Tan Hsueh Yun: A priceless taste of Noma Japan

Course 17: Wild cinnamon and fermented mushrooms. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 17: Wild cinnamon and fermented mushrooms. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 13: Wild duck and matsubusa berries. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 13: Wild duck and matsubusa berries. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 11: Garlic flower. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 11: Garlic flower. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 4: Shaved monkfish liver. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 4: Shaved monkfish liver. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 3: Citrus and long pepper. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 3: Citrus and long pepper. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 2: Shimaebi with flavours of Nagano forest. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Course 2: Shimaebi with flavours of Nagano forest. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Chef Rene Redzepi (above) says it is more fun to cook in Tokyo than in Europe as the food culture in Japan is rich with diverse ingredients. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Chef Rene Redzepi (above) says it is more fun to cook in Tokyo than in Europe as the food culture in Japan is rich with diverse ingredients. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN

The logistics of setting up Noma in Japan have been staggering.

For just a little over five weeks from Jan 9 to Feb 14, the Copenhagen restaurant, currently at the top of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, is operating from what is usually the Signature restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.

Tables and chairs were made and shipped to the hotel located in the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower; the crockery made by Japanese craftsmen; 77 staff and family members flown to Japan, dishwashers included; the kitchen and dining room of the restaurant retooled; and that is not counting the numerous trips chef Rene Redzepi and his team have made to various parts of Japan to source for ingredients and to watch over every little detail starting about two years ago.

It has paid off.

Never one to mince his words, chef Redzepi, 37, tells SundayLife! in Tokyo: "It is more fun to cook here than for Europeans because here, people are used to eating everything. Japanese food culture dwarfs many European food cultures. It is very active and alive, rich in diversity of ingredients.

"I've enjoyed cooking here so much."

He says of diners back home: "When we test something for the average diner - it could be a herb or a vegetable - because they have no reference point, it quickly becomes something they don't want to understand."

Some of the guests who come to Tokyo have that sort of reaction too.

"They say, 'But this is nothing. A duck on a plate'," he says, referring to the wild duck from Akita Prefecture in northern Honshu that is on the menu. "But the duck is caught with a net. It's a big eye-opener for me. This is the point of being in a totally different system."

To demonstrate that commitment, he has left Nordic ingredients behind.

Guest chefs often go abroad wheeling suitcases bulging with produce. However, chef Redzepi has built a menu around Japanese ingredients. To do that, he has, among other things, gone foraging in Nagano with what he describes in an essay for food magazine Saveur as a "mushroom prophet". He has also shopped at local and farmers' markets and is thinking of what to do with snapping turtles, so diners might well be served that before Noma goes home.

He says: "You are like a child again, seeing things with new eyes."

This voyage of discovery has not come cheap for him or for diners.

He declines to give specifics, but says that rent for the pop-up restaurant space is a double-digit percentage of the takings. Refurbishing the restaurant and kitchen have cost a six-figure sum and some of the plates cost US$400 (S$538) each.

"We have to hand wash all the plates. They are so expensive, it's nerve-racking," he says, adding that the crockery costs more than flying 77 people to Tokyo.

For diners, this translates to a fixed menu price of 40,200 yen (S$457), with an additional 24,700 yen for wine pairing or 16,500 yen for juice pairing. The minimum spend for the private room, which seats 10, is 618,000 yen.

Yet, about 60,000 people applied in June last year to dine at the event and were entered into a ballot. With just 64 lunches and dinners (the restaurant is closed on Sundays) and 56 people a meal, only 3,548 people will get to experience Noma Japan.

Will it have been worth the effort for diners?

For chef Redzepi, the answer is clear.

He says: "It is more than worth it because of what it has done for us as a team. We are closer, we know each other better. This is a team-building exercise like no other. We feel joy when we come back from a day off."

He adds: "Some have never travelled outside Europe. It's a big thing for them. We become in the West so focused to the point where we don't know what's going on in Asia."

hsueh@sph.com.sg

facebook.com/tanhsuehyun


$973 for 17 courses in 4 hours

Novelty is rare at a time when just about everything can be experienced vicariously through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

I try - and mostly succeed - in not reading about or looking at photos of Noma Japan because I want to go into it with no expectations.

It is crazy, I know, to pay $973 for lunch in the private room and not have expectations, but I have found that it is the fairest way to assess a meal.

So if you are lucky enough to score a table, a warning: There are spoilers ahead.

Noma in Copenhagen where I dined in 2013, is pretty intense. The restaurant's dedication to using only indigenous ingredients means diners get to sample the riches of the region's forests and sea, in combinations nobody has thought of.

Much as I enjoy the meal there, Noma Japan is better.

Is it the wider range of ingredients? Is it chef Rene Redzepi revelling in being out of his comfort zone? It is probably a little of both.

Lunch unfolds at a fast clip. There are 17 courses in all, and it takes about four hours from start to finish.

Every course is beautiful to look at and the first is especially so. Cucumber slices fan out like flower petals, and around them are unripe strawberry halves alternating with scoops of sauce made with sake lees.

Ripe strawberries are everywhere in Tokyo this time of the year. They are ever-so-sweet and easy to work with. But the unripe variety have their charm, their sharpness contrasting with the mellow lees.

Then, a course that some people have told me they cannot possibly eat: two raw shima ebi with ants on them. Here again, a contrast: this time of sweet prawns and citrusy ants. They remind me of the pulverised ones in Copenhagen, served on fresh milk curd. It is the formic acid that makes them tart. Can ants be a link between two cities?

One of my favourite courses comes as a change of pace after several featuring tart flavours. We are served pickled, smoked and frozen monkfish liver shaved onto sourdough toast. Every bite fills the palate with a smoky, salty richness that I want more of.

Another good one only looks plain. On the menu, it is described as Tofu, Just Steamed With Wild Walnuts. But the fresh tofu also has a miso, yuzu and parsley sauce and the walnuts have been skinned, it appears. Every spoonful is crunchy and velvety at the same time.

I will remember, for a long time, Garlic Flower. Two shiny black petals, made of black garlic paste dehydrated and turned into a kind of edible paper, sit on a matte black plate. The origami is sticky in the mouth, tasting sweet with just a hint of tartness. What makes it memorable is the rose oil brushed onto them, its perfume so heady. Who would have thought to pair garlic and rose?

But then I remember that garlic is also called the stinking rose and it all makes sense.

The main course of wild duck is served unceremoniously, plonked on a plate. We use chopsticks to pick up thin, rare slices of duck breast, dipping them into unrelentingly tart matsubusa berry sauce. The ducks, caught by net rather than being shot, develop an intensely savoury flavour from being hung for a couple of weeks. They are then roasted over charcoal and the singed parts are delightful.

Alas, the thighs and legs prove a challenge, being too tough to eat.

Of the three desserts, the one I like best comes still bubbling to the table. It is a sweet potato that has been simmering in raw sugar "all day" as the menu says. This long cooking time makes the slices almost translucent. They are soft but not totally yielding. I like that precision.

The last dessert comprises slices of fermented mushroom covered with chocolate and sprinkled with licorice salt, and there are also thin twigs of wild cinnamon that impart a gentle taste of the spice when chewed. It is served on a bed of bright green moss, which Noma in Copenhagen uses as serveware.

We have come full circle.

Chef Redzepi has said that this Japanese sojourn is meant to test himself and his team, to start from scratch.

He has done it admirably in Tokyo and now, I wonder, what will he take back with him? How will he see familiar ingredients in a new way?

I hope to go back to Noma to find out.