René Redzepi’s Noma Mexico pop-up is half way through its seven-week stay in Tulum, and the reviews have started to roll in. The verdict: It’s brilliant. In fact, it may be the “meal of the decade,” according to the Washington Post’s critic Tom Sietsema. Meanwhile, in his LA Times review, Jonathan Gold, who counts himself among the group of people who believe Noma in Copenhagen is the best restaurant in the world, lovingly describes Noma Mexico dishes that he says were the best bites he tasted last month. And over at Food & Wine, Joshua David Stein is rhapsodic, writing, “Noma did as Noma does: It changed everything.”
To be clear, these reviews aren’t meant to sway diners on the fence about visiting the pop-up — the dining room tasting menu sold out a mere two hours after dates became available. Let the FOMO commence:
The Really Good News
Noma Mexico is wildly different from — and superior to — any other high-end dining experience, according to Stein, who also wrote provided a behind-the-scenes play-by-play for a photo essay for GQ. He writes:
Over four hours and fifteen courses, what a restaurant is, what a pop-up restaurant is, what Mexican ingredients are, what is food and what art, what is the point of eating all, also what is Redzepi’s relationship to Mexico, what is delicious and does it matter gradually slough away until at the end of the meal—for me, at 1:30 a.m.—you’re left feeling raw and vulnerable, shaken, stirred and moved in the middle of the jungle with the ocean in earshot.
Gold writes that the food is “transformative.” He praises, “Chocolate, coconut and bananas — flavors as familiar as childhood and as old as time, transformed or detransformed, presented in ways that in retrospect make them seem almost mystically of a time and of a place.” The best dish “may have been a lobe of fresh cacao fruit straight from its pod, a pale, glistening thing whose sweet essence whispered of litchi, vanilla and perhaps guanabana, with a crunchy seed whose rich bittersweetness barely hinted at the flavor of what most of its kind is destined to become.”
According to Sietsema, “This is food that makes you laugh and think and brace yourself for the next course.” He offers superlatives for several of the dishes, writing, “If there’s a more stunning fruit soup on earth than Noma Mexico’s bowl brightened with star fruit, grapefruit, avocado, mango (and more), I have yet to dip into it.”
Gourmet Traveler’s Samantha Teague compiled a list of 54 thoughts on the Noma Mexico experience for the Australian publication. She says the ant eggs are “silky and creamy, and set on crisp tostadas with thin slices of bean,” and a fried tortilla “topped with dried tomatoes and chile de árbol” and grasshoppers that have been “roasted in garlic and mashed into a smooth white paste” is her “favorite dish yet.” Thought No. 54: “Me gustas, René Redzepi.”
In his review for Esquire, Kevin Sintumuang writes that the Noma Mexico experience was worth every penny, and leaving his children for the first time, because “experiences matter.” He goes on to detail the experience with rapturous descriptions of nearly every dish, concluding: “The food felt alien and familiar all at once. It wasn't Mexican, per se. It was the seasonality, sustainability, and innovation that makes Noma what it is, unleashed in a country that is home to some of the most vibrant foodstuffs in the world.”
The Possibly Less Good News
The jungle location forces temperamental nature to the forefront of the experience. Teague says Tulum is “hot and muggy.” Servers wear Birkenstocks, but some have opted to wear socks with the sandals so as not to get sand from the dining room’s natural sand floor in their shoes. Guests are free to go barefoot, which depending on your feelings about sand between your toes, is either freeing or unpleasant. Teague writes, “I'm now sitting at Noma with no shoes on. I feel like a toddler in a sandpit.”
Speaking of nature, Sietsema took issue with one element of one dish on the multi-course menu. After describing a dish consisting of “flowers of the moment” floating in “a visually arresting bowl of cool masa broth” he writes, “Can we talk? The bouquet appeals more to the eyes than the tongue.”
Appealing to the tongue, is not the point, according to Stein. He says, “Half of what is eaten at Noma is delicious. The better half is not delicious, perhaps not even pleasurable to eat. What those courses do is take you by the shoulders and rattle your mind around until you see clearly what is what.”
The ‘Is This Bad?’ News
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells published a piece on why he opted not to review the faraway pop-up at all. He writes: “Noma Mexico short-circuits my wiring as a critic. An actual review of a pop-up that sold out months ago strikes me as spectacularly useless. It would be as helpful as reviewing a wedding.”
He notes that criticism isn’t always meant help potential diners — critics often “assess the way a place fits into its context, including its environment.” But on this point, according to Wells, reviewing Noma would also be pointless. He continues: "But can a restaurant really be of its place if it doesn’t bend and sway to the breezes of local tastes and local demands? I doubt it, and I doubt that my own ecstatic reveries (for the sake of argument, let’s assume that I would have enjoyed Noma Mexico as much as everybody else) would help on that front. I’d be another tourist, hoping to be knocked out with sensations that would carry over to the flight back to New York."
All of the actual reviews make mention of the meal’s $600 price tag, not including the cost of traveling to Tulum, and Gold considers the past criticism Redzepi has received for setting up his fine-dining shop in a relatively poor country. He writes:
The hard questions of context and appropriation remain. Noma Mexico does indeed serve $600 dinners in a fairly poor part of the world, and the intricate supply lines it established with local farmers are likely to evaporate not long after the crew packs up to return to Denmark. The restaurant is making a statement that belongs to Mexicans to make. Arguments about localism and sustainability may seem trite when most of the customers travel thousands of miles to eat a meal.
Sintumuang writing for Esquire says of the cultural appropriation question: “It's a question every land (or cuisine) that has suddenly been discovered grapples with. To its credit, Noma is making donations to a Mayan charity and offering scholarships to Mexican culinary students.”
Gold concludes his review writing that criticizing Redzepi for going to Mexico “may be like criticizing Francis Ford Coppola for filming in the Philippines or V.S. Naipaul for setting a novel in Africa: Redzepi is creating something that otherwise would not exist. Beauty and conflict are often intertwined.”
And now, some chef takes from Instagram:
I wish I could've stayed and eaten a full dinner at the @nomacph pop up in tuluum. Blown away at the scope and level of detail by @reneredzepinoma and team (@thomasfrebel @sanchezrosio & Ali!) I think this might be their best pop up yet. From what I got to taste I think diners are in for an epic experience. The space is gorgeous. Super jealous of the variety of ingredients and the sick wood burning ovens. Be ready for some spice: Goodbye dill...hello chilis. Pro tip: Noma will offer a walk-in only bar menu separate from the sold out reservation only tasting menu. So if you are in tuluum and sans reservations, queue up for the bar. I think the oyster pork taco will be best thing I will taste all year.
This article was originally published on May 8, 2017 and has been updated to include Esquire’s and GQ’s reviews, as well as the New York Times piece.
• The world's best restaurant opens a pop-up in Mexico. Jonathan Gold tastes its beauty and conflict [LA Times]
• A world-class chef built a $600 pop-up in the Mexican jungle. It might be ‘the meal of the decade.’ [Washington Post]
• Noma Mexico Goes Beyond Delicious [F&W
• Fifty-four things that went through my mind while eating dinner at Noma Mexico [Gourmet Traveler]
• Shelling Out $1,500—Plus Airfare—for the Most Memorable Date Night in Mexico [Esquire]
• Behind the Scenes at Noma Mexico [GQ]
• Why I’m Not Reviewing Noma Mexico [NYT]