The live ants served by chef Rene Redzepi with creme fraiche were the stars of the show when Noma -- voted World’s Best Restaurant for three years in a row -- reinvented itself as a pop-up at Claridge’s over the weekend.
It’s disconcerting to watch the main ingredient making its way across a cabbage leaf as you prepare to pop it into your mouth. Claridge’s says the ants are chilled, so anesthetized; I’m not so sure about the suggestion that the 22,000 who have traveled here from Denmark stay in a suite at the London hotel, which has many guests for the Olympics.
When you bite into the ants, they release the flavor of lemongrass; what you taste is light and citrusy, in contrast to the edible soil you have just consumed. That dish contains radishes buried in a mix of hazelnuts, rye, malt, beer and butter atop a layer of creme fraiche, all in a plant pot.
In Copenhagen, there is sometimes a waiting list of more than 1,000 people for a single meal since Noma topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2010. (I head the U.K. and Ireland panel for the awards.) Noma receives as many as 100,000 reservation inquiries a month, and during that time it serves a total of just 450 tables, according to Redzepi.
The restaurant is closed for refurbishment and there was much excitement when the hotel announced “A Taste of Noma at Claridge’s” in April. Redzepi, who brought over his team from Copenhagen, is serving lunch and dinner through Aug. 6. All 20 sittings -- each costing 195 pounds ($306) a person -- sold out in less than two hours once booking opened.
This is the third celebrity pop-up in London, following Pierre Koffmann at Selfridges and Thomas Keller at Harrods. Claridge’s has done a good job (the best of the three) in transforming the ballroom, which looks less like a function space than you might expect. Staffers have adopted an informal style that suits Noma’s Nordic ethos. There are no tablecloths, and cutlery doesn’t appear for the first hour or so.
A meal is nine courses, or 10 if you include the Laurent-Perrier Champagne. After the soil and the ants, things settle down with caviar on scones and more creme fraiche, accompanied by crushed-raspberry tea with verbena and rose hibiscus.
That’s followed by tartar of Scottish beef on rye bread with horseradish, mustard-seed oil, crushed juniper and tarragon; then a large oyster lightly poached in buttermilk with samphire. The taste of the sea is as strong as in Heston Blumenthal’s dish Sound of the Sea, only here you don’t need to wear headphones and listen to the roar of crashing waves.
Next is celeriac roasted in goat’s butter in a truffle sauce with rapeseed oil and wild sorrel. This earthy dish is followed by lamb’s neck rubbed in fermented pea. It’s cooked for 48 hours and served family style for sharing. The meat is so tender, it falls apart and you eat it with lamb broth and fresh curd. The flavors are big and beautiful.
Dessert consists of walnut ice cream with frozen berries and walnut dust, followed by chocolate crisps with anise.
The physicist Stephen Hawking was among diners on Saturday night. I wonder what he made of it. Redzepi posted on Twitter: “First day at Claridge’s went well! Room filled with friendly, sparkling Londoners & Stephen Hawking smiled at me twice.” After lunch that day, the chef was surrounded by diners asking for autographs and to have their photographs taken with him.
(“It’s like everyone wants to stay on and party,” Redzepi said to me. He seems shy and uncomfortable with such attention.)
There’s no point pretending this is like eating in Noma. That’s a small waterside restaurant in a commercial district and this is a posh hotel in Mayfair where the cloakroom is almost as large as Noma’s kitchen. About 170 diners taste the same menu.
The name of the pop-up -- A Taste of Noma -- reflects what you get. Although Redzepi is a champion of new Nordic cuisine, his philosophy is broader: taking local ingredients and getting creative. He’s done that here with British produce. Little is from overseas, apart from oysters, truffles -- and ants.
Is it worth 195 pounds? Probably not if you are on a budget or if you are able to get a table at Noma, where the longer menu is the equivalent of $250. It’s a luxury like a beautiful handbag or a bottle of fine wine. Redzepi is one of the world’s finest chefs and this is a snapshot of what he can do.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Robert Heller on music and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.