March 18, 2023

Everything everywhere all in my tummy day 8: Noma Kyoto

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I have never been to Noma in Copenhagen.

I was always curious about this Nordic restaurant which got famous serving people moss, lichen, ants... etc. But I never made the effort to fly out there for a meal. I did make the effort to go to their very first pop-up in Tokyo - which has been well-documented in Ants on a Shrimp. Eight full years have passed since then, and these guys have done two other highly-popular pop-ups since then. When René Redzepi announced that they are returning Japan for another pop-up - which is possibly their last - I didn't hesitate to get online and book us seats.

I had told myself after Noma Tokyo that I didn't need to go to Copenhagen, because I didn't think the flavor profile of their cuisine was to my liking. I also heard from a few friends whose opinions I trust that they didn't like the dishes at Noma 2.0, which reinforced my belief that I shouldn't plan to trip to Denmark. So why did I choose to plonk down a chunk of money on dinner and wine pairing, and paying for 2 seats at that?!

Well, because in spite of the fact that I had mixed feelings about the dishes I had 8 years ago, I gained an immense respect for René and the team on account of the amount of effort that they would put in for events like this. Not that I'm suggesting they normally sit on their asses in Copenhagen and just coast on their reputation - that's absolutely not in their DNA. I was intrigued by how the team interpreted Japanese cuisine in 2015, and this time I'm interested to see how they would do what is effectively Noma Japan 2.0. What have they learned since 2015? How have they developed in the last 8 years? Would I enjoy this meal more than the experience I had in 2015, given also my own experiences in the years since?

I was chatting with the Dining Austrian when he told me that he had a 4-top for dinner tonight. Having been given the chance to share his table, I quickly chose to return my 2-top along with the accompanying room at the Ace Hotel Kyoto and adjusted our schedule accordingly. I haven't spent any time with my friend since November 2019, so I was really looking forward to this.

We were greeted by none other than Ali Sonko. Never having visited Noma means never having seen his smile in real life, but he was, of course, instantly recognizable with his radiant smile. I'm not normally in the habit of asking for selfies, but I was really, really tempted to get one with him.

Due to my last unpleasant experience with Noma's juice pairing, I decided to do the alcohol pairing this time.

The décor for the event space was, of course, customized for this – from the furniture to the serving ware, which was just like Noma Tokyo. I’m guessing that these things hanging down from the ceiling were meant to resemble kombu (昆布).

We started the meal with their hassun (八寸), consisting of 5 different items:

Yuba and ramsons (湯葉と行者ニンニク) – the yuba (湯葉) was very raw and almost paste-like. There were different types of wild greens including Siberian onion (行者葫) and leeks, some of which were lightly-charred. The broad bean (蚕豆) was really fresh and tender, which isn’t something I’m used to. Overall the seasoning delivered a certain level of fruitiness along with some umami (旨味).

Koji and red ginger (麦麹と赤しょうが) – the toast was very crunchy, and the slices of ginger came with tons of bergamot fragrance thanks to the little chunks of zest, but thankfully it wasn’t overpowering.

Dried tomato with roses (トマトの花) – the dried tomato paste in the middle was at once salty, sweet, and sour. This was interesting but I’m still not sure I like it.

Cherry leaf with black garlic (桜の葉) – the black garlic paste was a little savory, and the preserved cherry leaf definitely showed the classic sweet and acidic flavor profile.

Tomato and bee pollen jelly (ポーレンのジェル) – some acidity here thanks to the tomato, and we’ve also got a little spicy kick. Very powdery texture coming from the bee pollen, and I thought I might have been tasting some kinako (きな粉).

2023 Nichi Nichi Our Rice Field (日日 秋津山田錦 自社田) - tons of sweet fermented rice notes here.

Seaweed shabu-shabu (海藻のしゃぶしゃぶ) – the dashi (出汁) in the pot was still bubbling when the dish arrived, thanks to a few very hot stones in the pot. We were meant to cook the different seaweeds in the pot for around 3 seconds, then dip into the ponzu (ポン酢) which tasted of lemongrass and lime – making us wonder whether this was tom yum (ต้มยำ) soup.

2023 Yorocco Beer Umi Yama - made with wakame (若布). Very fragrant, very light and refreshing.

The seaweed came from all over Japan, such as young kombu (昆布) from Hokkaido, crunchy tosaka nori (鶏冠海苔) from Kumamoto, mirin (ミリン) - the seaweed, not the seasoning - and ogonori (於胡海苔) which were a little less interesting. The spinach was very sweet and unlike any I have ever had. In fact, it didn’t have much of the flavors I usually associate with the various types of spinach.

