February 9, 2015

Tokyo Michelin tour day 5: Noma Tokyo

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So the big moment has finally arrived.  Dinner at Noma Tokyo.  The raison d'être for this particular trip, and certainly the one with the highest expectations.

I knew about the Noma pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo in the middle of last year, before they opened up the reservations for it.  I never had any strong desire to travel to Copenhagen for a meal at Noma.  Virtually everyone I know who's dined there came away unimpressed, and the food just didn't seem very appealing.  Ants?!  Moss?!  Plates of cold, raw fish that look like stuff I could get at any decent restaurant in Japan?  One of my friends summed up his experience at Noma, saying that he felt like a reindeer.  No, he didn't eat reindeer at Noma.  He meant that he was the reindeer because he was eating reindeer moss, berries, ants...etc.  So I didn't even bother trying to book.  And it got booked up within hours, anyway.

But late last year, word spread that they were extending the 4-week pop-up by another two weeks.  Fergie asked if I wanted to try booking it.  I figured it couldn't hurt to try, and so we did.  We were lucky enough to secure one of the coveted dinner reservations, which were offered as a package with the hotel rooms.

The next task was for me to find a roommate, because it was assumed that each room would have two diners.  I immediately thought of my Very Very Very Very Single Friend (who became my Very Very Very Very Taken Friend recently), whom I strong-armed into coming with me.  It was obviously easier finding a guy sharing the room with me than getting someone from the fairer sex...

Anyway.  Once the pop-up started, I made the mistake of reading the first few reports and looking at all the pictures of the dishes, since they were all over social media.  So there were no longer any surprises... not like my dinner at elBulli where I had no expectations whatsoever.  It would be interesting to see how this would impact my experience tonight.

Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo took this "pop-up" very seriously.  They completely transformed one of their restaurants - Signature - into the space for the pop-up.  Even the elevators got new plaques for the duration...

So we showed up at the reception, and were led to our table which, as it turned out, had the best view of the kitchen.  We were asked about any food allergies or preferences, and of course I don't have any.  Or do I??

We were advised in advance that there were wine and juice pairings available.  Initially Fergie and I laughed about the juice pairing option, but as time went on I decided that since Noma was famous for these juice pairings, it would be much more interesting.  So that's what I went for.

Pickled cucumber and cod milk - FUUUUUUCK ME!!!  One of the few things that I do not eat in this world is sperm, so what do they serve me as a first course?  Cod milt, of course!  Translate - cod sperm sacs.  Not raw, thankfully, but not exactly fully cooked, either.  I didn't want to return the dish as it would be somewhat disrespectful, so I forced myself to swallow fish sperm.  Yuck.

The cucumber pickled in koji (麹) was beautiful both in terms of texture and flavors.  The shirako (白子) was garnished with basil flowers.

Apple / sour kabosu / pine - nice and acidic to prep our palates...

Botanebi with flavors of Nagano forest - the one dish that EVERYONE talked about.  For the last few years, Noma has been known to serve ants, and this would be the first time that many of us have ever had the opportunity to eat ants off a plate.  Add to that the drama created by the Japanese penchant for serving prawns so fresh that they are still moving around - called "dancing prawns (踊り海老)" - and you can imagine the reaction of some of the diners.  One of the prawns at a neighboring table twitched and jumped around in the bowl even before being touched, which led the female diner to emit cries of surprise.

To be honest, I didn't find the botan shrimp (牡丹海老) itself to be anything special.  Yes, it was very fresh... as evidenced by the texture that was crunchier than usual.  But it wasn't mind-blowingly better than what I can get at top Japanese restaurants.  The ants from Nagano, though, were indeed acidic as reported.

I love destroying the heads of prawns, but for some reason I don't care to go through them if they're raw, so I was pretty reserved when it came to this.

Citrus and long pepper - here we've got 4 kinds of citrus fruits - a bunpeiyu pomelo (晩白柚), Hassaku orange (八朔), buntan pomelo (文旦), and mikan (蜜柑).  Served with a sauce made from Rishiri konbu (利尻昆布) and garnished with sansho leaves (木の芽) and slices of red peppercorn.

The sauce was incredibly complex, because it came loaded with lots of oil that just tasted really rich in flavors, and very nutty.  At the same time it was just soooo heavy, as if it was meant to counter-balance the acidity and freshness coming from the citrus fruits.  Still conflicted about whether I like this dish or not.

Shaved monkfish liver - O-M-F-G!!!  If I were feeling nonplussed about the first 3 dishes, with this one the kitchen hit it out of the park.  Frozen monkfish liver, shaved into thin strips and lightly seasoned with salt.  Literally melts in your mouth.  The piece of melba toast on the bottom has so much delicious butter that I wanted 3 more of these.  INHALED.

