Thursday, June 21, 2012

a short lunch at the bar


last june, a pleasant and generous surprise: what, for noma, counts as a short lunch at the bar. an unusual and thought-provoking meal, both the food and the service. this was most evident at meal's end. sweet courses at noma are light, to the point of seeming austere to those used to dessert as a soothing, unchallenging combination of richness and sweetness (and often chocolate). instead, a bowl of perfectly ripe strawberries with cylinders of barely sweet hay-flavoured gelled cream and a scattering of young chamomile buds. and a pile of shaved fresh carrots, rehydrated dried carrot chips, marinated carrot slices, bronze fennel, lemon thyme, carrot greens on top of a mound of whipped buttermilk. dazzling stuff.

there were many "snacks," an amusing description considering many of them had more fiddly components than your average main course. at the time, each diner would receive over a dozen snacks to open the meal. enough to dedicate one station (with a chef de partie and several stages) in the unusually organized and extraordinarily low-temperature kitchen to making them.

the food was outwardly simple—the art that conceals art—but nudged me nonetheless to attend, to eat in the moment. a few snacks in, rené brought a plate on which a napkin lay, a variety of fresh, dewy flowers nestled in its folds. in his other hand, a saucer.

a plate of undressed flowers and a saucer of unmixed dressing left on a table with no place setting forces the eater to use his hands, but also gives him the opportunity to eat the flowers either dressed as the kitchen intends or unadorned: no-choice and choice. a nasturtium flower, peppery and papery at the edge, with crunch in the middle. an umbel of yarrow flowers, bitter, green-tasting, yet pure white and sweet-smelling. eating the flowers alone emphasised the differences in their flavours and textures. eating them by hand highlighted their delicacy.

eating the flowers dressed was more curious. the saucer contained a spoonful of pumpkinseed emulsified in its own oil, surrounded by a bright orange sea buckthorn reduction sweetened with honey. the flowers were the only tools at hand to mix the dressing with. combined with a flower and then eaten, the sea buckthorn's intense acidity met the fat from the pumpkinseed, leaving a rich green note in the background and the floral aroma of the honey riding clear and distinct over ... a flower.

just a plate of flowers if you don't pay attention; a discovery, a private joke, a meditation, if you do. the kitchen team had spent a week, maybe more, figuring out what the dressing would be and how to present the flowers.

bright, acid food, needing a light touch with the beverages. the bar poured a flute of "entre ciel et terre" from francoise bedel, a glass of olivier horiot's riceys rouge "en barmont" (2003), and a bottle of noma novel (a belgian strong ale brewed for noma by mikkeller), each a brilliant working contradiction in terms.

everything at noma, food or drink, is brought to you by someone who knows it well. often it is a chef, sometimes even the chef who made it. meeting the people who are cooking for you is usual in a home, and an unusual experience of hospitality in a restaurant. even in a kitchen of enormously competent chefs, this style of service is demanding. it takes tremendous investment of time and energy, not to mention money, by a restaurant and its staff to reliably reproduce the rare and magical experience of eating at the table of a good friend who cooks well and wants to make you happy (and maybe impress you a little as well).

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