When we had finished with the greens, it was then time to drink the dashi. It was very nice on its own, but even better when mixed with the ponzu.

Demon shrimp (鬼エビ) – so… this looks like a rehash of that “ants on a shrimp” from Noma Tokyo… except, as Thomas confirmed, there are no ants this time. This spiny lebbeid has been marinated in a paste made of red ginger, Hokkaido seaberry (otherwise known as seabuckthorn), and (kelp?) Gotta say the paste was interesting but the ginger certainly dominated.

2019 Beau Paysage Chardonnay - a little grippy on the palate. Light and fragrant nose, with a little citrus, slight hint of muscat grapes, and a little bit of flint later.

Cuttlefish sashimi (甲いかとウイスキーヴィネガー) - the kisslip cuttlefish (紋甲烏賊) from Awajishima (淡路島) was sliced very thin and served on a square block of ice.

Seasoned with a mélange of aromatics including bergamot and roses. I definitely tasted some fruity flavors here.

Bamboo shoot in squid dashi (タケノコとヤリイカの出汁) - the bamboo shoots were simmered in a broth of miso and seaweed, and came in very, very thin slices. This was, needless to say, a beautiful product in the spring and the sweetness came through clearly. Served with a paste of corn "bushi (節)". The cold broth was made of squid dashi and jasmine tea leaves, with some oil floating on top. The fragrance of jasmine was really lovely, and the broth was nice and savory.

This is what "corn bushi" looks like, and it was tailor-made for them.

The squid broth and Whisky vinegar we got on the side is listed on the menu as accompaniment for the previous dish of squid, but was only brought to us together with the bamboo shoots. The peatiness of the Whisky was pretty prominent, and there was a mix of bitterness along with sweetness on the palate. The ring of powder on the rim, though, was something else. I had no idea what was happening here, with too many different things in the mix that I didn't know what I was tasting... only that I didn't care for the combination.

Swordfish in kombu butter (メカジキと昆布) - the swordfish (目梶木) belly is aged for nearly a week, which explains why it's so tender and fatty. The kombu butter made with kinki (喜知次) broth was very rich with lots of umami, and really was very nice and tasty. There is everything to love about this dish, but... not quite stunningly innovative or groundbreaking.

Green soy tofu and fresh almonds (お豆腐と生アーモンド) - so I am a little confused... this was introduced as "green soy tofu"... so... green, unripened soy beans are basically edamame (枝豆). Is that what the tofu was made of? I didn't really get that flavor profile... in fact I'm not sure it tasted any different from "regular" tofu. The pine dashi was kinda mild. On one side we had bits of fresh almonds along with shavings of the same, while the nasturtium flowers made me feel like Jack Celliers... although we are still some months away from Christmas.

2023 Kumezakura Starbursts (久米桜 きもと純米にごり火入れ スターバースト) - seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 90%. Acidity was much higher than expected.

Kinki (キンキ) - well... one can never go wrong with broadbanded thornyhead (喜知次) from Hokkaido, as it's just soooooo fatty and succulent. Can't say I found the elderflower miso that the fish was marinated and cooked in to be distinctive, and the egg yolk sauce on top was definitely pretty thick but... the question is "Why bother?! Did it add something meaningful to the dish?"

2021 Domaine Mont Dom Gris - decent fragrance, sweet nose with some spices, reminds me of chinotto.

Lotus root steak (蓮根ステーキ) - not the first time I've had root vegetables roasted and served like this. What stunned me most about the dish wasn't the ordinary lotus root but the thick slice of black truffle on the side. None of us are strangers to black truffle, but it has been so long since I last tasted a piece of cooked truffle that was this beautiful. The "garnish" on the side ended up stealing the thunder.

We were told repeatedly (because we questioned repeatedly...) that this was seasoned with just black pepper and Madagascar pepper on top, even though my pictures clearly show some bits of green leaf, too. I thought it was sansho leaf (木の芽) which was responsible for the fragrance and light numbing sensation, but perhaps it was the Madagascan pepper.

One was meant to dip the lotus root into this clam butter sauce, which was very rich and thick, and also added acidity.

Mountain vegetables (山菜) - served with a sauce made with the brains of a Japanese lobster (伊勢海老), which definitely showed flavors of roasted shellfish. The rapeseed flowers (菜の花) and ostrich fern (こごみ) were grilled, and it looked like the rest were poached in butter sauce. We've got sorrel (酸葉) delivering lots of acidity and tannins, Japanese angelica shoots (タラの芽), hosta (ウルイ), beach silvertop (浜防風), crunchy Japanese mountain spikenard (山独活) which were a little minty and bitter, and Chinese garlic (野蒜).