Koika cuttlefish "soba" - Noma's take on traditional Japanese shiokara (塩辛), with raw squid cut into long, thin strips of "noodles" and brushed with fermented squid.

Served with a "dashi (出汁)" of rose oil and rose petals.  I'm not quite getting this part... Maybe this is meant to balance out or dilute the strong, salty, umami, and slightly nutty flavors of the fermented squid, since the act of dipping the squid in the dashi meant some of the fermented sauce is washed off?  The dashi itself was pretty weak, and one really needed to chew on the rose petals to get something out of them.

Fresh water clam and wild kiwi - another dish made famous by Instagram and social media.  I had already heard about the "45 clams per tart", but the server clarified that it was 45 clams per whole tart, and we were each only getting part of the tart.  The shijimi (しじみ) clams - which are just the most ordinary clams used in Japanese cuisine - were chopped up and laid on top of a layer of parsley and kiwi purée that was spread on top of a tart dough made with Rausu konbu (羅臼昆布).  This was just an incredible slice of heaven, as the clean flavors of the clams worked really well with the nutty and buttery flavors from the tart dough, and the acidity from the kiwi induced a tingling sensation on the tongue.  I wouldn't mind taking the WHOLE tart and having all 45 clams...

Turnip / yuzu / black currant shoots - greenish nose from the turnip.  Savory on the palate but acidic at the same time.  Looks very oily.  Surprisingly this was my least favorite of the juices.

Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts - we were advised to dig our spoons all the way to the bottom...

...because buried under the top layer of shaved walnuts was a thick layer of tofu, with parsley and yuzu sauce.

Cucumber / fresh nori - probably my favorite juice tonight.  Soooo light and refreshing as it's supposed to be.
Sea urchin and cabbage - seemingly such a simple dish.  One cooked cabbage leaf.  Raw sea urchin inside.  Brushed with mushroom paste.  Topped with shavings of wild kiwi.

The sweetness of the sea urchin was just accented by the umami from the mushroom sauce.  Beautiful.

Scallop dried for two days, beech nuts and kelp - so this was scallops that had been in deep-freeze, then dried for 2 days, and blended with oil, then pumped with air to create this texture which was so much like a sponge... except that it was no longer bouncy and just sort of melted under the heat inside the mouth.  Salty and definitely tasted of dried scallops, and a little nutty.  Kinda interesting.  Served with the same kelp sauce as the citrus dish earlier.  The toasted beech nuts were very, very delish.

Pumpkin / green gooseberry - is there a little bit of sansho leaves (木の芽), or a little bit of pine, perhaps?  Fragrant and lovely in the mouth, and actually much lighter than I expected.

Hokkori pumpkin, cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms - beautiful slices of Hokkori (ほっこり) pumpkin, in a butter and fermented barley sauce.  Served with salted cherry blossoms and strips of kelp.  The sauce was actually acidic at the same time as being toasty and nutty.

Garlic flower - black garlic, puréed and pressed into shape.  Sticks to the teeth as you chew on them.  The underside of these have... yes, MORE ANTS!  Definitely tasted the acidity from the ants, along with something akin to shiso flowers.

Roots and starches with ginger - oh look!  A WARM DISH!!!  With water chestnuts, mountain yam buds (むかご), arrowhead (慈姑), crosnes, and lotus roots surrounding an egg yolk which was cured in fermented beef juice, and peanut sauce.  A nice, hearty dish with the taste of winter.  Not such a fan of the yolk as I don't care for the sticky, pasty consistency, but happy to get some warmth into my stomach.

This came with some pickled ginger to cleanse the palate.  More acidity.

Wild duck and mastubusa berries - duck from Akita Prefecture (秋田県), marinated in fermented rye.  Served with matsubusa (松房) berry sauce.


At the very beginning when we were asked about our preferences, I told our server that I didn't want our duck to be overcooked, because there had been whispers of Asian diners not liking their ducks too raw - and subsequently the kitchen supposedly started to cook the ducks a little more to cater to the local palates.  Fergie asked for the duck to be more rare, while I said that I liked my birds to be more pink.

So imagine our surprise when we started to pick up slices of duck breast and found them to be rare.  But even though it was more rare than I normally take it, I was absolutely fine with this.  The center was tender while the skin was nicely charred and the outer rim of the meat was just cooked.  Looooved the smoky flavors on the skin.  I preferred the duck on its own, without the sauce.

In any case, I'm just glad that we were served an actual duck and not the rubber chicken we saw hanging in the kitchen... with its head chopped off!

Mushroom - well, this glass of liquid basically tasted like what happens when you try to rehydrate dried mushrooms by soaking them in hot water... Very mushroomy, of course...

