The much lauded Noma restaurant has just opened to much interest in Sydney's Barangaroo. Headed by Rene Redzepi, Noma switches its new Nordic roots for some Australian ingredients procured from all over Australia. But what is the Noma Australia experience like? Come and take a look using our special 360° camera!
The numbers for Noma Australia are staggering. 4, the number of minutes is all it took for tables to sell out. $485, the cost a head per person for food alone. 27,000, the number of people on the waiting list. 5,500, the total number of diners that will be served. 100, the number of staff (and 20, the number of different nationalities within the staff). 12, the number of courses for each diner. 10, the number of weeks the Noma residency will be in place. And 5, the number of trips the Noma Research and Development team made across Australia to find ingredients for the menu.
Not surprisingly Noma Australia has attracted a great deal of interest. Our Danish friend Viggo snagged us tickets for the evening and in a typical Danish understatement delivered us the fantastic news with a message that read, "Well, there it is." And that is how we find ourselves sitting down in the dining room at Noma.
There's a real warmth to the service. All of the staff are friendly and work as a team. It is all led by Rene Redzepi and the experience starts from the moment you walk in. He and his team (I am convinced that they are a very definition of a "squad") stand behind him mirroring his body language. He greets everyone, shakes their hand and he takes your coat or bag and holds onto it - he doesn't palm it off to someone else. This process is repeated as guests arrive at three booking times: 7pm, 7:30pm and 8pm.
It's a little overwhelming at first-the sheer number of staff on the floor that greet you as you walk past is astounding. The tables in the dining room have Danish style chairs and wooden tables. Some of the chairs have kangaroo pelts draped across the back. Diners arrive in waves and are shown to their table by the front of house staff including Sydney born chef Katherine Bont who works the front of house. She tells us that there are guests that have come from interstate as well as a Taiwanese couple for lunch.
The chorus of the team of international Vikings echoes throughout the restaurant. Certainly "Oui chef!" is a commonly heard thing in open kitchen but here it sounds almost tribal given the number of chefs. The dishes come out regularly and without any lag although they do let us know that we can stop them if we want to "stretch our legs" at any point which is nice. The table is set simply: there is a vase of native flowers in the centre, a ceramic charger plate and a set of smooth wooden fork and spoons. The wine pairing is $195 and a juice pairing is $95 per person. Our lovely waiter explains the evening and ends off his genial introduction with, "Thank you so much for coming and let's have a great dinner!".
We start with the Noma version of a Snakebite aperitif. Made with Two Metre Tall cider and three types of beer it's nothing like a Snakebite that you might remember. It's crisp and elegant which is not the way you'd usually describe a snakebite. The staff also top up the glasses when you've finished which is nice.
The first course is served on ice and it is a spanner crab broth with unripe, sliced macadamia nuts from Byron Bay. In the clear broth is rose oil that becomes the most dominant flavour against the sweet nut slices.
There is a lot of action on the floor and part of the reason is that chefs bring all dishes to the table and they set them all down at once. This dish is made up of several types of native berries from riberry (a type of lilly pilly), muntries, kakadu plum, desert lime and lemon aspen. They explain that there are two types of lemon aspen and the white one is hard to find. On top is finely grated gubinge or kakadu plum powder and it is served with olive oil. It's a decidedly tart dish - a lot of native Australian foods especially berries tend to be tart in flavour.
Rene comes over and chats to Danish Viggo and jokingly spars with Mr NQN (a Finn). He asks if we have tried these berries before and he and Viggo discuss the virtues of Danish strawberries."They're like a pulp held by membrane," he says.
The next course is described as "porridge". Made with two types of wattleseed (golden and dessert oak) it is wrapped in saltbush leaves with anise myrtle oil and finger limes. It's herbaceous with a creamy centre and has all sorts of unexpected flavours. And it's by this course that we're struck by how different this food is to anything that we have eaten before. The flavour profiles are different and the combinations are different and those notes of commonality that we look for, that is those comforting, familiar aromas are not there. Which makes it exciting and decidedly novel. The chefs drop little snippets when they bring dishes to the table like that they grow their own rice in a fermentation room.
The next course is a seafood platter served on chilled pebbles and is made up of five types of molluscs topped with a semi translucent chicken stock wafer that has been brushed with crocodile fat. There is a pipi, mussel, strawberry clam, flame cockle and an oyster. The textures are all very varied, especially the chewy, meaty flame cockle.
A trip to use the facilities is interesting, staff show you to the bathroom and lead you through the kitchen. Usually chefs tend to ignore diners walking past but here many of them pop up their heads and greet you with a broad smile and an enthusiastic "hi!" which is very friendly and quite sweet. By the end of the night you may be convinced that all of the staff here really want you to have a great experience there.
The next course is made up of a centre of deep sea snow crab meat surrounded by a rich egg yolky sauce with fermented kangaroo, rose, smoked butter and kombucha. XX These other flavours really take a back seat to the egg yolk and crab flavour though and this dish is more about luxurious, tongue coating textures.
