Getting a reservation at Noma’s rare 5 week pop up in Tokyo was like winning the lottery! Back in June last year, when Y and I were away for a week with limited wifi in safari in Kenya, the online booking for Noma’s pop up had to happen for a very limited few hours in that week. No fear, we made a pact with some other friends plus R who had to stay in SG to work, to all go online to try our luck. So few months later over the course of Oct – Dec, R was lucky to be offered 3 different dates each for a table of 6. We picked the first table that was offered in Oct last year for the 11 Feb 2015 lunch date, and well it was a pity for the rest of my friends who all couldn’t make it for the other 2 dates that we offered to them.
Rather minimalist entrance of Noma.
Based on some statistics shared via Straits Times review by Tan Hsueh Yuen just last month on Noma in Tokyo, about 60,000 people applied in June last year and were entered into a ballot. With just 64 lunches and dinners (the restaurant is closed on Sundays) and 56 people a meal, only 3,548 people will get to experience Noma Japan over this period of 9 Jan – 14 Feb. So wow R was like really really lucky to have won not 1 but 3 different ballots! Pity he could not come with us, but Y and I quickly assembled a table of 6 in no time – long time friends like CT from Y’s Perth days along with frequent travelling buddies – YW and her hubby AL, who also brought along another fun foodie couple from Hong Kong – NF and D.
We arrived in Mandarin Oriental where the French restaurant on the 37th floor had been converted into a new space under Rene Redzepi’s watchful eye, with new furniture ordered in plus soft Japanese paper looking drapes in place of typical screens to give it a less austere look. Even the kitchen had been updated, and all the serving ware, had been made specially just for this pop up by local craftsmen, all of which would go on sale on their online shop for Noma Tokyo diners to buy a piece of this history as mementos.
Dining room transformed with soft Japanese paper drapes to separate the spaces.
Some of the beautifully crafted plates by local Japanese craftsmen that will be available on the Noma online shop, whilst stocks last.
The menu had been prepaid already – at a cost of 48,642 yen nett and we decided to go with ordering bottles of wine to share rather than doing wine pairing and YW and NF went for the juice pairing. Maybe not such a great idea with the juice pairing as it was rather strange with a lot of focus on vegetables, stock and oil in many of them, and it costed 20,000 yen per person.
Getting comfortable at the table, ready to eat!
Anyhow, our first course came quickly, with the famous ‘live’ prawn with ants – their take on the classic botan ebi with ‘flavours of Nagano forest’ provided through the wood ants that had been harvested from Nagano. How coincidental, considering we were just in Nagano a day ago! I don’t know if the ants freaked me out more, or having to take the moving prawn in my paws and bite of the head and chew the body of the flesh quickly all in a quick second. It felt like a Hannibal Lecter moment here briefly, before it went down my throat rather quickly. The acidity of the ants was almost similar to that of lemons and was intended to complement the rather sweet plump flesh of the prawn. It was good, but not sure if I would eat it again, maybe I need to be blindfolded, still can’t get my head around the ants and something moving even as it’s touching my bear mouth.
Next was different types of citrus fruits, all which had been cut perfectly and seated in a beautifully crafted bowl – almost looking like a ripe open flower, they had been intentionally picked at different ripeness and served with seaweed oil.
The third dish came quickly which was a shaved frozen monkfish liver served on a crisp toast served on a folded napkin seated on a Japanese dish. This was hands down my favourite in the entire course, it was like shaved strips of ice cream, it was so smooth, delightfully creamy, that it literally melted in our mouth the moment we picked it with our hands and ate it.
Fourth came the Koika cuttlefish “soba”, which essentially was cuttlefish prepared and cut and served to emulate soba noodles, and served with a broth made from rose petals and pine needles served on the side. I enjoyed the texture of the cuttlefish reworked into noodle strips, but the dip was rather strange to me.
Fifth, was Ableskiver – at first it looked like his take on Japan’s classic street food Takoyaki, but then Annegret our server for our table explained to us it was their twist on a classic Danish dessert – Ableskiver which is like doughnut balls. The glaze was extracted from fermented grasshoppers and dotted with flowers. To be honest, I think my head was kind of in a daze when I ate this after hearing ‘grasshopper’, so I have strangely no memory of what was inside this ball other than it had some mustard greens.
Oooohh, if only I can add many emoticons here to express my deep felt love for this next one – Sea urchin (uni) tart – the mounds of orange uni flesh was served on a paper thin greenish crust. Not just a simple tart, there was a smear of wild kiwi and parsley just between the uni and tart that gave the whole dish a burst of flavours in the mouth.
Number 7 on the list was tofu seated below a bed of shaved turnip with yuzu. Interesting dish, well executed, but I wasn’t a big fan of this dish.
