I was one of those
committed mad people with my laptop, phone and tablet all open to Noma booking site and hitting refresh in a frenzy when bookings opened last October for the highly anticipated Australian “pop-up”. All 5600 seats for the ten week period in which Noma will be in Sydney were snapped up in under 2 minutes. Yup, 2 minutes!
I had a strategy going into this meltdown period which I didn’t know at the time was going to be just 2 minutes; I figured I had at least 5 minutes. Ha! Such naiveté. I knew not to make the amateur mistake of wasting precious time by searching for weekend availabilities as those bookings would be the most popular. Similarly long weekends and dinner bookings were also in my too hard category. So was a table for two. Instead I tried for a week day lunch for four and got through to the booking site on my first attempt. Am I a little impressed with my obsessive tactical moves? Absolutely! Lucky for me I have equally mad friends who will take time off work and jump on a plane to spend $485 on lunch! #blessed
So the highly anticipated day of the lunch arrived and in typical Rachi manner I had been Insta-stalking #NomaSydney for some time and knew exactly what dishes we will be getting. I must admit though my thoughts going into this meal were somewhat mixed. Allow me to explain.
For those who aren’t familiar, Copenhagen based Noma has won the title of World’s Best Restaurant four times, it is currently ranked number three in the world and head chef Rene Redzepi is the grand master of Nordic cuisine. So what’s a Nordic restaurant from the other side of the world doing in Sydney for ten weeks? It’s a business move sponsored by Tourism Australia and Barangaroo developers Lendlease as well as a team building exercise of epic proportions for the 75 staff members who have made the move from Copenhagen to call Sydney home for the full duration of this pop-up. The decision to anchor down in Sydney’s newest waterfront precinct Barangaroo has had a lot of influence on the menu for Noma, as Rene explains in this Financial Review interview.
So this is where my mixed feelings came from. At the time bookings went live, the menu was top secret yet full payment of $485 per person was required to secure a seat. That apparently accumulated to 2.7 million dollars paid upfront for all reservations for the 10 week period (gasp!). I had no qualms about paying up front (and clearly, neither did the 5599 other people who secured a seat) because Noma’s reputation speaks for itself and I was expecting an amazing experience feasting on Nordic-Australian masterpieces.
And then the pop-up opened it’s doors on Australia Day and the barrage of photos that followed on social media showed an intriguing menu inspired entirely by native Australian ingredients. But we are not talking your kangaroo fillet and salt bush kind of native produce and ingredients here. These were things I had never heard of and had a very hard time wrapping my head around; magpie goose (what even??), crocodile fat, lantana flowers, wattle porridge, gubinge dust… yup, the mind truly boggled!
So leading up to the day of our booking I had this little voice inside my head that kept questioning whether this was going to be too much of the unknown and not enough of what Noma and Rene Redzepi are world-renowned for. Is this essentially a menu of fancy bush tucker? Was I going to get my $485 worth? No doubt had I been silly enough to even entertain the thought of giving up my seat, one of the 27000 people on the wait list (yes, you read that right, there is a wait list of twenty seven THOUSAND) would’ve jumped at the chance to take my spot so the little voice inside was just a little whisper really. I was never NOT going to go based on the vast unknown. But I was also holding back on the excitement that the occasion clearly called for because I wanted this to be the best dining experience of my life (it’s definitely the most expensive) and I knew I had to maintain my expectations.
So that’s enough on the back story. Let’s get on with what happened on the day….
(Spoiler alert: This WAS the best dining experience of my life and it was a culinary journey like no other)
This was my first time at Barangaroo precinct and I was impressed. It was evident why Noma had decided to associate itself with this particular location with it’s history and beauty.
The dining room was quite striking in it’s sophisticated minimalism. The red cement floor is inspired by Australia’s red desert. The centerpieces are entirely made of native flora. There are no white table clothes but beautiful designer Danish tables and chairs are spaced around the room and bespoke cutlery and plates give the feeling of luxury without being in your face. Some of the chairs even had kangaroo furs draped across the back!
