Noma Australia

Noma Australia

Where:
Noma Australia
23 Barangaroo Ave
Barangaroo, Sydney, Australia

Price:
AUD485 (USD372 / HKD2,890) per person (with the matched wines clocking in at AUD215 (USD165 / HKD1,280).

The deal:
The omnipotent reputation and weight of Noma is crushing. So much so that Noma can announce that it’s going to leave its digs in Copenhagen, Denmark and spend 10 weeks in Sydney, Australia and even with the eye watering price tag and not knowing exactly what this will entail, a throng of eager punters crushed the servers and snapped up all of the available tickets in mere minutes and then 27,000 wannabe customers piled onto the waitlist in the faint hope that someone might give their golden ticket away. Through some judicious planning which involved a coordinated syndicate of food obsessed assholes agreeing to target certain dates and table sizes, I was lucky enough to secure a booking for a table of eight and planned an international trip to Sydney around it.

Our booking was for Noma Australia’s third last night in town and I’d tried to stay on a relative media blackout, spotting the occasional picture online but resisting the urge to read the write ups so I could approach it without any preconceptions. Arriving just as the Sydney sun was slipping away over the harbour, we sit outside on the wooden table and benches as Noma’s waitstaff efficiently flit around and sort us out with an aperitif, their take on the Snakebite as we have a clear view of their chefs preparing various components in both their inside and outside kitchen. The choice of the Snakebite sets an indicative humorous tone which pervades some dishes, playing on a drink which traditionally is a blend of cheap beer and cider (sometimes with the addition of red cordial to hide the alcohol related atrocities which lurk below), favoured by young Australians who don’t know better other than they want to get wasted as quickly as possible. In this rendition though, it’s a cider / beer inspired blend made by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall in Tasmania, using a combination of a seven year old ale, a two year old apple cider, a two year old pear cider and young soured ale, which is lightly effervescent and highly drinkable. I guess old Australian drinking habits die hard because I could have easily finished off a bottle of this.

Even at the end of ten weeks just as the Australian summer turns itself into autumn, the staff show not a shred of apathy and in fact seem to be beaming from their time in Australia, forming a guard to greet every table as they pass through the entrance and hold me back, René Redzepi himself is front and centre greeting guests with a beatific smile. I resist all urge to lunge towards him to grab a tuft of his hair to sew into my deranged voodoo chef doll which enjoys foraging and exploring the boundaries of local produce and instead smile politely and try to act like oh hay, no biggie, it’s just René welcoming me into motherfucking NOMA AUSTRALIA.

The Foolscap Studio designed dining room is straight forward and simple, taking cues from the Australian outback as well as Noma’s Danish heritage, with the art work taking inspiration from the ochre hued Australian landscape and the placement of several native blackboy grass trees. The Carl Hansen & Sons wooden tables and chairs have been shipped in from Denmark with the occasional wallaby fur pelt strewn across the back of a chair and a purposefully tousled bouquet of Australian foliage and flowers sitting in the centre of every table. There’s thirteen courses (ten savoury courses and three desserts) and no written menu is presented, with each course and the provenance of all the locally sourced ingredients explained by the enthusiastic staff at the beginning of each course.

The first tasting dish is the unripe macadamia and spanner crab, which uses thin slices of green macadamia nuts in a clear, chilled spanner crab consommé with a touch of rose oil. Served in an earthen stoneware bowl surrounded by ice, our waiter lets us know that it took the Noma team three days and several knives to figure out how to prise an unripe and stubborn macadamia from its shell. The sweet green macadamia is reminiscent of a firm water chestnut, playing well with the cool, sweet spanner crab consommé with only a hint of the floral rose peeking through.

