Noma pops up

491720065_a873ca0190[1]Frequently judged the “world’s best”, Noma restaurant is much less than the hype, and I intend that as a recommendation. If you feel so inclined, have the money, and can score a booking, then go, when it pops up down south.

The Sydney Morning Herald has just carried huge photographs of chef Rene Redzepi to accompany a double-page spread about his moving the restaurant from Copenhagen to Sydney for 10 weeks during their winter/our summer. But I skipped the article for a number of reasons. Mainly, it’s the hype; I don’t need any more breathless accounts of stratospherically-ranked cooking.

Reportedly flying in 35 chefs, 30 waiters and 10 reservations and administrative staff, plus “partners and children”, a so-called destination restaurant celebrating local-ness remains one of globalisation’s tragic contradictions.

An associated reason for my deliberate page-turn was that, decades ago, I was already dreading Sydney’s over-development (fellow journalist Gavin Souter assured me it had already happened), and the Barangaroo developers would seem to be supporting Noma’s relocation to lend civility to their latest harbour-side imposition.

I also admit that despite the restaurant offering a total of 5000 places, and at a projected $400 to $500 each, I can’t imagine managing to obtain a booking. Locals will be competing with diners who fly around the world to reach worse attractions.

And, finally, another confession, I’ve already been. Indeed, we almost went twice. My wife’s second Copenhagen conference let me book for a significant birthday in April 2010, but an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull grounded an estimated 10 million travellers, including us.

Not that my birthday was a total disaster, because we quickly booked trains to England via L’Arpège in Paris. To tell the truth, my actual birthday was a couple of days later, so that I celebrated again. With my wife occupied at another conference in Coventry, my daughter and I dined at what the Good Pub Guide rightly indicated would be a dream of an old inn, the Fox & Hounds, Great Wolford, Warwickshire.

491693630_5b41aa8303[1]The Noma visit in May 2007 was unforgettable, notably for its completeness. I remember numerous snips of this and that by way of found grasses, flowers, etc, quite intriguing, although more common these days. And I particularly recall tiny, cold, dense oysters. If you want more details, “YKL” had posted on egullet a few days earlier about the same menu (and I’ve borrowed two of YKL’s photographs to accompany this reminiscence).

As I say, the meal was unforgettable for its completeness, which means not just the food. There was the port location and the old building, which had been converted to promote the North Atlantic (hence Noma’s choice of ingredients). My daughter and I sat outside with a beautiful German riesling in the late-afternoon sun, awaiting my wife to cycle from her conference. We gazed across the harbour (not high-rised like Sydney) and back at the spiral church steeple that our daughter had just climbed.

Then, there was the exemplary friendliness. One little thing was that, after they had found somewhere to stow my wife’s bike, they brought out an extra round of marvellous crisps, including cracklingly-thin fish and chicken skin.

We could never forget another extra. We were keen to phone our severely disabled son back in New Zealand, which tends to sleep when Denmark is awake, and vice versa. Since this evening was an appropriate time, we inquired about a public phone. The waiters insisted that we use the restaurant’s. But you don’t understand, we said, this is a phone call to New Zealand.

Given our boy’s brain damage, “phoning” really meant singing to him down the line. It was an emotional moment, and when we were together back at the table, the waiters slipped us small handkerchiefs.

In this globalised, connected world that magnifies celebrity to an unbearable level, I know Noma to be much, much less – much friendlier and more intimate – than might be imagined. So, I skipped the double-page spread.

Then, in a phonecall, old friend Julie Rigg checked if I noticed it mentioned my gastronomic history of Australia. To write the article, Jill Dupleix had joined Rene Redzepi for a day trip of 13 hours, sourcing ingredients through Victoria. He and two assistants had already scoured the Adelaide Hills (location of our Aristologist restaurant in the 1980s and early 1990s) in the company of Adelaide chef Jock Zonfrillo (and I’ve already praised his Orana restaurant).

Dupleix reported that the team had passed by Melbourne’s Essential Ingredient in search of a copy of One Continuous Picnic. Not sure if they found one, but if Redzepi is still looking, I’ll gladly send a copy, signed “in memory of 31 May 2007”.

The collapse of dining in U.K., U.S.A., France, Australia and Barbados

The past decade has seen the collapse of British restaurants.

Something to eat at El Celler de Can Roca

They held 10 of the world’s “Best 50” positions in 2005, and now only two. Almost as disastrously, the decline in number of world-beating French restaurants has plummeted from 11 to five. The U.S.A. went from nine to six, Australia from three to one, and Barbados fell from two to none at all.

Where did all that great dining go? Spain has lifted its total from four to seven, Peru and Mexico have come from nowhere to gain three spots each; Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Thailand and China came in with two; and Singapore, Russia, South Africa and Chile snapped up one. The rest of the world stayed roughly where they were.

I’m joking. What has changed is not the quality of the national stars but the scope of the “World’s Best 50 Restaurants”. A British magazine started the annual list in 2002, and still in 2005 found the great places either down the road, or in France, the U.S. and Barbados. Over the years, the judging has expanded further across the globe.

The best in the world, “Says who?” That’s Paul Levy’s comment on the latest list, just announced. “Would any critic dare to try to name the 50 best operas/singers/actors/artists in the world, except as some sort of perverse game?” The original foodie underscores his point with the photograph (above), chosen by the “Best 50” organisers to represent their very “best” restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

That Paul was not overly selective with the photograph can be confirmed elsewhere. Here’s another I’ve referenced:

Restaurant magazine had asked Paul to vote in the early years, and he was not surprised that “the initial list in 2002 maintained absurdly that more of the world’s top restaurants were in Britain than in France.”

He admits to have dined at some of latest winners, and that they are “very good indeed”. The problem is that we could both name dozens of equally wonderful meals nowhere near the list. Now shut, Ritual in Nelson Bay, north of Sydney, rightfully gained a devoted following, but regularly lost scores in the local guidebook until it was dropped entirely. I’m looking forward to the emergence of Orana – or is Adelaide going to prove just too far for the globe-trotters?

As a restaurant rating groupie, I can remind Paul that even a half-decent guide is better than no guide. And another consolation is that we are watching the “Best 50’s” self-destruction. I’m not referring to its encouraging of ever-more damaging jet-setting.

Rather, my point is that the near-doubling of the number of countries on the list from 11 in 2005 to 21 is only a beginning. The United Nations has 193 members. The judges don’t appear yet to have brought in Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco … Is Canada yet to make the grade? And those other former British colonies, Hong Kong and Barbados, might yet pop back.

Soon, the near-impossibility of comparing of apples with pears will be compounded by the total incredibility of rating them against okra, lentils, cardamom, pomegranates, couscous and, let’s hope one day, Kiwi fruit.