As the clock inches toward midday on Jan. 9, the eyes and attention of gourmets around the world will be focused on Tokyo. The reason: The curtain is rising on one of the most hotly anticipated restaurant openings ever.
Noma in Japan is far from an ordinary opening, though. Not that you’d expect it to be, when it springs from the restlessly creative mind of chef Rene Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, holds two Michelin stars and has been voted best in the world four years out of the past five.
Unlike with other top chefs from Europe or North America who have brought their cuisine to Tokyo, this is no mere spinoff intended to reproduce the recipes that made the parent restaurant famous. For Japan, Redzepi has created an entirely new repertoire of dishes, from appetizers to dessert.
However, what makes Noma in Japan so fundamentally different is that it’s only going to exist for just over a month. In the parlance of the foodie scene, it’s a pop-up — albeit not in the usual sense of the term.
It was early last spring that Redzepi dropped the bombshell announcement, and from the start it seemed the most preposterous idea imaginable: He was going to mothball his world-renowned restaurant in Copenhagen for three months and teleport the entire Noma staff across the world — not just the chefs, but also the front of house, waiters and even the long-serving dishwashing crew, several with families in tow — just for a total of 30 working days.
But so it has come to pass. From now through Feb. 14 (except Sundays), Noma has been temporarily reborn inside the elevated portals of the Mandarin Oriental, in Tokyo’s historic Nihonbashi neighborhood. The venue is the hotel’s 37th-floor French restaurant, Signature (itself Michelin-starred), which has undergone a total transformation for the occasion.
It may be a finite residency, but new equipment has been installed in the kitchen, the dining room has been revamped and new tableware — porcelain, lacquered wood pieces, even glassware — has been sourced from artisans across the country. The planning and work, both physical and logistical, has been formidable — “ridiculous” is the word Redzepi himself uses.
“What’s ridiculous is that we’re only going to be open for 30 (working) days,” the 37-year-old chef tells The Japan Times with his customary intensity. “We’re saying, ‘This is like a restaurant that’s going to exist for the next 10 years.’ We’re doing that type of work. We are trying to think, ‘If we were going to open a (permanent) restaurant, what would we put into it?’ That’s what we’re doing.”
But why create an entirely new menu when he already has dishes so good they’ve secured Noma’s place at the apex of the influential magazine Restaurant’s World’s 50 Best list? The answer to that goes to the heart of the ethos underpinning Redzepi’s cuisine.
Noma began life in 2003 as much as a manifesto as a restaurant. Indeed, the name itself is short for nordisk mad, meaning “Nordic food.” The idea was to use only ingredients grown, reared, fished or foraged in Denmark and the surrounding region. The ambitious goal was to show that fine dining didn’t inevitably have to mean French cuisine, and that it could all be done with ingredients produced in northern climes, not flown in from entirely different environments.
That is why Noma’s menu has evolved so distinctively, and what makes it so unique. In the harsh northern European winter, fresh produce is in short supply, so foods are preserved through pickling, fermentation and other methods. Wild plants, animals and fungi are essential as a resource, and intense effort is made to use every part of the animal or plant, not just the standard cuts but those usually rejected as being less tasty or even thought to be inedible.
That has led to the use of some highly unusual ingredients. Ants are the most controversial item on that list, but they are not there for the sake of notoriety. Because citrus fruit cannot be grown in Denmark, there are few sources of lemony flavors. The formic acid in wood ants makes a perfect substitute, and they are used to great effect on Noma’s outstanding steak tartare.
In Japan, Redzepi is playing by the exact same rules. That means leaving all the Nordic staples behind and sourcing only local foods. The difference, though, is that here he has a vastly larger palette of ingredients to play with.
In half a dozen trips over a space of seven months, he has covered more than 8,000 km, spanning the entire length of the country, from subtropical Okinawa to the fertile farmland of Fukuoka, the mountains of Nagano and the wild forests in the far north.
“We went to Aomori and spent time with the matagi (traditional hunters),” he reveals. “We might get some deer from them. But mostly we went there for wild plants, to see if we could get seeds, special types of bark and so on that have flavor we can use to make broths.”
So what exactly will be on the plate — a hefty ¥40,200 per head for the multicourse tasting menu — at Noma in Japan? Nobody on the outside knows as yet, which has helped to fuel the sense of anticipation. However, Redzepi has been dropping big hints.
There has been talk of Okinawan pepper, wild grapes and even hornet larvae for use in sauces. Ants are definitely available. So is suppon turtle, for which the traditional preparations have been learned at Den, a restaurant in Tokyo’s Jimbocho district whose eclectic young chef, Zaiyu Hasegawa, has emerged as a kindred spirit.
But the bottom line is that no one knows what’s in store. No restaurant has ever done anything remotely similar before. Yet again Redzepi and Noma are pushing the envelope. One thing is sure, though: We are likely to find out via social media feeds within minutes of the doors opening.
Noma in Japan runs through Feb. 14 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Chuo-ku, Tokyo. All seats are currently sold out. For more information, visit www.noma.dk/japan.