The wild seasonal berries flavoured with gubinge (Kakadu plum), is a plate of native berries (including lillypillies, lemon aspen and muntries) and pickled lemon myrtle buds.  It’s beautiful as fuck, all pale pinks, greens, creams and yellows with the white powder of a Kakadu plum dusted all over. It’s an intense mix of sweet against sour, astringent and salty flavor profiles, the Kakadu plum powder reminding me of how the Taiwanese use plum powder on their pineapple or apples, to get that same fuck yeah salty and sweet flavor contrast.

The porridge of golden and desert oak wattleseed with saltbush looks innocuous enough, consisting of three saltbush leaves which are used to wrap a porridge made from two types of wattleseeds which have been boiled for hours to crack their tough outer seed cases, topped with a green oil made from anise myrtle. A finger lime and its caviar like insides is squeezed over this dish to cut through all the verdant flavours and nutty tones and this is the first dish of the night which knocks me the fuck over. I was the slowest person on my table to eat this dish because I wanted to understand every part of it on its own and all together and by the time I’d done this, I’d already eaten two of the three parcels, so I had to slow the fuck down so I could fully process what the fuck was going on in the final saltbush parcel as I declared multiple times that I was having a serious fuck yeah moment.

The seafood platter and crocodile fat, is five shellfish that are perched across smooth river rocks and topped with shards of chicken stock skin (imagine the film that forms when you roast a chicken and the oil drips to the pan and you allow that to cool slightly) painted with crocodile fat that look like the rock pools that dot our Australian coastline. I have no reference point for what crocodile fat should taste like and while the shards are interesting, it’s really all about the sweet simple flesh of the clams, mussel, pippi and oyster.

The WA deep sea snow crab with cured egg yolk comes with the René Redzepi’s claim that he thinks that this deep sea snow crab from Albany, located on the southern coast of Western Australia is one of the best in the world and it’s impossible not to feel some sort of patriotic pang of pride that this is Australia punching out its best on the global crab stage. This dish is fucking spectacular, the barely warm flesh of the snow crab just picked from its shell is mixed with an egg yolk which has been cured in kangaroo garum (fermented sauce made from kangaroo mince, which Noma started making back in October), rice koji (a fermented culture fed on rice, kept in a warm place)  and smoked butter. To mix this warm, sweet delicate meat with the cured egg yolk feels reminiscent of the salty egg yolks that you’ve had in Hong Kong, but topped with this barely there fish-sauce like note from the fermented kangaroo meat and koji creates something you’ve never had before but with a few familiar reference points.

That’s not to say that it’s all ecstatic rapture and the unbelievable swelling of new flavours. Noma’s take on the Australian tradition of the meat pie is made from dried scallops and topped with nasturtium flowers. The pie itself is a kelp crust, filled with nasturtium stems, topped with a brown, viscous and slightly grainy, sticky frozen topping made from combining dried Tasmanian scallops together with beeswax and elderflower oil.  Unfortunately, it reminds me of the brown grease that drips from my rangehood when it’s overdue for a clean. This is eaten with two accompanying yellow and orange nasturtium flowers (the earlier sittings at Noma ate this with a lantana flower), their peppery sharp flavour cutting through this greasy, rich scallop chilled fudge like paste but I’m unable to fully shake the smell of stale oil from my rangehood.

The next three courses are the BBQ’d milk ‘dumpling’ with marron and magpie goose, the simply named truffle and avocado and the sea urchin and tomato dried with pepper berries. The ‘dumpling’ uses a crispy milk skin crepe to wrap together a barely cooked marron (a small Australian lobster-like crustacean) with the meatier punch of the gamey magpie goose, all wrapped together in a nasturtium leaf. I’ve never eaten magpie goose but understand that it’s a bird from the Northern Territory that’s almost regarded as a pest given its predilection for eating mangoes.  The truffle and avocado is a single slice of creamy avocado, topped with a black truffle ragout which is a simple fuck yeah interlude from all the layered, complex dishes before it. To reset the palate for the final savoury course, it’s a clean and fresh fuck yeah dish of Tasmanian sundried bush tomatoes, dehydrated for eight hours, topped with subtle Southern NSW sea urchins from Ulladulla and a broth made from native pepper berries (with shades of the Sichuan pepper) and elderflower oil.