Number 8 – scallop dried for two days, with beech nuts and kelp. This to me was probably the most interesting dish in the menu. Looks almost like a sponge, but to have scallop be made to look like this, with various cooking techniques in the whole process like drying, ageing, powdering and freezing to become a different dish but still with such burst of flavours was impressive. This dish was airy and quickly dissolved as it touched my tongue.
Scallop dried for two days, beech nuts and kelp.
The next three dishes, were all vegetable based dishes, in the entire menu, one would notice that vegetables, roots feature quite heavily in Noma cooking. The first of this trio – Hokkori pumpkin with cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms which was picked last spring in Nagano, was a nice representation of Japan produce, with my favourite flower and vegetable (yes if I buy pumpkin, it’s always only Japanese). It had a nice delicate flavour especially after the scallop dish. The fact that the cherry blossom was picked in Nagano – also shows you how long ago the team of Noma started sourcing for produce for this pop up, yes it started a year ago with frequent trips to source for appropriate produce here to develop the menu.
Garlic flower made from Japan’s famous fermented black garlic which is always sold so expensive, was made into a leathery textured origami shaped leaf. Very beautiful and sculptural in terms of presentation, but hmm this was something the whole table was rather ‘ermmm’ and ??? on in terms of taste, I didn’t enjoy this dish much, probably as I wasn’t taking to the leathery texture.
Roots and starches with ginger came next – the idea intended in this dish was to showcase some root vegetables in a simple broth which wasn’t so simple, the centre of this was an egg yolk that had been cured on top salted beef. The overall taste and texture was nutty, creamy and crisp, sweet, the contrast of these various ingredients worked well together.
Finally, Number 12 dish on the list was a meat dish – wild duck and shiitake. The wild duck had been aged for 2 weeks and they served 2 for our table of 6. It looked so good, that I almost wanted it all for myself. After taking a picture with the duck, it was taken away quickly to be carved and returned to us to attack. This was my other all time favourite dish in the entire course after the monkfish liver. Every slice of meat carved was so tender and so flavourful. Simply unforgettable!
Wild duck and shiitake.
The next dish was I guess like the classic Japanese soup to the end of the course- here it was yeast and turnip, where the turnip had been cooked in a mushroom broth and served with a roasted yeast and parsley oil.
Yeast and turnip.
No. 14 – 16 dishes were the last three that formed the desserts of this tasting menu. For me personally, I didn’t really enjoy the desserts much in taste. For me, if I had to choose between taste versus presentation, taste is more important especially for sweets. I appreciate the creativity adopted but not so high points for the taste. “Rice” was a rice paper and sake flavoured ice cream with sorrel sauce (sorrel is commonly found in Denmark which they brought over to include in this), and with glutinous rice at the bottom.
Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day – this was a more straight forward simplistic dish as compared to the one earlier, served with a dip made from sweet kiwi and elderflower. This seemingly humble dish had a wonderful taste of caramel, although I was wishing for just some nice cake or rendition of a cake.
Last, was wild cinnamon and fermented mushroom – basically chocolate covered shiitake and matsutaka mushrooms served on a bed of moss with twigs on a beautiful earthern bowl. This was a fun visual treat and completed the degustation finally.
Chef Rene Redzepi and his team makes an effort to take a table shot with every group that comes through which is great, so after observing his kitchen, we couldn’t help but take some pictures with him and the team.
Chef Rene was really friendly and shared with us some of the fun and not so fun bits about setting up Noma in Tokyo. It was amazing how he transported the entire 70 over strong team including those who needed to bring their spouse and/or kids with them. Their dishwasher also came with them, but I think he would be so stressed washing the delicate earthenware, some of which Rene shared with us that they had to patch quickly as some formed cracks early on, but they were filled by the craftsmen and then refired and touched up with gold paint so it didn’t even look damaged at all but in fact had more character to them.
Interestingly, he mentioned he had written to three hotels in Japan when he planned to do this, but only Mandarin Oriental responded. The response seemed shocking – we were saying how many hotels will be jumping at this opportunity if he came to Hong Kong or Singapore, but he said likely the other hotels thought he was just joking. He did say setting up this whole 5 week venture was rather time consuming not just in sourcing for ingredients, developing menu, but just even the whole administrative aspect of it, he had to learn from scratch about setting up a company in Japan including Japanese taxation which was quite a nightmare. He also acknowledged that pricing the menu last year did not take into effect the unexpected drop in yen in late 2014 which meant an immediate cut into his revenue by 15% easily. And neither was he expected to make profit by selling any of the serving wares, as all would be sold at cost on their online shop which easily could cost USD200 for a plate. However, with all these challenges, the opportunity for their entire team to come together, to learn and experience something that they can talk about for years was more than enough for him to want to do something this crazy, and he already said he would do it again, now the challenge is for him to find something even more challenging for his next venture. What will it be, I wonder?
Chef Rene Redzepi said his 3 daughters would probably like me.
Mucking around with Chef Rene!