner. For us, eating at Noma was an outsized event in which the experience was almost bigger than the meal itself.
Weeks after eating at the legendary restaurant, after our lives had returned to their normal rhythm, we couldn’t stop glancing into each other’s eyes, wistfully realizing that we had eaten at the best restaurant in the world. We’d then announce “we ate as Noma!” as a reminder and private badge of glory.
Imagine the feeling of tasting the kind of cheese or chocolate that has your tastebuds singing an hour later. Now imagine that feeling lingering in your mind but multiplied by 10,000. That’s what our meal at Noma felt like. The memories stick with you for awhile.
What makes a meal special? Is it the food alone? The room? The service? All three?
We’ve pondered this question in the past decade after taking the jump from casual food lovers to obsessed epicureans. We don’t have a clear answer. Instead, it’s more of a guttural feeling – a ‘we know it when we taste it’ kind of thing.
Some people approach fine dining experiences like citations on a soldier’s uniform. Michelin sets it up that way with its trilogy of star rankings that has driven chefs from elation to literal suicide. Its red guides are now global as is San Pellegrino’s two-decade old, self-determined “World’s 50 Best” list.
Noma’s Position as the Best Restaurant in the World
Noma currently stands alone at the top with both three Michelin stars and five times (four times at its original location and once at its current location) at the top of Pellegrino’s list, a unique feat and one that has garnered mad media attention. Due to these accolades, the simple act of eating at Noma is like earning a spot in the “I’ve eaten at the best restaurants in the world” club.
But, in some ways, Noma is an anomaly with food that takes its cues from molecular gastronomy as much as from ecology. We have immense appreciation and understanding for what Noma offers and appreciate the fact that more than a few people won’t understand it.
Bestowing the #1 status to Noma is like placing John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at the top of the pop charts. Like Noma, it’s a magnificent piece of artistry but not something that everybody will understand. This, to us, is a good thing since those same people probably don’t get Jackson Pollock either.
Founded in 2004 when Claus Meyer tapped René Redzepi to join his food revolution (the restaurant’s name is literally short in Danish for Nordic Food), Noma originally sourced all of its product from the Nordic region. The restaurant upped its approach after relocating to its current space in 2018 and now exclusively sources its product from the Copenhagen region.
The restaurant, by choice, seats fewer than 100 diners each day. Tens of thousands of people attempt to pry one of Noma’s precious few tables the moment that each dining ‘season’ opens for reservations. It’s that competitive.
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Our Dinner at Noma
Our entry to the restaurant’s expansive campus began with a short lakeside stroll. Well, that and a flight to Copenhagen earlier in the day.
After ambling past beds of sunflowers and lion’s tails, we proceeded through an arched tunnel constructed of antlers before eventually encountering a hero’s welcome of 100 (or so it seemed) chefs greeting us at the same moment. Chef René Redzepi, fresh from winning the “World’s Best Restaurant” title in Antwerp, stood humbly at the end of the line. Daryl, who understands the busy life of an executive chef, was pleasantly shocked by the acclaimed chef’s presence.
It was all magnificent and overwhelming but what’s glued to our minds is the first of 18 plates – a reindeer skull served atop a napkin in a simple, rustic, dark brown wicker basket. At that moment, we knew that Noma’s Game and Forest season was no joke.
Lifting each reindeer skull revealed reindeer brain custard. Yes, reindeer brain.
It takes a lot of balls (they later served us reindeer penis, but we digress) to begin a meal this way, but there it was underneath the most flavorful layer of super-concentrated gelatinous pheasant stock – a silky, creamy puree of that most luscious offal.
There’s no disguising the food at Noma. Redzepi and his extensive team purposely transported us to the forest. Under his tutelage, we were hunters. We were humans eating food that was once living – not some dressed up facsimile packaged in plastic and sold to the masses.
That being said we enjoyed every tasty, monumental moment.
Did we mention that we started our evening by hopping on a bus to travel across town to Noma? Considering the restaurant’s ginormous price tag and multinational clientele, we were likely the only diners that night who were that ‘in touch with the city’ and our wallets.
We’d love to know who else would take a bus to such an extravagant event. On one hand, it seems silly not to spring for a taxi. Then again, perhaps the bus is more appropriate because, despite Noma’s astronomical price, something about the place still feels grounded and unpretentious.
Food at Noma
Noma’s menu descriptions, which are given after the final plate has been served, paint a simple picture but Redzepi’s flavorful food can be deceivingly complex. Surprisingly deep flavors burst from every plate, belying the advanced, bistro-gastronomic elements and techniques used to create each unique dish.
During our multi-course meal, pumpkin in koji butter was constructed like an Eastern European stuffed cabbage with delicately braised pumpkin leaves surrounding a core of pumpkin slices. However, these pumpkin slices had deep flavors and rich textures reminiscent of foie gras. Another dish featured flower petals of shaved beets plated with museum-like perfection over biting, piquant plum and über intense cloudberries.
Only one course conveyed a bit over-exuberance that turned Mindi sour. That course featured wild duck brain served inside a duck head (bill still on) atop a Cezanne-like bed of autumn leaves.
We both enjoyed the creamy brain but, while Daryl loves everything duck, Mindi drew a line with the overly intense, super gamy flavors of the dried and blistered fried duck leg. That leg, which could be described as Escoffier’s worst nightmare, was way too intense for her palate.
