After a drumroll of media announcements, a steady drip of social media speculation and the crescendo of anticipation, Noma Japan has finally opened. Denmark’s preeminent restaurant has begun its month-long residency in Tokyo, and it’s every bit as remarkable as expected.
You can’t help but be wowed by the setting. From the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, diners look out toward the distant hills and the unmistakable snow-capped, sunset-silhouetted cone of Mount Fuji. It is hard to think of a more auspicious backdrop for the three-hour, 16-course banquet.
But the view is immediately forgotten as soon as the first dishes are served. Noma’s dynamic head chef, Rene Redzepi, and his dedicated, hardworking crew have developed a complex tasting menu that’s unlike anything anyone has ever served before in Japan. Or in Copenhagen for that matter. In keeping with his locavore philosophy, all the ingredients are sourced entirely within Japan, many of them foraged during Redzepi’s many visits last year.
The magic kicks in from the very first course, jumbo shrimp served atop a platter of ice. They are superb, premium sashimi quality and so fresh they’re still dancing their final quivers. But it is the seasoning — “flavors of the Nagano forest” the menu calls it — that defines this dish. A dozen tiny wild black ants are carefully arranged on the shrimp, their little pinpricks of sharp acidity acting as a perfect accent for the sweet, pink flesh.
None of the other courses are as provocative — although ants are used so routinely at Noma, their presence should come as no surprise. But every single dish is the product of intense, intricate preparation and radical combinations of ingredients.
Four varieties of citrus adorned with sansho herb, piquant pickled Okinawan peppers and roast konbu seaweed oil; monkfish liver smoked, frozen and shaved onto crisp bread with a tart, zinging sauce of wild kiwi. And, one of the prettiest dishes of the meal, slivers of simmered pumpkin paired with salted cherry blossoms.
Konbu seaweed, miso, uni (sea urchin) and more: These are some of the iconic ingredients of Japanese cuisine. Redzepi’s treatments are totally respectful of that tradition but he takes them into totally new dimensions.
Even his take on tofu is a revelation. Freshly ground from organic beans, the soy milk is set with a special coagulant, steamed for 20 minutes and topped with dainty white morsels of walnut collected last fall from wild trees. Tofu will always taste like tofu. But this is some of the sweetest in all Japan.
Rice also plays its part in the meal, not in its customary central role but in a dessert course that is an out-and-out winner. This is one more dish that would have left jaws permanently dropped if they weren’t so busy eating.
Less than two weeks in and the menu is already evolving, as Redzepi adjusts and swaps in new dishes. By the time Noma Japan comes to a close (on Feb. 14), everything is likely to be even more finely honed.
Even after that, the ripples from this bold, imaginative experiment will continue to spread. Redzepi sees this as a step to take Noma in Copenhagen to the next level. Meanwhile, here in Japan, a generation of chefs and customers have had their eyes and palates opened wide, beyond the confines of Japanese tradition. A magnificent success.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.