The final savoury course is one of my absolute fuck yeah favourites of the night, Noma’s take on the Australian pub meal, the abalone schnitzel with bush condiments. Or as it’s more affectionately known in Australia, the schnitty. Served with a knotted bouquet of Australian green herbs (including Warrigal Greens), Kakadu plum, nuts (palm nut, Atherton Oak Nut), an assortment of seaweed (sea fennel, glass beads and Neptune’s Necklace), a stem of mat rush and the tiniest half of a native Australian sandpaper fig. The abalone has been crumbed and fried, after some sort of complicated cooking technique applied to it, to make an otherwise chewy shellfish into something tender.  The schnitty is fucking great on its own but by combining a bite of this schnitty with the Australian accoutrements is when it transcends fucking everything.  It’s the sweet, young slightly starchy stem of the mat rush. The grassy bouquet of green herbs which cut through the fat of the schnitzel and smash you in the face. The finger lime makes another appearance with its acidic, citrus pearls bursting in your mouth to cut through the fried schnitzel and the green notes. I want to eat this dish again just so I can really get my head around all the fuck yeah Australian foliage and seaweed magic that was happening on this plate.

The next three dessert courses have been much discussed by the press and it’s easy to see why given the green ants on fruit and the highly photogenic riffs on the Australian classics, the lamington (a chocolate and desiccated coconut covered sponge) and the Golden Gaytime ice-cream (a toffee and vanilla ice-cream dipped in chocolate and wrapped in honeycomb biscuits, on a wooden popsicle-stick). ice-cream.  The first fruit based dessert, marinated fresh fruit, is simple, a piece of mango wrapped in a palm leaf and topped with small dried green ants, and a cube of pineapple and watermelon all set on ice.  I wryly smile to myself as I think about how instead of getting food for ants, I’m actually getting food with ants.  As you can expect, each piece of fruit is intense and represents a best in class example of that fruit, with the dried green eats tasting exactly as you’d imagine if you’ve ever squashed an ant.

The rum lamington is all white, an airy piece of cake which is pumped full of Black Head Rum made just north of Sydney, with the “coconut” made from grated solidified milk, sitting in a red pool of native tamarind which isn’t as sour as the tamarind I’m used to.  The native tamarind sauce cuts through the sweetness as the lamington dissolves to nothing in your mouth. While tasty it’s not knock your lights out delicious and relies more on its story and reference to what a lamington is.

The final course is the peanut milk and freekah “Baytime”, which looks like a little a mini-rustic Magnum ice-cream, with its riberry stick instead of the traditional wooden paddlepop.  The ice-cream component has been made from a raw peanut milk and there’s a caramel centre, before it’s coated with a freekah glaze, that gives it the appearance of the chocolate coating of a Golden Gaytime.  Freekah is an ancient grain which Noma have roasted until it’s dark and in the glaze, it tastes like a deep, roasted grain with some chocolate overtones (even though there’s no chocolate in it).  It’s fun and interesting, a humorous and earthy nod to an Australian ice-cream icon but not a blockbuster dessert on its own.  With the food all done, we go outside to take our final digestifs and René makes the rounds to the remaining tables outside, stopping in to say hello (although he didn’t make it to our table), before we leave to literally and mentally digest everything that’s gone before.

