Mette Søberg is the head of research and development for Noma’s test kitchen and since the fall, she and her team have been on a mission: to develop never-before-seen preparations and presentations of Nordic seafood to fuel Noma’s buzzed-about relaunch. “Preparing for this opening menu has been a very long process,” she said just a few days before the first guests arrived in mid-February.
The Noma test kitchen, one of the most famous of the genre, should not be confused for the also-famous Noma science bunker. The science bunker focuses on creating fermentations and lab work; the test kitchen, Søberg explained, is more “hands-on” in figuring out how to work the ingredients and pull from the restaurant’s extensive larder. The process usually starts with an idea from Noma’s chef-icon René Redzepi. “We have a long chat with René, get in sample ingredients that are in season, and then just start working on dishes,” she said. “So many things that we’re working on never actually end up on the menu, but it’s also such an amazing process of just trying out different things.”
Whereas the test kitchen used to consistently work on new dishes that would be rotated onto the menu one, two, or three times, now the team produces entire menus meant to last the season. Come late June, Noma will shift to an entirely new menu, focused on vegetables — and with it will come some new decor, too. (If I had to guess, I’d say those frequently Instagramed fish skeletons are not going to stay beyond the season.)
“Because we’ve had this focus on the ocean, it’s really opened up our mind in a whole new way,” Søberg said. “We’re seeing things that we hadn’t noticed before.” And now, a look at how three dishes came onto the Noma Seafood menu.
Sea snail and sea snail broth
The dish: This dish, served in two parts, highlights sea snails from the Faroe Islands. First, the snails are massaged for about 10 minutes with a little bit of salt to get rid of the “slime.” Then, they’re cooked in an oil made from fermented barley with arctic thyme from Iceland. The cooking liquid is transformed into the broth with the addition of seasoned seaweed water and an oil made from hen of the woods mushrooms. The broth comes to the table in the sea snail shell, with a mix of pickled seeds and “herbs from last summer.” Guests use the shell as a cup.
The sea snail meat arrives later in the menu. After five hours of cooking, the snail meat “is really, really tasty, and it’s very tender,” according to Søberg, and it’s combined with an aromatic horseradish butter and a paste made from dried herbs and rhubarb. A finishing touch of rose petals — collected last summer around Copenhagen and dried with seaweed water, creating “a thin layer of crystalized seaweed salt on the outside” — finish the salad-esque dish, which is served in a beeswax cup. The wax will warm (but not melt) as it holds the sea snails, offering up both its aroma and a warm vessel for guests to more thoroughly experience the dish. Sea snail roe comes on the side, served with a paste made from seaweed and sunflower seeds. The team made small spears out of sea snail shells to use as utensils.
The development process: Especially if you count the crew’s trip to the Faroe Islands to meet the fisherman who provides these large sea snails, this was a lengthy recipe process. “We had this amazing feast with him,” Søberg said. But then it was time to work.
“We wanted to use some products on the menu that we haven’t worked that much with before. One of them being the sea snail,” she said. It was a challenge to figure out how to make the meat tender; and once they had the massage technique down, Søberg’s crew still had to test various cooking methods. The team started working on the dish in the fall, and even though it took a lot of work, Søberg seemed satisfied that the job was well done.
What the critics are saying: LA Times critic Jonathan Gold seemed to love this one, writing of the “sea snail bouillon sipped from its herb-smeared shell”: “The first act of a meal at Noma passes as a dream.”
Best of mussel
The dish: For this dish, comprising blue mussels from the western part of Denmark, the Noma team steams the mussels and carves the fillets, or mantles. The remaining mussel flesh is then used to make a paste, with smoked butter. Then, the fillets are layered with the paste, and served on the shell. “It’s a product that everyone knows and has eaten a million times,” said Søberg, “but a lot of people will find this different from what they’re used to, and very surprising. It’s one of my favorite dishes on the menu.”
The development process: This one came together pretty quickly, according to Søberg. “It’s just really focusing on what is the best flavor that we can get from the mussel,” she explained. And after the team devised the smokey paste, and paired it with the filleted mussel meat, they knew they could give it the name “best of mussel,” “because we agree[d] that this is, you know, the best part of the mussel.” Got it.
What the critics are saying: “The treat has us scratching our heads, wondering how Redzepi managed to mess not just with us, but with Mother Nature,” wrote Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema. “Like many of the lead ingredients tonight, the bivalves taste of the sea times 10.”
The dish: A main course for tables to share, the cod face dish is aptly named. The Noma team takes 10 different portions from the cod head, portions they leave on the bone so guests can better eat with their hands. The pieces are cooked on the grill and glazed with a sauce packed with umami-rich ingredients like mushroom and seaweed, plus fennel. The cod head pieces are served with a platter of condiments, including an ant paste (there had to be ants somewhere, right?), a horseradish sauce, and a spice mix with saffron, fennel, and horseradish. To tie it all together: a grilled flatbread made with seaweed topped with chanterelle paste, small pieces of meat from the cod head, and Icelandic wasabi flowers.
The development process: The hardest part, Søberg said, was figuring out how to butcher the head to maximize the usable portions, while also balancing how much time the kitchen can dedicate to doing it (“it takes such a long time to do it properly and to clean all the bones”). Each condiment had its own development process, as well. But the goal was “just to make it into one of these special moments on the menu.”
What the critics are saying: Gold described the cod head as “painstakingly dissected,” while Sietsema called the dish, presented to him as “Head of the cod,” “delicious truth in advertising.” The WaPo critic wrote that the horseradish cream with ants “add[s] a fascinating lemony jolt to the cod and, swear to God, make me eager for the day Safeway stocks them.”
And now, some eye candy from the dining room, for good measure:
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.
• Noma [Official site]