This is what it stands for. A name, a region, a landscape made edible.
Is the world already mapped? Are we no longer explorers?
No – there is not nothing left to discover.
We set out in the twenties of November.
It is a familiar walk, exhilarating and strange and startlingly common to take the front door.
There are two iron braziers, panels of glass; two steps down to the floor but it is a plunge of a distance from the vacuum of the threshold, hand on the doorhandle, to the rings of faces below. Everyone is there. How do they manage this for every guest? How have they built it into the rhythm? It is also a sort of plating, a dish that takes everyone to make.
James leads Charlotte and me to our table – number four, by the window.
A vase, a candle, and a wicker basket with steaming towels.
“I hope you’re both hungry,” he says.
“Bring it on, James.”
“You asked for it,” Matt says as he passes with snacks in hand.
“Let’s bring you champagne,” James says, with his Aussie wink.
This is the anti-haute, the purposefully unstuffed. One catches not a whiff of pomp.
James returns with two flutes. Matt kneels down tableside. “Your first course is right in front of you,” he says, setting down a small dish. “Malt flatbread with juniper. Swipe it through the crème fraîche.”
The flatbreads are indeed right there – shaped like branches and nestled among other late fall foliage: old spruce, bog flowers, ivies.
Crackers and cheese of the most ethereal sort. The flatbread collapses sighfully into the light culture, releasing a tingle of juniper that mingles with the cream, hovering between that boundary of cool and warm.
We fall from the branches. The moss softens our landing. It grows up the trunk, mushrooms at the roots.
“Reindeer moss with cèpe powder.”
Clouds of alveolar masslessness. The fried moss suggests both a crisp presence and a study in vanishment. The mushroom begins barely as a whiff, but grows as the mossy tendrils dissolve and linger long and rich. Already a standout. A memory is seared.
Matt is back. “How were the first two?” he asks, casually clearing the small, cream-streaked dish. Here, the head chef leads and expedites, and serves and clears. The chefs prep and plate, and serve and clear – and sometimes, so do stagiaires. Together they intertwine with the servers on the floor; front and back of house blend, imbuing an ease into the dining room, an attention, inquisitiveness, and a wonder. This is the tone and it seems as if to just emerge.
“Excellent.” An understatement more from the onset of bewilderment than politeness.
“Good. It was a little warm-up – now they’ll really start to fly.” He sets down a metal dish with two curious arches. “Crispy pork skin and black currant.”
So we are still in this atmospheric vein – the skin is puffed to the point of non-substance, yet what it discards in heft it reclaims in flavour. Blackcurrant is suitably tart and dark. Pork and berries: classic and radically unclassical.
Emil comes next with a plate of mussel shells. Another familiar face. He’ll be with us on the boat from next week until the December break.
“How’s it going, Josh?”
“You know, can’t complain.”
“Awesome. I have our mussel dish for you. Blue mussel and celery. Make sure you choose the right one.”
I wonder if people ever do get confused. We manage to suss out the edibles.
The trompe l’oeil here is a far cry from circus performance or egoist pyrotechnics. It is more about biomimicry, a devoted study of natural forms (both visual and chemosensorial) in the service of subduction and contemplative whimsy.
A bite of moules frites, from colder waters. Why, god, are mussels not birthed with celery already in their bellies?
Matt returns with an old cookie tin. “Cheese cookie with rocket and stems,” he says, as he opens the lid and places the colourful circular box between us.
In any other context, a near-empty cookie tin would be a sorry thing. Here, though, the fragile cookies on their small, lustrous dishes fill the tin with a sense of care – the other tins are kept empty on purpose. The negative space imbues the two cookies with even more cookie-ness. Let’s call it, ‘the noma cookie-tin effect’.
They are also entirely delicious. With a cookie, one is primed for sweetness, so the delivery of savoury, salty tastes and herby, lactic notes make this cookie demanding of our rapture.
Matt comes back and we have mouths full of cookie. “I thought you said you wanted to go fast,” he scolded, setting down another metal dish. “This is one of my favourites. You really can’t go wrong with potato and duck liver.”