This is a dish that divides everyone and it's all about the use of lantana flowers. Louise and Viggo weren't aware that you can eat lantana and Mr NQN grew up eating the flowers so he's familiar with their taste. They lend a certain aroma to the dish and you are encouraged to pluck the blossoms off (the stem is not edible) and sprinkle them on top. But for good measure, there's a layer of lantana flowers between the caramelised scallop layer on top and the kelp pastry. Some like the lantana flowers while some don't (I must admit I preferred it without too many on top). And cheeky Mr NQN wonders if he should hide the lantana stem from them because they had warned us that eating it was poisonous (he did, they didn't notice which somewhat disappointed him-he is nothing if not a s*&\ stirrer!).
There's the aroma of browned butter coming from these wrapped packages. Inside is a caramelised milk skin crepe with nasturtium paste and a ragu made from magpie goose from the Northern Territory. They explain that these geese feed on overripe mangoes so their meat tends to be quite sweet. It is also filled with a succulent marron tail. It's very tasty indeed and a favourite with the table as we pick these up and eat them with our hands with gusto.
This is one of my favourite dishes and there were more as the night went on. The sea urchin (from the south coast of NSW) is paired with the sweetest tomatoes in a sea urchin broth with celery juice, fermented tomato oil and elderflower. The play between the savoury, rich sea urchin and the sweet tomatoes are what stands out in this dish.
Previous diners had remarked that they were surprised that there was no red meat main. That is also true this evening and the last savoury dish is the abalone schnitzel with a range of bush condiments. There is mattrush, sea lettuce, beach plants, neptune necklace, Kakadu plum, Atherton oak nut, sprouting kelp, yellow palm fruit, bunya nut, sea pearls and finger lime as well as a small bowl of mushroom dipping sauce which is all about salty, umami flavours. The abalone is superbly tender and juicy and the crumbs crunchy til the last bite. They explain that they worked for a long time to find methods to tenderise the abalone. I had just enough schnitzel to try out small bites of the accompaniments although perhaps I would have liked the other abalone half so that I could have tried some combinations again.
The next course is the first of the three sweets courses and it acts as a palate cleanser. "How do you feel about insects? They are the same protein as shellfish," our waiter asks Viggo whose shellfish allergy they have catered to well. The front item is mango brushed with egg paste and green ants, the second is a cube of sweet pineapple wrapped in a hibiscus flower and the third is a very tangy Davidson plum edged cube of watermelon. We should have perhaps eaten it with the watermelon first and finished it with the pineapple in increasing order of sweetness.
The rum lamington is the Noma version of a lamington inspired by the sponge cake of the Australian version. Made with aerated rum ice cream and grated milk it has a slick of native tamarind sauce. It melts in the mouth with a hint of rum and the tangy aftertaste of the tamarind.
And just when we think that the desserts are over, out comes the Baytime. They explain that they wanted to call it a Golden Gaytime after the popular Australian ice cream but wouldn't be able to so in place they called it the Baytime after the bay in which they are located. In the centre is fresh peanut milk with a caramel stripe and the outside is an intriguing toasted freekah glaze. It's mounted on a lemon myrtle branch and isn't particularly sweet until you hit the caramel centre.
Coffees are ordered (both are Ethiopian and they are excellent) and then some bowls of desert lime lollies are set down. They are made up of the pulp and skin and have a sweet, crispy edible wrapper (similar to a thin and crispy fruit leather) and a soft, tart centre of creamy flesh inside.
It's just after 10pm and Katherine lets us know that Rene will be leaving soon. We move out to the bar area and take a seat at the table. Rene comes over and explains how he has to go to to check on the bread and a version of Vegemite that he is making (it takes several weeks to make). A few more drinks are ordered and the kitchen packs down at the end of service before getting into a huddle to discuss that evening and the following day of service.
There's also a surprise. Katherine noticed that we were carrying our copies of Noma books that they had coat checked for us. She arranges for the books to be signed by all of the chefs in the kitchen which is a lovely gesture. Rene signs it with a Danish message, "Tusind tak tor besøget" which means, "Thousand thanks for visiting."
A very quick walk through Noma video in 360°
It's around 11pm that we leave, having been there for a total of four hours. Other diners stay and enjoy the drinks, some depart with luggage having come straight from the airport. And there's the $500 question. "Is it worth the money?" as many friends and people on social media asked. I can't answer for you, because of course everyone is different. I could never tell you what to spend money on and vice versa. What was interesting talking to other diners and our table is that nobody had the same favourite dish - literally everyone we spoke to had a different favourite course. It's also experimental and daring which is part of the excitement. It is also a very intriguing look into how someone from the opposite end of the world interprets Australian food. It's like when you read an overseas writer's take on your home town - for me it's refreshing to hear someone else's point of view on something you thought you knew. And sometimes you might just learn something new.
So tell me Dear Reader, did you try for a Noma booking? What do you think of the menu and did a dish catch your eye? Did you go to Noma and if so, what did you think?
This meal was independently paid for.
23 Barangaroo Rd, New South Wales 2146