Yeast and turnip cooked in shiitake - nice fresh and green flavors from the turnip.  Once again the sauce had a little bit of acidity.

When we were done with all the duck breast earlier, the carcass was taken away to be chopped up, and it came back to us like this.  I was pretty full by now, so I only took a small section of the neck, and called shotgun on half the head so I could pick out the brain... I then realized that the tongue (or half of it) was still attached, and proceeded to yank it out and eat it.  This prompted someone to post pictures of me "Frenching the duck"...

Rice - sake rice ice cream with crispy rice and milk crackers, with sorrel sauce.

The milk crackers stuck to the teeth, and were a little annoying.  I could definitely taste the alcohol in the ice cream, and it was tasty.  At the bottom was a pile of sake lees (粕) mixed in with rice crispies, which had gotten soggy after a while.  The sorrel sauce provided some acidity here.

Sweet koji water / juniper berries - obviously sweet from the koji (麴), but also fragrant from the juniper berries.

Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day - I looooove sweet potatoes.  'Nuff said.

This came with a dip made from wild Japanese kiwi, but I didn't need the acidity.

Wild cinnamon and fermented mushroom - we were asked to first lick the syrup off the cinnamon roots, then chomp on the "magic mushrooms" which were fermented mushrooms coated in chocolate and sprinkled with salt.  Very, very yum.

I finished with a pot of Duromina coffee from Ethiopia, which seemed to have been one of the few ingredients they brought with them from Copenhagen.  Pretty mild, almost a little too bland.

So… what did I think of the dinner? Well, I gotta say that it kinda started on the wrong foot, when I forced myself to swallow something that, psychologically, I had never come to terms with as food. I probably should have just given all the shirako (白子) to the others at the table, like I did the other night at Kanda (かんだ). But I made the mistake of not doing so, and as a result this set the tone for the rest of the meal.

But the reality is that, quite possibly, Nordic cuisine just ain’t for me. There was acidity just about everywhere – in a majority of the dishes, and of course in the juice pairings. If there’s one thing that I can't have too much of in my food, it's acidity.  To be honest, my stomach wasn't very happy during much of the dinner, as it just wasn't accustomed to the acidity level.

So there it is.  The cuisine is no doubt very innovative, interesting, and well-executed, but unfortunately it's just not my cup of tea - despite hitting a few homers out of the park.

After dinner we waited our turn to talk to Chef Rene Redzepi, and as the conversation went on, I gained more and more respect for him.  Before this dinner my only impression of him was formed as a result of watching the documentary Noma at Boiling Point, and to this day I Love Lubutin (who has been to Noma in Copenhagen) and I trade jokes about Rene and his "fuck finger".  But this was a very different Rene I saw tonight.

It's been a few years since the documentary was made, and he's clearly mellowed and matured a lot more during this time - and much wiser, it would seem... although admittedly he is still not as shrewd a businessman as he perhaps would like to be.

A few interesting tidbits:

- they wanted to come and do a pop-up in Tokyo, and approached three hotels about the possibility of working together.  Mandarin Oriental Tokyo was the only one of the three to have responded to them.

- they had to incorporate a company locally in order to do the pop-up.  It wasn't simply a matter of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo cutting them a check on the side.  Not surprising, really, when you think about it... This is Japan, after all...

- when they struck an agreement with Mandarin Oriental, which was quite some time ago, the exchange rate for Japanese Yen was certainly not where it is today.  Being chefs focused on delivering the best cuisine for their customers, effects of exchange rate movements were clearly not at the forefront of their minds.  So whatever they had agreed to in Japanese Yen terms is worth a lot less today...

- Rene was clearly impressed by Japan, where he sees many things that he wishes Europe and the rest of the world could learn from.  He spoke of suppliers who sell to customers based on relationship, and how things are much more relationship-driven instead of being purely transactional-driven.

- Rene was also impressed by the long-term horizons that restaurant investors have in this part of the world, where younger chefs can come out to start a new venture, without the expectation or pressure to immediately turn a profit.  This is clearly not the situation in the West.

P.S. We adjourned to the bar just next door after dinner, where the Mandarin Oriental was serving a selection of Japanese delicacies such as marinated crickets, bees, and silkworm larvae.  I decided that I'd already had enough of insects for the night and declined to partake.  The pictures we took of the others who dared to try... are priceless.


Camemberu said...

Oh you should have brought me! I would have happily eaten the cod milt for you!

Kidding aside, what an unusual meal and certainly a fascinating chat with the chef afterwards. Thanks for the vicarious experience!

Peech said...

Catherine, I would have happily given you all the cod milt I was served!


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