Better than any macaron. Tangles of long thin potato curls, deep fried and used to sandwich the lightest duck liver mousse, then dusted with black trumpet powder. This is sheer, unabashed deliciousness: no tricks, no takebacks, no prisoners taken.
The next is serious in an entirely different way.
Matt returns with a glass jar of ice and a small metal dish.
“Live shrimp. Grab it by the tail, wipe it through the brown butter, and pop it in.”
I have been waiting for this one. The most live of living food.
The ice slows their motor coordination; their legs and feelers move as if through water. I feel fast and powerful by comparison. This feeling of power makes me sensitive; it incites consideration of the life before me that I am going to take.
As soon as their tail is caught, they whip into life. Now sensitivity must harness sureness. Dousing the head in the brown butter seems to still the creature somewhat. Somehow, briefly, I wish I’d kept it bare.
Charlotte’s is particularly vigourous. Even buttered, it wriggles from her pinched fingers, but she catches it again and reflexively tosses it in her mouth.
I crush the head between my molars, and drops of sweet juice flow. It is crunchy, tender, and truly sweet. This is not a challenge to the diner; it is a celebration.
We spent the summer and fall harvesting sand hoppers on the beach and ants in the forest. The idea of eating a living thing is no longer strange; rather it is the truest, the most honest way to interact with the lives – animal, vegetal, fungal, bacterial – we incorporate through the act of eating into our own.
It may not be the most otherworldly, the most technically dazzling, the most weepingly delicious dish on the menu; but it is, I think, the most important. It has the most to say, and the diner, if they are truly listening, will be changed.
Beau comes to take the jar while Sophia clears some other dishes. “What did you think?” he asks.
“I’m moved,” I say with a real smile. I think Beau can tell I’m serious.
“I have the dried carrot for your next. We dehydrate the carrot and serve it with sorrel emulsion and ash. Enjoy.”
Something about this dish stands out for me. It has humble names but the trappings of an austere nobility. A son that honours his parents but has no interest in the climbers, no patience for the lazy, the conniving, the hypocritical. He goes out into the field in March; his boots knock a clod of cold soil, revealing an orange shard shorn from its stem weeks ago, or months. The skin is leathery, the flesh flexible. He takes it down to the warden’s shelter – a pile of stones – lays it by his fire burning at the door. There are some hardy shoots beginning at the step. The root has gathered ash; he wraps it in the sour leaves, and sits on the packed earth, eating silently.
Emil comes back. “I can see you liked that one,” nodding at the finger marks through the now-ashen green.
“Bitter, sour, sweet – the colours…”
“I made up an extra one for you – our cod liver snack. Frozen cod liver shaved on carmelised milk skin.”
This is butter of the sea. Marine lardo.
While we sit, stupefied, Sophia returns with a speckled ceramic egg about the size of Beau’s fist.
We are bad and take a few more seconds to exult, then we gather ourselves. We know what this is about. We lift the lid, a frond of smoke grows up and out, and a bed of straw.
“Ooh!” Charlotte and I are easily pleased. The image itself is enough to satisfy.
Before we even fully grasp the mistake (that’s what happens when you give your trust fully and utterly) Alex has swooped in on his way past with a knowing smile. “I’ll be back,” he says, eyes flashing with humour and not a hint of anxiety at the small surprise.
I still can’t fully tell if it was an accident; there is still the lingering thought it was a reverse-psychology ploy for the sheer fun of it, knowing they could get away with it with someone they know. Unlikely, I recognise, but a satisfying idea I can’t altogether shake – as if the small self-reference would somehow negate and absolve the necessary orchestration of the larger experience.
But I wasn’t really thinking about that then. “Here you go – pickled and smoked quail’s eggs.”
There is something pristine and sincerely affecting about a one-bite egg. Especially when its proteinous structure is perfused with smoke and limned with a just acidity, from the surface of the white to the centre of the fatty core. It is a planet, a whole world built to be rent with the tongue.
