When Noma first announced its “pop-up” in Sydney’s new Barangaroo precinct – a vulgar monstrosity whose fatal flaw, mark my words, will ultimately be an isolation from the city no amount of Packer-financed lockout laws will cure – we were, to be sure, excited. To suggest that when reservations became available we Pricks were hitting the refresh buttons like monkeys in a cocaine addiction lab experiment would be an exaggeration, but only just. Anyway, last night was the night, and to be frank I’m still trying to figure out what I think of the whole thing.
Rene Redzepi came to town with his cast of thousands promising to do something completely different from what he does in Copenhagen, and entirely Australian – thus a heavy focus on native ingredients that we dopey locals “ignore” as well as a series of what are not referred to explicitly (but pretty clearly are) references, call-outs and to use that over-abused word “takes” on Australiana-type food. And in many of the dozen or so dishes that come out of the gleaming, lottery-dreams kitchen (through one which passes to go to the toot, and whose line chefs are more than happy to oblige an exuberant, slightly drunken high-five from across the pass) this works really, really well.
To give some examples: A “porridge” of wattleseeds wrapped in saltbush with a glorious infused oil (seaweed) underneath is a very sly reinterpretation of the Greek dolmade which Anglo-Australian culture has taken as its own. A series of bivalves gently cooked and presented on rocks covered with skins of a gel made from chicken stock and, amazingly, crocodile fat, was glorious, a classic Aussie seafood platter from another planet, next-level shit as the kids say. (Where does one get crocodile fat, anyway?) And for once the soupy “natural” wine that accompanied it really worked.
Marron and magpie goose (is it a magpie? is it a goose? make up your mind, Creator of the Universe!) wrapped in milk skins was stunning, but we realized eating the things with our hands that we were also for a moment having that other Australian multi-culti staple dinner, taco night. An abalone “schnitzel” (schnitty!) divided the table: I can’t abide the stuff since a bad experience in Shanghai, and for my money the whole plate was overtooled, an excuse to artsy-up low tide on a plate. On the other hand, while we couldn’t find the reference point for a simple plate of sea urchin with semi-dehydrated tomatoes, tomato water and pepper berries, this was for me the dish of the night, paroxysmically good in a “sir, you’re making a scene” sort of way. A “baytime” made of peanut milk and “freekah” (hoo-kay) finished the meal, yummy but perhaps too clever by half and frankly didn’t Colin Fassnidge come up with this pun years ago? An earlier pre-dessert (“marinated fresh fruit”, as it is described on the menu) comes sprinkled with honest-to-God ants, a sly reference both to Danish uber-haute cuisine weirdness and every Australian homeowner’s horror of termites.
All in all, clever, creative, challenging and great, great fun, made the more so by the mostly Danish and uniformly excellent staff. But I worry that Redzepi has artificially limited himself with his self-imposed brief to the local, native, and Australian. There is a reason why a lot of native ingredients don’t show up on Australian dinner plates: they may look pretty but they are in fact loud and boorish, like they came from the Lara Bingle aisle of the supermarket. A finger lime G&T may be fun but you can keep your bunya nut, thanks, though we had great fun watching other diners freak out at their first bite of an early plate of “wild seasonal berries flavoured with gubine.” Don’t ask me what gubine is, either, but it tasted like a big mouthful of country acreage on a soggy day and the reactions of some of the prosperous “ribeye for me, tuna steak for the lady” types made for great mirth.
In the same vein, though, carting a hundred staffers around the world and air-freighting crocodile fat from the NT doesn’t scream “locavore”, really, and while one doesn’t expect a plate of moss grown on the lee side of a reindeer turd in Australia we would have appreciated a Danish treat. And when one is spending what is really a morally undefensible amount of money on a meal it is fair to invoke Clara Peller’s damning question, to wit, “Where’s the beef?”: We would have loved to see what Redzepi could do with either a piece of ‘roo or some of our world’s-best beef, paired with a sexy glass of red. As it stands the closest we got was a bit of liquefied Skippy (“kangaroo juice”, as it was described to us, raising many many more questions than it answered) gently embracing a lovely, simple dish of snow crab that could have been, like so many dishes, elevated by a hint more generous seasoning but which one of our table, cracking the code for the evening, identified with Proustian delight as a childhood fish finger sandwich.
So the verdict? A more cynical wag than myself might also be tempted to reference David Foster Wallace’s line about “a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”, but that would be unfair. It was a helluva good time, the service is among the best and most genuine I’ve ever encountered in Australia (they’ve imported the entire waitstaff from Copenhagen and added a few local ring-ins) and many of the dishes really sang. I just wonder if this is the best way to showcase the obvious talent of Redzepi’s team, and I think we all left wishing there was a bit more “there” there.