The service from the minute we walked in to the minute we walked out was one of utmost perfection and professionalism. Even though it can feel slightly overwhelming at the start to have that much staff waiting on you and attending to you, they weren’t intrusive in anyway and we felt at ease rather quickly. And there was none of that stuffiness associated with traditional fine dining either; the staff were incredible courteous yet there was lots of banter and they all seemed to be genuinely enjoying their jobs.
And then we started the 4 hour dining experience made up of 12 courses. There is the option of matching wines for $195, which we seriously considered but decided against, as we didn’t want the alcohol to get in the way of our memory of every tiny detail of this experience. Instead we took the sommelier’s recommendation on drinks with every second or third course and that worked well for us.
Ready for 12 courses of Noma? Let’s begin!
Straight away we were off to an interesting start with this dish. This was slivers of macadamia in a cold broth of spanner crab and it was subtle and refreshing. The unripe macadamias were crunchy and the overall taste here was a hint of sweetness with just a touch of oiliness. Interesting!
Ah-ha here comes the gubinge aka Kakadu plum powder. This was a visually stunning dish of so much of unknown. The seasonal berries were muntries, riberries, dessert lime and lemon aspen and they were served with a generous glug of seaweed oil. There were so many textures and flavours going on here with the different native berries offering very strong yet differing amounts of tartness, sweetness and acidity. The seaweed oil was a bit of an acquired taste to begin with but with each mouthful we started appreciating the complexity of this dish and the gubinge rounded things off with a sourness that coated the palate.
So let’s break this down. What we have here is a porridge made up of two types of wattle seeds, wrapped up in poached salt bush leaves and served with finger lime on top. The porridge was creamy yet the seeds had quite a crunch to it and the saltbush added that earthy, herby taste to it. Not to state the obvious but by this point I was starting to realise how truly unique this meal was shaping up to be.
Things were going from interesting to truly amusing by this point. The “seafood platters” were all placed in front of us in a certain orientation and we were instructed to eat in a clockwise direction starting with the pippie, then the mussel, strawberry clam, flame cockle and finally the oyster. The crustaceans were served medium rare with a vinaigrette of bush tomatoes and the glistening layer on top is a very fine layer of duck skin, pan fried and brushed with crocodile fat. No, definitely not your average seafood platter! I had recently developed a mild allergy to oysters and clams (which I only remembered after I ate the pippie) so I passed the rest to my dining companions who were more than happy to finish off what I started. Everyone agreed that the seafood was perfect in every way and the textural element of the duck skin with crocodile fat added an almost toffee like richness to the seafood, which was unusual yet wonderful.
This was the point in the meal when my heart started singing with happiness as this dish was one of the highlights for me. The lightly cooked snow crab was served in a “sauce” made of egg yolk that had been cured in liquid extracted from fermented kangaroo. The “fermented kangaroo jus” of course got our minds boggling and the wait staff were happy to have a laugh and explain further that the kangaroo meat had been mixed with Koji and allowed to ferment for six months before extracting the jus. The end result is a dish that luxurious due to all the snow crab and indulgent due to the rich egg yolk. Please, can I have some more!
Of course this is no ordinary “pie”. It’s a scallop pie with lantana flowers underneath and the crust is made of kelp. Consuming this dish required audience participation as you are supposed to pick off the flowers and decorate the pie with it before digging in. Oh and one must not consume the stem as it is poisonous (but in case we were concerned, reassurance was given that you would need to consume a large amount to get to the poisonous level).
The layer of scallop had a creamy and almost fudge like consistency and the lantana flowers added a hint of sweetness to the mix. I also loved the base of the pie, which wasn’t buttery or flakey like normal pastry but rather dense and crispy. A winning dish!
The presentation of this dish had us all impressed before we even got the first look of the food within.