Emil returns with a terra cotta flower pot. “I love this one too – so simple but so good.”
“The flower pot dish!” It has gained something of an iconic status, inspiring similar concepts here and there and around.
“Yeah! We call it ‘Radish, soil and grass’. Dig in. Seriously.”
Fresh, crunchy radishes, spicy and sweet and mouthwatering, buried in hazelnut malt soil and sheep’s yoghurt blended with herbs and grass. This is highly child-friendly – for the outer child and inner. My hands are covered bright green and flecked with a sweet nuttiness, crackly and soft.
Matt comes with the next snack. I’m caught with my fingers buried in the pot, scooping out the rest of the soil with a curled finger. Another theme developing.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he says, noting wryly what might in another restaurant be a compromising position.
“I was following directions,” I say, very not sorry.
“Of course you were. I’ve brought you some æbleskiver.”
“Oh I was so hoping for these.”
“They’re a traditional food at Christmastime – a spherical pastry coated in powdered sugar. Ours is a savoury version with a muikku – a small Finnish fish – through the middle, with a bit of powdered vinegar on top.”
It is still breathlessly warm – a whisper of a crisp shell yielding into a dense, steamy cake within. And how I love small fish: so much flavour, so little size. All together, this bite or three summons long memories of fish and chips, though with every component raised to a level of ideal execution. Over and over they manifest this tone of whimsy balanced with thoughtfulness – at once mystifying and deeply true.
Motifs begin to emerge: replicating the experience of gathering food wild; extending the tips of the smørrebrød family tree; pushing the range of labour-intensity, melding the barely touched and the eight-hour, mind-numbing stagiaire task; testing the limits of ethereality and non-substance.
The next snack is an exercise in the two latter. Robert arrives with two small brown webs on a bed of hay. “Veal fibres and seaweed,” he explains.
Individual fibres of veal, pulled apart by hand and tweezer, bundled into hollow whorls and fried, with a small piping of crème fraîche and a sprinkle of søl powder inside. The hay only adds to the impression of lightness. It is almost like some sort of subtractive egg of other animal products, and a statement on the lengths one can go for a single delicious morsel. Is it too far? Is that the point?
But there isn’t time for reflecting now. There are more snacks coming.
Beau brings a metal dish sheeted with ice. Two leaves stick straight up from the surface.
“Sorrel leaf and cricket paste. We fold a sorrel leaf with herbs, close it with fermented cricket paste, and stick it onto the ice. Wipe it through the nasturtium snow.”
I had a version of this at the test kitchen when it was in development. Somehow, in this context now, calling to and being called to by other dishes, it takes on new meaning. It is still just as delicious – the sour leaves are made brisk with herbs and powerfully umami with the cricket paste, coated in spicy snow on ice. It is a dish in the reluctant twilight between winter and spring.
As the frozen pond is cleared, James brings cutlery. Somehow, I’ve forgotten we have been using only our hands this whole time. It is natural and immediate, the haptic sense framing all the others, tactility and texture coming into play long before the nose and mouth. In this sense, I would be fine with no cutlery for the rest of the meal.
It’s Lars carrying the plates from the pass. He sets them down. “Everything good?”
“Yes! So awesome!” Sometimes I am so eager, it is a joy and my downfall.
“Here’s the last snack. Leek.”
“Looks pretty serious. Thanks, Lars.”
“Sure. I’ll come back and check on you guys later on.” He leaves with a smile and a glint.
On the plate, a single leek, the outer skin charred, roots still smouldering.
The middle section opens up like a chest. I pull back the outer few layers. Inside are six sections of the tender heart, dabbed with fermented blueberries, surrounded with smoked cod roe and leaves of lemon thyme. We swing back into the exceedingly labour-intensive range.
The heart of a leek is sweet! Smoke, fish roe, berries, ferment, herbs, something deep and mushroomy – these are flavours of a forest and a lake. Proof of concept for a thought experiment dreamed up by one yearning for a day in the wilderness.