We were told that the use of Japanese lobster brain in the sauce would foreshadow the dishes yet to come.

2023 Terada Honke Mori No Uta - seimaibuai of 60%. Nose was showing fermented notes, almost like a koshu with a savory nose, but sweet on the palate.

Japanese lobster (伊勢海老) - cooked over charcoal, with some sansho leaf (木の芽) on top. A squeeze of sudachi (酢橘) juice on top.

This came with some paste made of roasted pumpkin and tomatoes.

2020 Domaine Takahiko Nana-Tsu-Mori Pinot Noir - very fragrant nose, very fruit forward, with some leather notes.

Green rice and rose petals (緑米と薔薇) - the last part of our main course, which was a clay pot rice (釜飯) made with green (!) rice and covered in rose petals.

The surprise here was that they had taken all the legs of the Japanese lobster and cooked them together with the rice, along with the head, butter, and green shoots of cherry leaves. The green rice was like brown rice in terms of texture. This was very, very tasty and satisfying.

Citrus sorbet (柚子ソルベと貴釀酒) - they look like shijimi (しじみ) which, if one remembers, were shelled and served on a tart at Noma Tokyo. This was, in fact, sorbet made with different citrus fruits like Depokon (デコポン), Amanatsu (甘夏), and I believe yuzu (柚子). Served with a gelée made with kijoshu (貴釀酒) and this added some savory notes.

2022 Masanobu Kukuoka Farm Citrus Mix (福岡正信自然農園 柑橘MIX ペティアン ナチュラル) - made by Domaine de la Grande Colline from surplus citrus. Like an alcoholic orange juice.

Finally, we have our mignardises:

Strawberry mochi (苺の餅) - this was kinda nice. Were we meant to take the cream together with the strawberry?

Sweet potato (さつまいも) - the skin of the sweet potato was coated in a thin layer of white chocolate, and another layer of what I thought was cacao murcilage on the outside. Very interesting.

Eggfruit (カニステル) - it's been a while since I last had eggfruit, and the grainy purée was not only sweet but also came with acidity, savory flavors and umami. Topped with some bergamot and lavender, it seemed.

The Dining Austrian and I chatted with René a little after our meal, when almost all the other diners had left. I looked around the kitchen but didn't see a repeat of the decapitated rubber chicken from 8 years ago, so I asked around. Apparently it was the product of stressful times, and Toni (Toivanen) and another chef whose name escapes me were responsible for hanging that one up.

It was obvious that, just like 8 years ago, René and the team had put in an incredible amount of effort into creating this experience. He had been inspired by Zen Buddhism and had completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage (四国遍路) by visiting the 88 temples around the island. They had done a ton of research and development, working with suppliers and sake and beer breweries to create specialized cuvées. And like last time, they brought everyone to Japan - more than 100 of them, including a few kids. No, the price of the meal was not cheap, and the exchange rate was struck a few months ago at a relatively high level. But René estimately they may finally make out this time, unlike 8 years ago when FX moves wiped out their profits.

No, this wasn't the most amazing meal I've had in my life. I gather that everyone who asked me about this meal was expecting that answer. I never came here expecting to rave about this meal, so of course there was zero disappointment. It was overall pretty tasty, and I don't think I disliked any single dish, so that meant it already vastly outperformed Noma Tokyo for me. I'm very happy that I came, and grateful that the Dining Austrian made my experience better by sharing his table with me.

The meal was interesting because, well, it wasn't Japanese. It was Noma's interpretation of Japanese cuisine, which is vastly different. All the ingredients are Japanese, so all the flavors are familiar to diners used to Japanese cuisine. But it's the combinations of ingredients and flavors that make one do a double-take, because classic Japanese chefs wouldn't think of putting these specific flavor combinations together. So it's a case of "same same but different". Of course, just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong, or bad. Just different, and perhaps refreshing and thought-provoking.

The one thing I always admired the team at Noma for is their approach and how they are often (or is it always?) at the forefront of the industry. Their cuisine is intellectual, and their influence is such that even for a pedestrian like me, I feel the need to try and be very analytical about what is put in front of me. I almost feel that unless I thought long and hard about each dish, I'll be showing them utter disrespect and would have wasted all the effort they put into it. Regardless of what I think of the meal, this very thing makes it an amazing and memorable experience.

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