I have known about Noma restaurant and the chef René Redzepi almost since his very beginning. In fact we had planned to visit Scandinavia several times, but decided that making a special journey to Noma was not in the cards.
Finally our journey never took place, mostly to do with the fact that the reviews on Noma in Copenhagen are mixed, and some of our friends, both amateurs and professional chefs either loved it, or thought it was very over rated.
The opportunity to try Noma Tokyo was a rare chance given there are some 50,000+ on the waiting list.
I’ll start out by saying, I know that some of our friends thought I was biased about any dinner at Noma. In fact I went with a totally open-mind about trying René’s cuisine, and was caught by a good surprise, and in general very impressed by the amount of work and general innovation and quality.
Before I give my impression of Noma Tokyo, I would like to thank the Noma team and especially René Redzepi for making a tremendous effort, his humble ways, and his ability to reinterpret raw materials found in Japan, and his true dedication.
While we understand René was handicapped given he is out of his element, the Mandarin Oriental did a fantastic job in assisting Noma’s staff to organize their various prep areas and their own kitchen.
The Noma experience in Tokyo is combined with the Mandarin Oriental experience, a perfect setting, and we were fortunate enough to sleep over there last night, and wake up to Fuji san on one side and the sky-tree on the other side.
When we arrived to the Mandarin, we were excited about Noma, but equally as excited to stay at the Mandarin Tokyo. Hearing about all the changes made over the past year and a half, we were not let down and Mandarin’s service is simply put impeccable!
The first dish is one of the most important, and it gave way to an introduction to dinner, as René said, “koji, kombu and kastuobushi is all about flavor, and without it many foods in Japan wouldn’t taste so good”. This dish was inspiring and gave way to opening our pallete to a long and delightful dinner.
The unripe strawberry with a finely detailed cucumber in the center was a dish that started us in the right direction, the strawberries were crunchy and here (in hindsight) we saw a theme begin.
The second course was langoustine flavors of the Nagano forest. One could debate the ants added as a flavor, directly from a tree stump from the Nagano forest. The ants looked like dirt dots and didn’t do very much for this dish, except to add some buzz about serving ants. It was a clumsy dish, and if I were the chef, I would immediately re-consider the service of this course. It’s awkward for Japanese to use their hands and take the entire (whole) langoustine and bite it-it. I was puzzled by this dish given that it was very difficult to eat without taking the entire Langoustine, holding up it by the head, and actually biting tail – it looks something like this!
The next course was citrus with long Nagano pepper and the delicate taste of peppers and a zing of sansho. This dish helped open the pallet and was a refreshing course with good acidity, and the green oil base, a mixture made by roasting and infusing flavors of seaweed was amazing-bravo!
The following course was shaved monk fish liver, something I’m very familiar with. I was told it was made with butter, I guess fat with fat, served on a very thinly sliced sourdough (crunchy), it was rich and powerful. I thought it was top-heavy and could’ve had some accents of citrus to help soothe the pallet given the ankimo (monkfish liver) was shaved making it very dense and rich. The course was a gorgeous course, a little too cold on purpose, but the idea of shaving the liver accentuates the intensity and was brilliant. I somehow wish the chef didn’t serve it directly on a napkin.
The next dish was ko-ika cuttlefish served in the style of soba. The cooking of the cuttlefish was done perfectly, it was then sliced long ways to give the effect of a soba noodle. The dipping sauce was most unusual with rose water and rose petals, and I found this almost impossible to pair.
The freshwater clams served with wild kiwi (as a tart) was most unusual and interesting. Given the amount of time and effort put into it, I thought it was a well executed even though it was served on a napkin.
The tofu dish with wild walnuts, is something I’ve seen before, its not original but was a delicious dish. The first time I encountered this was in France, Pascal Barbot, and these days you can find a version on the menu at Quintessence.
The cabbage slow cooked whole and then peeled apart, was served with Hokkaido sea urchin, a rich intense dish, it was simple and to the point and well done, but why pair cabbage and sea urchin, isn’t that like rubber boots and skis?
The scallops dried for two days and served with beech nuts and kelp was a dish that was textually interesting, and tasted slightly fishy but dried scallops inherit this flavor. This is made by using a vacuum whereby the air aerates the ingredients and gives the effect of a spongecake – a cool dish.
The Japanese Hokkori pumpkin with cherry wood oil and salted Cherry blossoms was one of my favorite dishes, it was delicate sweet and had a good contrast of flavor and texture.
The garlic flower made from Japanese fermented black garlic was somehow interesting. I have worked with fermented garlic for a very long time and this dish was interesting but given it’s described as Japanese origami, I wasn’t sure if that was a demonstration of the chef’s humor, or just all they could do.
Roots and starches with ginger, the most interesting part of this dish was not the roots or the starches, rather it was the egg yolk that was sitting in the center of the dish. I was told that it was cured in Garum, an ancient Roman condiment. I didn’t think they used Garum, as it’s very fishy and this was the opposite. Despite this, it was cleaver and an easy dish, less complex but had its own identity.
Garum posting: https://mesubim.com/2013/11/04/garum-campania/
The final course which was wild duck served with local Matsubusa forest berries, and there was something unusual about it. The duck was properly cooked, but I didn’t like the service of this course. The main course of such an important dinner should be climatic and by serving netted ducks it just didn’t do it. These ducks are not enough of a novelty, and reaching across the table (with hashi), grabbing the duck breast from the pre-sliced ducks, was awkward. This should be re-thought and quickly.
I had mixed feelings about the dinner, but during the dinner I must admit that I was absolutely thrilled by the dinner itself. The flavors were very pure, the dishes were soft, often varied with texture, and or composed in such a way that the composition worked so perfectly.
I think the turning point in the dinner was one of the courses near the end, a vegetable course consisting of a Japanese turnip in a green sorrel sauce. I felt this dish was so ordinary but maybe I missed it. Suddenly I felt as if I had been snapped out of the dream, and it was anti-climatic. I had been carried along the entire evening by the idea of seeing new ideas, meticulous preparations, superb combinations such as monkey pear (sarunashi) and other intense flavors combined with interesting textures.
I started to feel as if the chef was padding the meal and it didn’t help when the head waiter, Lao asked me, “how did you enjoy the dinner”, and after I said, “it was almost perfect except the turnip course, he said “for you”. I thought that this demonstrated the arrogance I had not encountered with anyone from René’s team.
Once the food courses ended and desert was served, it gave rise to a great ending. This dish was consistent with the grip of the chef’s creations this night.
There is no doubt that René uses fusion in a way which is a positive thing, and he has a grasp of what he’s doing. The idea of many of not almost all the dishes having green and brown oils, or white fermented barley koji, makes me think about what is going on in the chefs mind. There was no doubt that René is a top Chef, and that creating these dishes takes a tremendous effort, and not only in its thinking, but also in its execution. But frankly with a team of 70 people, I think you can do much more. A visit to Passage 53 in Paris, or Sola are two good examples of miniscule kitchens and staff, excellent cuisine and elegant execution.
Considering that René Redzepi is voted the “number one chef in the world”, I believe there are close runner ups who do the same work, if not better, with half or a fraction of the staff he uses. At least in Japan there are numerous skilled chefs who can easily out perform his skill, but some would say lack his imagination.
I suggest to any chef planning to cook in Japan to spend more time here, learn about the culture and traditions, and test the genius of kaiseki each season. Any great meal must incorporate a sense of purity and balance both in technique and in taste. In many ways I felt Noma both hit the target and missed it completely but it was certainly a fantastic experience, and I am grateful to have had the chance. /thank you/