Each bite is lain out, composed but not fussed over. It is certainly a complex leek; but it is still a leek. While these dishes create whole systems, orbits with many moving parts, they never lose sight of their central idea, the star from which they spring.
The meal begins to not only evoke taste memories beyond its own scope but generate them within itself and then call to them later, like a program calling up earlier lines of code. Crackers, cookies, flatbreads – of malt, cheese, milk. Powdered halos of acid and umami. Sorrel’s involuted family relationships.
And slowly the logic of the menu structure begins to dawn. The snacks are meant to disorient, descending in a torrent to sluice away expectations, uncertainty, nerves. These are single, self-contained ideas – take them with your hands, eat them well, be taken with that moment. There is no space for managing your own pace, no chance to create what you think the meal should be. It wipes the slate without the accompanying upheaval; it is the rupture without the revolution.
The transition from snacks to larger dishes happens gradually. The sorrel leaf is a few bites more than one; the leek is brought with fork and knife. We are deluged, wiped, then primed and ready. It is all a bit like a vacuum-packer: the air is sucked from the chamber, reducing the surrounding pressure; the bag expands; liquids boil at room temperature; the bag is sealed; and the chamber fills again, returned to atmosphere, the bag sucked tight. The vessel is emptied of excess, brought to ambience anew. No superfluous matter. It is ready for what may come.
And finally, there is space to expand. The table is clear again. We let our focus grow into the room.
The details are somehow vivid, more fresh. The context is subdued but searing.
This moment is for the most basic foods.
Bread and butter. Elementary but exultant.
The bread uses part Ølandshvede, a heritage variety of wheat from Scandinavia that gives the bread a particular spongy heft. The crust is thick and crackled, scattered with germ and mottled where the dough rose and broke.
The butter is ‘virgin butter’ by the Butter Viking, Patrik Johansson, the experimental butter master in Sweden. The virgin butter is churned until just before it begins to split; Patrik keeps some buttermilk in, retaining the lactic tang. The result is a product with the thick spreadability of washed butter, the lightness of whipped butter, and a flavour something of crème fraîche but more, elsewhere.
There is also rendered pork fat topped with crispy onions; classically Danish. The pork fat starts cold and firm, and softens stoically as it warms.
There are people whose favourite dish is this one. It is shockingly good.
The felt bread basket is joined on the table by two glasses. We share one of each pairing, wine and juice.
2011 Schilcher by Franz Strohmeier in St. Stefan-Steiermark. Ochre, amber, dried watermelon.
Cucumber and dill. Such natural sweetness.
Fresh milk curd and blueberry preserves. With ants, pine oil, tapioca soaked in pine vinegar.
Darks covering a gleam of white. At least four acidities.
“Everything tastes like the wind,” Charlotte remarks. “That is, it’s in that language.” They eat like the wind, and they blow through like it.
2010 Grüner Veltliner ‘Steinertal’ by Weingut Alzinger in Wachau-Niederösterreich. Joyful, citric, round perfume. There’s something of rosehip tea.
The Apple and Douglas fir – it smacks like Geuze, hangs like gauze.
Brown crab, coral, egg yolk, in woodruff-verbena tea. Cresses, parsley paste, søl broth.
There are musks of different orders. The meat is cool and sweet.
Eggs are divine already, and roe of a level its own. Crab, I discover, is a height of this.
2007 Pinot Noir Blanc by Elodie Beaufort in Chatillon-sur-Seine, Bourgogne. Now, I find myself left with no notes on it, so it was very very good.
It was also due to the dish.
Roasted beetroot, sloe berry and fermented plum. Sauce of fennel and hip rose leaves.
It smells like sweets from my childhood, grown up with me and then half more.
The beets are the texture of the softest leather, or a hare fillet sous-vide.
What are these seeds, there are so many – celery? rosehip? What is this one even?
I am bursting with questions and the desire to know. And those are autolysing with the sheerness of being moved.
“Something turned,” says Charlotte. “There’s a change in your mind.”