But the second act of wild duck more than redeemed whatever misgivings occurred. The multifaceted plate contained a super tender duck breast lacquered in a sauce of mushroom, truffle and seaweed. The scarlet red breast was aged four days and served alongside foraged pickled “salad” leaves and a cleverly crispy, lightly crunchy breadstick trompe l’oeil on a platform of truffle.
We’ve never swooned over a breadstick before but that inedible looking twig was literal art on a plate and tasted divine. This type of seamless menu concept takes years to conceive and implement. We’d expect nothing less at Noma.
We even ate bear.
How many restaurants would have the temerity to serve bear dumplings? A pure sphere of juicy fried bear that Mindi proclaimed to be the best hushpuppy ever, each bear dumpling arrived with an ivory spoon drizzled with bear caramel.
If you had asked us years ago about the least likely food we’d ever eat in our travels, bear caramel would have certainly ranked up there. Now that we know it and ate it, we’d happily wrestle Davy Crocket for the deeply sweet, umami rich ‘bearrific’ confection.
We couldn’t help but notice a certain element of genius born of necessity in dishes like the deliciously odd (or was it oddly delicious?) bear dumpling. Noma isn’t located in an agricultural hotbed like Italy, France or even Thailand. Its Nordic locale forces chefs like Redzepi to use the limitations of the region to stretch culinary creativity in new and exciting ways.
In one dish, a sumac flower substituted as an eating utensil. The concept of sucking broth from a sponge-like conical flower seems bizarre but it totally worked. That broth, deep and rich with ceps (similar to porcini), conveyed a super concentrated flavor enhanced by the bright red sumac’s delicate, slightly lemony, floral spice. Daryl couldn’t stop dipping and sucking the sumac until his bowl of the powerful broth was empty.
And desserts? Yes. We had three and they were as daring and unconventional as every other course. The first featured a creamy parfait of buttermilk, a common Danish ingredient, topped with an uncommon ‘mother’ of kombucha. The second multilayered dessert, a beeswax bowl served atop leaves and cacao pods, had layers of saffron ice cream and spicy Mexican chocolate as well as a poppy seed and licorice topping.
Finally, in an intentional nod toward our ossified first course, a piece of reindeer skeleton appeared. But this time it was a narrow, long bone filled with sweet, honey-like reindeer marrow, dotted with freeze dried blueberries and topped with a lovely yet subtle confetti of flowers.
The meal literally ended with a reindeer bone, just like it began, albeit two different bones and two different creams. The luscious creams inside those bones – one savory and one sweet – signified an experience that was richer than the ingredients.
Words, pictures and even the restaurant’s enormous pedigree can’t convey the enormity of the experience we shared.
See photos of each plate served during our 15-course Game & Forest dinner at Noma.
Wine at Noma
Sommelier Ava Mees List carefully curated a list of biological wines produced in countries like France and Georgia as well as in Denmark. It’s a list as unique as the menu – one that many diners opt to skip, instead choosing to ride the sommelier’s choices in a substantial (both in price and selection) wine pairing.
Not being huge fans of wine pairings and a bit scared by this one’s price tag, we initially opted for a bottle. At the last minute we changed our minds, figuring, “Hey, we’re eating at the best restaurant in the world. Let’s do it!”
That’s when the sommelier reappeared – bottle open, choice made. While the pairing would have been a great option, the bottle she selected was a magnificent choice – 2015 La Reine Chardonnay – a silky, earthy, funky natural French wine from the Jura. Mindi said without exaggeration that this was the finest white wine she’d ever tasted. Daryl, who abhors rankings, thought it was remarkable.
Beyond the Food and Wine at Noma
Noma didn’t earn its three Michelin star from its food alone.
An army of professionals works at the lauded restaurant located in a building that was a munitions factory in a prior life. Not only does it have a greenhouse, but Noma’s complex also has rooms dedicated to experimentation and fermentation.
Led by Shanna Fan, an array of servers, sometimes up to five at a time, handled our table, Noma does the hand and foot, Michelin-star service thing at a level we’d expect at a such a highly pedigreed restaurant. In other words, the service was superb.
We always define special food experiences by their impact. Let’s face it, three star Michelin meals aren’t cheap. Diners who pay a hefty price to eat at these culinary temples expect a transformative event from the moment they arrive straight through to their final sips and bites.
As was evident from the start of our meal, when Fan placed those reindeer skulls in front of us, the crew at Noma understands the giant stage on which they stand. And, for a few brilliant hours, we understood it too.
Yes. Noma was awarded the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2021. As a past winner, Noma is no longer eligible for the award based on current rules.
Noma has an online reservation system; however, each season sells out almost immediately. Unless you get lucky and score a reservation, the best option is to add your name to the restaurant’s online waiting list.
At the time of our Game and Forest dinner, the per person costs were DKK 2,800 for the set menu, DKK 1,800 for a wine pairing and DKK 1,000 for a juice pairing. Those amounts respectively converted to $436, $280 and $156 and are subject to change.
No. Tipping is optional in Denmark.
Noma offers a vegetarian menu option as an alternative to its set menu.
While most people choose to take a taxi or car service, we found the 2A public bus to be both cost effective and efficient. Our total transport time was under 30 minutes each way.
Noma doesn’t have a dress code. During our meal, most people (including us) were comfortably dressed in a style best described as business casual.
Our Game and Forest dinner featured 18 plates served over 15 courses.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: November 9, 2021