The Copenhagen restaurant Noma has been called "the world's best restaurant". It ís a strange title - with something as subjective as taste, how can any restaurant be ranked as number one? Nevertheless, such headlines bring publicity, business and demand. Dinner at Noma is one of the world's most difficult reservations to make.
In March of 2014 more headlines announced that Noma was relocating from Copenhagen to Tokyo for a few weeks the following January. The entire staff of over 60 people, from head chef Rene Redzepi to the dishwasher, were coming to Japan and recreating Noma up on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Reservations were snapped up the moment they were released in June. Many people paid extra for an accommodation package in order to secure a table. 60,000 more people remained on the waitlist, desperate to get in. Diners jetted in from around the world. A San Francisco girl who had a spare seat, and offered to pay for dinner on the condition the person flew from San Francisco to join her for the meal, had hundreds of applicants from the Bay Area willing to do that.
The Mandarin Oriental has an unobstructed view over the urban plain that is Tokyo - quite 'Lost in Translation' (although that film was actually set in the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku).
Staff, some working up to 18 hours a day, lined up to meet the diners as they walked in. A couple of the tables directly faced the open kitchen.
As is the practice at Noma, each dish was brought to each table by different chefs and servers, including head chef Rene. All were knowledgeable when quizzed, and could explain the minutest details of each dish.
First course was jumbo shrimp served head-on, on a bed of ice and garnished with ants. The ants were used as a seasoning to give a citrus-like flavor. The prawns had met their maker only moments before serving, and were still twitching and wriggling while being eaten. After my neighbour took a bite, and then put her prawn down, it made a break for it. One could really taste the freshness, perhaps almost feel life essence transferring from one creature to another - rather vampire-like!
Monkfish liver was frozen and then shaved and served on toast.
Cuttlefish were turned into hot 'noodles', coated with fermented cuttlefish guts and served with a cold dipping sauce of rose petals and pine nuts.
'Sea urchin and wild kiwi' tarts had a seaweed base. Originally the tarts were made with a local type of small clam, but it was taking 13 chefs 4 hours each day to prepare, as each tart needed 40-60 clams. They had to abandon that idea and substitute sea urchin.
'Garlic flower' Black garlic turned into fruit leather! So sweet it could have been a dessert, and I would have never guessed it was garlic.
The main event was wild ducks that had been caught in nets in northern Japan, dry-aged then slowly roasted. They were presented head and feet-on. The breasts had been removed, sliced and then reassembled so the bird looked whole again. Chopsticks were provided to pick up the breast slices. The dipping sauce of matsubusa berries was tart but sweet ñ this is a berry so obscure that apparently even most Japanese don't know of it.
The bird was returned to the kitchen, the carcass chopped up and grilled before being returned to the table for diners to pick at.
Desserts included sweet potato that had been simmered in raw sugar for an entire day. The sauce was quite "sticky toffee pudding", and it was also served with a bright-green kiwi and coriander dip.
Last came 'Wild cinnamon and fermented mushrooms'. The cinnamon roots were to be chewed on but not eaten. As for chocolate covered mushrooms? They worked - however of all the things that are most enjoyable dipped in chocolate, mushrooms are not at the top of my list!
For some diners it was not far to stagger afterwards for their bed for the night.
Noma have wrapped up their Japan stint now and have returned home to Denmark, where they continue to receive thousands of requests a day for a table.