“It is very overwhelming.”
I began feeling high, inspired.
We took a moment. They knew it and wrapped us alone. That is really the best service – the decision, the mutual and silent compact of absence.
Gradually we return. The slowing has past and we are alert.
Celery and celeriac – fresh and aged, salty and sweet. Something must be coming.
An oyster from Limfjord, the crooked inland pass in the farthest north of Jutland.
It’s a mammoth.
Sliced across in four for possible eating. Buttermilk, air onions and fermented gooseberries.
The onion is strong – the seeds of the wild plant crunch, bolstering what is otherwise soothing and delicate. The effect is a rapture in deep purple.
The texture in the buttermilk. The umami is huge and underbearing.
The flavours gratify but the most satisfying part is the control.
And now a Jura: 2010 Côtes de Jura ‘Les Bélemnites’ by Peggy & Jean-Pascal Buronfosse in Rotalier-Jura. Round chardonnay, pressed like pastels, some raw nuts and nectar and herbs on a deck over forest.
Walnuts, rye bread, cress, and butter sauce with vendace roe.
And chestnuts, raw.
The texture; I don’t even… how do they get the shell off when it’s raw like this?
The crunch of the chestnut and the crunch of the roe and the crunch of the rye before it melts and somehow the butter dissipates into the background and lets everything be more itself.
Again something inducing that particular state where the senses unfold into their ultimate attention.
Time is integral here. In the beginning the contrast is immediate; as the butter coats and permeates, the middle shades fill in. This is where the slight gradients in thickness of the chestnut slices are cast to the fore – one contrast turned up while another is turned down – and the dish shimmers in the memory over time.
Pike-perch and cabbages, lemon verbena and dill. A foam of bones, butter, and white wine.
The fish has one grilled edge. It is the plump exemplar of cookedness.
This one really sings with the celery + celeriac.
Another plate was licked.
2009 Malvasia Carso by B. Zidarich in Prapot-Friuli. It is super yellow, with skin contact, tannins, smoke, cedar, propane and greengage.
Carrot + juniper. Lightly sweet but deep and bitter. There are flattened beads of a fragrant oil across the top – the texture of that on the lips as the juice coats past, that itself is a moment.
And then Matt brings something out from nowhere.
The vintage carrot. “We had a couple extra kicking around in the shed.” He returns to the kitchen, his apron whistling along his step, no glance back but I really think he’s beaming as much as me.
The carrot is double-overwintered – left in the ground for two whole growing seasons. The result is a raw ingredient that is pliant like a daikon hung in the window for weeks, and grappled like a root that never got turned up. These are roasted in a pan with goat’s butter, basted until the rubber gives way to leather and then flesh, the skin carmelising slowly and the heart turning into a cousin of the beets.
Then, there is the sauce of black truffles from Gotland, sorrels and stems. It is about the beauty of death and the almost death, a reverence given to the things we unearth and rediscover and an ode to those we don’t.
Like the sorrel on the frozen pond, it is a plate stuck between seasons – or one that invokes seasonality beyond the current one. Practically speaking, the dish is possible – we are at the very end of fall, the cusp of winter – but the bitter joy of newness is far off, in April. Stems are what we have. The old roots, though, they come in March. Signifiers are confused and rearranged, retained but not torn asunder. Can something be ‘seasonal’ without being ‘of the season’? If not for this dish and others, I might think it a contradiction in terms. Now, I’m even less sure. Or rather, the question itself is a boring one.
I like this liminal space between bitter and sweetness. And also the colour of edible black.
Black and nearly-black. Beet and lingonberry – the memory of the beet is vindicated; the sorrel has been called to, and now the red roots.
2010 Blaufränkisch Reserve by Moric (Roland Velich) in Eisenstadt-Burgenland. Full. Juniper wood and cedar. There will be something that can cleave to this.
The whaling knife.
Wild duck, hung and cured with kelp. Pear, carmelised birch leaf.
Juniper berry, nasturtium seed pod, quince juice.