Once unveiled, what we had was lightly poached blue marron served with magpie goose ragu which is rolled in nasturitum leaf and then wrapped in the skin of caramelised milk and served with smoked butter. We were instructed to eat this with our hands which had us all giggling at the fancy “taco” that we were about to tuck into. And then one bite had us all transformed to food heaven. There are no words to describe the utter perfection of this dish but I will try. The marron was incredible juicy and plump, the ragu was rich without overpowering the marron in any way and the caramelised milk skin was beautifully crispy and added just a hint of sweetness. The table was dead quiet as we devoured our “tacos” with ridiculous smiles on our faces.
This is a dish of Tasmanian tomatoes that have been dried to intensify their flavour, then glazed with elderflower oil and served in a broth of tomato seasoned with native thyme with accompanying sea urchin on the side. These were the juiciest and sweetest tomatoes I have ever had in my life and they were the hero of this dish. This was my second experience with sea urchin and I found it here to be more rubbery than I remember sea urchin to be but let’s not nitpick because this was yet another impressive dish.
This is the point where all the Danish staff were giggling at us Aussies for getting excited about the “schnitty”. The bush condiments were too many to remember but I do recall sea lettuce, water based plants, bunya nuts, finger lime and Kakadu plum amongst all of it. There was also a dipping sauce for the abalone made of a celery reduction. Of course the star of this dish was the crumbed and fried abalone; the most tender meat and the juiciest and crispiest crumb made this one dreamy schnitty. the dipping sauce had umami flavours that complimented the abalone perfectly. As for the bush condiments, my knowledge of flavour combinations isn’t enough to explain why these exact items were selected but it was all a journey. Take a special ingredient like abalone, give it a cheeky Aussie twist by serving it as a schnitzel and then introduce a whole lot of unfamiliar items as condiments to make for great conversation as well as to take diners on a journey around Australia.
And then it was time to move onto the sweet courses and yes, those are ants and they are meant to be there. This dish had three components; a mango sandwich with mango sorbet and green ants, a cube of compressed watermelon marinated in Davidson plum juice and a cube of pineapple wrapped in hibiscus flower. This was an innovative palate cleanser with lovely bursts of sweet and sour. The green ants were tangy and worked beautifully with the creamy mango sorbet. I can now happily tick ants off my list of weird and wonderful things I have eaten.
Another nod to an Auusie classic and this ‘lamington’ was made up of aerated rum ice cream covered with a milk crumb and rose oil and it was served with a sauce made of native tamarind. This was light and melted in your mouth but then ended in a burst of flavour due to the tangy tamarind.
The “Baytime” was the name Noma had come up with to avoid trademark infringement from another well known Aussie favourite ice cream. This clever creation was made of peanut milk ice cream with a toffee centre and a glaze made of roasted freekah. It was a wonderfully creamy treat with an adequate sweet hit provided by the toffee centre and the most perfect way to end the meal; creative, playful and memorable.
Finally, petit fours were served; lollies with an edible wrapper made of apple and sugar with a filling of dessert lime inside. These were crunchy with a big hit of sourness that was enough to wake you up from your impending food coma.
By this point nearly 4 hours had passed but it seemed no one wanted this experience to end as all the diners were now in the outside bar area swapping stories over more drinks. It was also at this time that Rene Redzepi himself appeared from the kitchen to chat, to pose for photos and to sign autographs for those of us die-hard fans.
I’m easily star struck by “true” celebrity chefs and this was an amazing experience to meet and chat with Rene who was incredibly humble and engaging. That five minute chat left me feeling inspired by Noma and Rene’s food philosophies and appreciative of Rene’s vision and what he wanted to accomplish by bringing Noma to Australia.
And now for the $485 question; was this worth the money? I’ve “invested” some serious money in dining experiences over the last 7 years of my food-obsessed life but no other experience has ever come close to challenging everything I thought I knew about food the way this Noma experience did. From the start to finish this was an adventure like no other, it set new benchmarks, it opened my eyes to so many things I didn’t know about food from my own home and it left me dazzled and inspired. So in other words, yes, for me this was worth every cent.
Whilst we did take a respectable group photo I will leave you with this selfie that Rene was only too happy to be a part of because this sums up the experience better; entertaining, refreshing and a little bit daring.