Our reservation was for one o’clock, and we were to meet my Swedish girlfriend Birgitta at the restaurant, which she described as “a bit Brutalist in architectural style”. Noma is situated on the waterfront, as is often the case in Copenhagen, and the area did have a very chic post-industrial vibe with lots of poured concrete and glass. I hadn’t seen my friend since we were neighbors in London ages ago, but she hadn’t changed at all. All blue eyes, wavy blonde hair, and layers of white eyelet for the beautiful day.
As she greeted my daughter and met my husband and stepdaughter, she told us, she said “I’m a little scared to face the dinner” in her singsong Swedish English, ‘but we’re five here so we can be brave together!” She’d warned me on the phone that her English was “scratchy”, and I remembered at once how charmingly original her use of “English as a third language” had always been. I assumed “scared” was to “excited about” the way “scratchy” was to “rusty”.
The interior was all dark natural colors and rather hushed; each surface was a different texture like birch wood, rusted metal or smooth stone and there were fluffy animal skins thrown over the back of all our chairs. We were greeted warmly, and told that there was no menu; they would just bring us what they had decided was the freshest and most delicious today. A wobbly little centerpiece with what looked like a very few dried flowers as well as some longer branches was placed in the center of the table with a flourish, some delicious white Bordeaux was poured, and our culinary escapade began.
The long branches, it turned out, were our first course. Some sort of mushroom that had been pureed, dried, smoked then dusted with pine cone ashes if I recall correctly. Birgitta made a little squeak as she bit into hers. They were odd, but delicious.
Soon we were enjoying a salad of very local weeds that we learned had been foraged by some of the army of sous chefs that morning. “Wherever I go now I can’t help looking between the paving stones for the greens that we need here, and my wife is going crazy trying to keep me from crashing into bicycles and baby carriages,” our waiter told us.
Then we were served Egg in Nest, with a darling little griddle to cook it ourselves. If anyone noticed me nibbling on bits of the nest, which was really just hay, they didn’t mention it. In a few hours I’d gotten so used to eating odd looking foliage that appeared to be one thing and tasted like another, that I assumed it was going to be parsnip fries or something.
In between the explanation of our various courses we exchanged news; we had just been to my daughter’s university graduation in Scotland, and were here ostensibly to celebrate her First, which occasioned many toasts. We had to hear all about Brigitta’s clan as well. My stepdaughter, who works in television and knows everyone, would occasionally whisper the name of a prominent fellow diner and direct our attention with a subtle gesture of her famously perfect eyebrows.
The live shrimp gave us pause; thank goodness we were into the third bottle of wine by then. The server told us breezily, “If you swish them around in the sauce first, they don’t even know what hit them!” Birgitta looked at me knowingly before she bravely chomped down, and then shuddered all over. Her English is quite accurate I thought, as I recalled her use of the word “scared” before lunch.
All the courses were tiny, but there were many of them, twenty-two I think by the end of the meal. When a meltingly tender short rib of beef appeared, I was too full to enjoy it thoroughly, and remembered the hundred course meal in one of the Dr. Doolittle books, where the doctor admonishes young Tommy Stubbins, “not to eat more than a single bite of each delicacy served to you, or you’ll never make it to the end of the meal.” Forty years ago I knew I’d never be able to follow that advice, as indeed was the fate of Stubbins, and I thought ruefully that perhaps I’d not evolved as much as I like to think.
It was a little like a condensed holiday to a foreign country, that lunch. It’s wonderful fun to admire the new opera hall rising up out of the sea in the startling Nordic light, see people that are different from those you live with – so tall, so handsome, and all astride a bicycle, taste unusual things like the skin of milk with lignon berries, but taking in all that otherness is exhausting as well as exciting, and at the end of the day sometimes one needs a little rest.
Just as we were beginning to droop (it was after five by now after all!) one of our many attendants announced that we were about to enjoy our last course. Would we like any tea, or perhaps a coffee? Birgitta answered, “YES!” practically before the question was asked, and we all followed suit.
Of course they ought to serve mokk-a at such a special restaurant, but it’s not available in Europe yet so we can’t blame them. It was served in lovely thin cups with an uneven rim, hand painted with a gold border, which held a large enough dose for a revivifying jolt. Smooth and strong, maybe with a little chocolaty flavor underneath (or maybe not) it was delicious. I drank mine very hot and added only a little milk and two cute pieces of dark brown artisanal-looking sugar. Just as at the end of a vacation, no matter how wonderful, it’s lovely to arrive home again; it was deeply relaxing to be served something familiar after all the exotic offerings, to drink something my taste buds understood without any explanation.