It evokes iron and blood while tasting of neither. “This is finding the duck on the forest floor, after you have shot it.” Charlotte says it always most true.
Pear and verbena. Never fails to transport.
2011 Riesling Spätlese ‘Bremmer Calmont’ by Laurentiushof in Bremm-Mosel. Lovely, but I could do without; the real fixation is the Gammel Dansk.
Gammel dansk is an old-school Danish spirit. In fact the name itself means ‘old Danish’. It is dark and medicinal and delicious.
Ice cream of gammel dansk, with yoghurt whey, dill oil, juice of apple and sorrel, and milk crumble. It is bitter and fresh with a sparkle of salt. Without a thought I broke the pristine surface with my spoon, and it was good.
Elderflower. What can I say.
2010 Coteaux du Layon ‘Vielle Vigne’ by Bruno Rochard in Layon-Loire. Carmelised skins of Anjou pear, roots and sassafras. Not so sweet.
It didn’t need to be.
Potato and plum. Sweetened potato purée, plum compote, cream infused with plum kernels. A reduction of the plum drippings, from the roast. I met Brit in pastry a few weeks prior, when she came over to use our oven to roast the peerless fruits.
There can be a danger in sweetened potatoes – they can become sickly or strange or both. Here it is neither.
The three textures are the mastery. Each takes a form entirely unencountered: a purée that naps but does not gel; a compote that is firm yet hides nothing; a cream that peaks but just as soon sighs into the rest.
Rosio is brilliant. After this, one wants nothing else.
There is a mess of glasses. The light has been fading.
Charlotte and I sit and stare, at each other, out the window, idly at the rows of bottles canted in the ice and in soft focus at the other chairs as they empty.
Lars comes out again. “Everything good?”
I am speechless, silly. “Yes. Lars. Thank you.”
“Yeah, sure. Here’s the yeast bread.”
“It’s different from last time!”
“Yeah we kept tweaking it. Enjoy.”
Looks like bread. Is it sort of bread? Chewy, even more than last time, and one can tear it with the teeth in great reams. It is lightly sweet but more umami, yeasty and fresh and cold. It warms up quickly and changes even more, becoming pliable and twistable and ever more fragrant.
It is to be spread with skyr and sea buckthorn jelly and sprinkled with elderflower salt.
The four last drinks go well with this.
Finally – petit fours that aren’t boring, second-rate chocolate or throw-away, tasteless bonbons. Another part of the classic menu structure that is revisited, revamped, rediscovered for what it could be.
The light is falling fast and everything is slow. We move into the lounge to have our tea: chamomile, mint, fennel.
Low seats, sheep pelts, herbs drying along the wall. An older contortionist candle.
Another tin finds its way to the table. Inside, resting in a cloth’s folds, are two potato chips, covered in chocolate and fennel seeds.
We sit and wonder, stare and smile.
This has been invaluable, in many ways. I have ingested countless things, many new; the cumulative effect is dizzying, both psychologically and, I’m sure, biochemically. And this puts our work at the lab into new, richer context; the links in our process grow, the feedback loop gains new folds and permutations. I will have much to think about and revisit.
The petit fours taper to a single beetroot candy, thin and soft and wrapped in paper. A real bon-bon, of the best sort. I pocket it at my breast, for the plane.
“Shall we?” I ask Charlotte.
There are many thanks to make. We walk past the bar, through the service kitchen, into the dish pit, back to pastry, outside past the grill and veg cupboards, up to production, into the test kitchen. The respect I had for these incredible people is now indelibly mixed with a very deep gratitude. I am learning from them; I hope I am able too to give something to this crazy, brilliant thing.
We leave them to staff meal and the few moments of rest before the dinner service starts. We find our way back downstairs. James has menus waiting.
“Don’t think you were going to leave without these.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Thank you James.”
“See you soon bud.”
We open the door to the evening that teeters between winter and fall. We get our bags from the boat, hop into the waiting cab and head to the airport. We are going north, to islands in the middle of the sea.