$973 for 17 courses in 4 hours

$973 for 17 courses in 4 hours

Novelty is rare at a time when just about everything can be experienced vicariously through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

I try - and mostly succeed - in not reading about or looking at photos of Noma Japan because I want to go into it with no expectations.

It is crazy, I know, to pay $973 for lunch in the private room and not have expectations, but I have found that it is the fairest way to assess a meal.

So if you are lucky enough to score a table, a warning: There are spoilers ahead.

Noma in Copenhagen where I dined in 2013, is pretty intense. The restaurant's dedication to using only indigenous ingredients means diners get to sample the riches of the region's forests and sea, in combinations nobody has thought of.

Much as I enjoy the meal there, Noma Japan is better.

Is it the wider range of ingredients? Is it chef Rene Redzepi revelling in being out of his comfort zone? It is probably a little of both.

Lunch unfolds at a fast clip. There are 17 courses in all, and it takes about four hours from start to finish.

Every course is beautiful to look at and the first is especially so. Cucumber slices fan out like flower petals, and around them are unripe strawberry halves alternating with scoops of sauce made with sake lees.

Ripe strawberries are everywhere in Tokyo this time of the year. They are ever-so-sweet and easy to work with. But the unripe variety have their charm, their sharpness contrasting with the mellow lees.

Then, a course that some people have told me they cannot possibly eat: two raw shima ebi with ants on them. Here again, a contrast: this time of sweet prawns and citrusy ants. They remind me of the pulverised ones in Copenhagen, served on fresh milk curd. It is the formic acid that makes them tart. Can ants be a link between two cities?

One of my favourite courses comes as a change of pace after several featuring tart flavours. We are served pickled, smoked and frozen monkfish liver shaved onto sourdough toast. Every bite fills the palate with a smoky, salty richness that I want more of.

Another good one only looks plain. On the menu, it is described as Tofu, Just Steamed With Wild Walnuts. But the fresh tofu also has a miso, yuzu and parsley sauce and the walnuts have been skinned, it appears. Every spoonful is crunchy and velvety at the same time.

I will remember, for a long time, Garlic Flower. Two shiny black petals, made of black garlic paste dehydrated and turned into a kind of edible paper, sit on a matte black plate. The origami is sticky in the mouth, tasting sweet with just a hint of tartness. What makes it memorable is the rose oil brushed onto them, its perfume so heady. Who would have thought to pair garlic and rose?

But then I remember that garlic is also called the stinking rose and it all makes sense.

The main course of wild duck is served unceremoniously, plonked on a plate. We use chopsticks to pick up thin, rare slices of duck breast, dipping them into unrelentingly tart matsubusa berry sauce. The ducks, caught by net rather than being shot, develop an intensely savoury flavour from being hung for a couple of weeks. They are then roasted over charcoal and the singed parts are delightful.

Alas, the thighs and legs prove a challenge, being too tough to eat.

Of the three desserts, the one I like best comes still bubbling to the table. It is a sweet potato that has been simmering in raw sugar "all day" as the menu says. This long cooking time makes the slices almost translucent. They are soft but not totally yielding. I like that precision.

The last dessert comprises slices of fermented mushroom covered with chocolate and sprinkled with licorice salt, and there are also thin twigs of wild cinnamon that impart a gentle taste of the spice when chewed. It is served on a bed of bright green moss, which Noma in Copenhagen uses as serveware.

We have come full circle.

Chef Redzepi has said that this Japanese sojourn is meant to test himself and his team, to start from scratch.

He has done it admirably in Tokyo and now, I wonder, what will he take back with him? How will he see familiar ingredients in a new way?

I hope to go back to Noma to find out.


This article was first published on Feb 1, 2015.
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