When I got home that night, I actually couldn’t sleep because I was too busy trying to process exactly why I had this downright, primal and visceral reaction to this meal. The feeling when your heart can’t even fit your chest and you shake your head because you can’t figure out why did this meal resonate in every part of your being?  And then days later, with some furious internal workshopping as to why this moved my internal needle so much, I slowly began to pull together the more nebulous threads to why Noma Australia felt so personally Australian. Because sure, at first glance the Australian connection is so fucking obvious, it’s the madness of René Redzepi and his globally sourced Noma team coming to Australia to seek out these indigenous ingredients which Australia itself doesn’t use with regularity and then making that work within some sort of commercial context.  It’s the subtle nod to Australian food icons such as the lamington or the meat pie. But then it’s the realisation that for all these new ingredients and highly technical preparative techniques what lodges it in my psyche is the association to personal shit that you know from actually growing up in Australia:

It’s the bunch of native Australian herbs with the schnitzel, which hit you in the back of your throat like the smell of freshly mown grass because fuck, we had the luxury and privilege of lawns in Australia.

It’s the quarters of lillypillies in the wild seasonal berries assortment that you remember from the novelty of being able to eat something that looked like a tiny pale pink apple, straight from the tree in your backyard as a kid.

It’s the verdant, fragrant oils distilled from Australian foliage used in the saltbush wattleseed porridge that remind you of the eucalyptus and lemon myrtle leaves you’ve picked when you’ve been in the Australian bush on school camp and crushed them between your fingers, to leave that green smell of fresh gum trees on your fingers that will never as long as you’re alive will remind you of anything other than Australia.

It’s the shellfish nestled in the smooth river rocks which throw you back to that time you were under the almost surreal azure skies and poking around the crystal clear rock pools of some remote part of Australia’s jagged coast line where every rock you moved with a stick saw five things move the fuck away from you.

It’s the use of nasturtium flowers and stems which remind you of how nasturtiums used to grow almost like weeds in your backyard and eating the flowers as a kid before you spat them out in sheer disgust, wondering why anyone would ever want to eat these stinky, peppery pungent flowers (and now look at you, you’re paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege).

It’s the smear of black truffle ragout on a piece of avocado which you already think FUCK YEAH AUSTRALIA because of the dire avocado situation in Hong Kong. But the truffle ragout paste is black and filled with vaguely yeasty and umami tones giving you some poshed up fancy as fuck take to all the avocado toast with a smear of Australia’s real black gold, Vegemite, that you’ve devoured in this lifetime.

It’s the delicate strand of glass bead and Neptune’s Necklace seaweed which burst in your mouth and remind you of the sargassum seaweed balls that you popped between your fingers when you were down at the beach on school holidays.

It’s when you eat the zingy green ants perched on the mango for dessert which while you’ve never eaten ants before, the taste reminds you of sitting on some warm lawn, the tiny stinging bites of these anty fuckers and the smell of the sharp formic acid after you’ve crushed their feeble bodies against your legs.

So you take this body of personal Australia experience and process that against the fact it’s been a Danish chef who’s shown it to you and then you set that against everything that’s conspired to let you be there, to have this in your existence. Getting the tickets to Noma Australia. Having the time and means to get your ass to Sydney to effectively have dinner. With everything lined up, you then get to have a dining experience which speaks so uniquely to what you know as an Australian and then expands upon that by showing you all sorts of shit you didn’t even know. Noma Australia moved me in a seriously major way and it crystallised everything I fucking love about food and eating.

Because what is better than food that moves you? Food where absolutely everything on that plate has been pored over and deliberated on to be a distillation of what a chef is passionate about, what he truly believes in and presenting this fucking incredible innovative take on unconventional ingredients and still make the sum greater than its individual parts. Where in the ensuing days and weeks, you’re still trying to fucking figure it out in your head as to why it was such a fucking potent experience? I eat so much all the time but I’ve never had an experience which has thrown up so many thoughts and questions days later. I desperately want to know every single thing and detail behind this meal so I can better understand how Noma ended up at this final point for their Australian menu and how did they distil so much of this fucking amazing country into thirteen plates of food.

This was a meal which at the time it hits you in the chest with the impact of something totally fucking new but then pulls you in by the shoulders, to kiss you softly on the forehead with familiarity and nostalgia.

And with that, I will never forget you Noma Australia.

Verdict:
ALL THE FUCK YEAHS EVER.

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