Discover more from Things Worth Knowing with Farrah Storr
The terrifying cult of 'good taste'
What do cancel culture and fine dining have in common? Quite a lot as it happens, as I found out on a recent trip to the world's 'best' restaurant, Noma.
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Who gets to decide what’s good taste nowadays? Is it journalists? Industry inspectors? Or those who shout loudest on the internet? I’m not entirely sure. But what I do know, is that at some point, certain beliefs become doctrine. And doctrines are powerful things. They drown out singular voices. They encourage group think. They feel pointless to challenge, since challenging something that has become scared only serves to underline how apart from the group you actually are.
I say all this because last weekend I went to Noma in Copenhagen. Noma is ‘the world’s best restaurant.’ I know this because it has been at the top of a list called The World’s 50 Best Restaurants many times over. Also, everyone tells you it is. So you tend to believe them.
My husband has been wanting to go to Noma for the past ten years. But it’s impossible to get a table. (Which further underlines the fact it is the world’s best restaurant). So every year we add our name to some mail out which tells you when a bunch of tables will become available. But every year we are usually a minute too late, since reservations are gobbled up by lusty gastronomes the world over within seconds. Anyway, this year, by some cosmic twist of fate, we got lucky. A table for lunch was all ours- for the bargain price of £400 per head. Plus an extra £175 for mandatory ‘juice pairing’s. More if you opted for wine. So let’s call that £600 for lunch.
Now if we can put aside the fact that we are incredibly privileged to have been able to afford this in the first place ( though I’ll be honest, we saved with all the dedication of Ebenezer Scrooge to pay for this) I can begin to tell you what happens when you spend the same amount of money on a Saturday lunch as you would on a second hand Ford Fiesta because ‘the world’ tells you it’s the best place on earth to eat.
You go with high expectations. Gold star stuff. You also go with the realistic expectation that some of the dishes will challenge you, since Noma is famous for its nose-to-tail philosophy, as well as its fierce commitment to foraging. So yes, you might find ants on your plate. And ‘reindeer brain custard’; as indeed we did. Hey, maybe even reindeer penis, which, it turns out we were also served. In a cold, nutty salad, as it happens. Though they don’t reveal exactly what’s in said salad until the very end, when they pass you the menu with a half smirk. I’m okay with all of that.
So there we were last Saturday morning, rising early with empty stomachs and hearts full of expectation. We hailed a taxi and as we made our way out of the city towards Noma, I skimmed the news. The headlines were filled with some drama about Roald Dahl’s books being rewritten to accommodate a more ‘modern’ generation of readers - Augustus Gloop was no longer to be called fat; Oompa Loompas were to be gender neutral, whilst Mrs Twit would no more be called ‘ugly.’ Who gets to decide what’s acceptable to read, I remember thinking before we pulled up outside Noma.
A shivering young man was stood outside with a clipboard. We gave our names, whereupon we were led into a scruffy greenhouse before being handed a cup of tepid tea, that was proffered as though it was a bowl of Mayan gold. There were about fifteen guests already ahead of us, perched on the edge of hard seats, cups of barely touched tea in front of every one of them. Strangely enough, it all had the whiff of Roald Dahl about it: a mad, genius revered the world over. And us, the golden ticket winners, come to claim our prize.
A woman in fluffy trousers and lime green trainers sat opposite us. She was explaining to a neighbouring couple how she had come all the way from New York to eat at Noma. It was, she whispered, a once in lifetime trip. Someone else had travelled from Switzerland. Many, like us, had come all the way from the UK.
Suddenly a young Australian woman arrived, wide-eyed and practically trembling with excitement.
‘You’ll be having dinner with that woman over there,’ the server explained to the young woman, pointing to the New Yorker. To which the young woman looked slightly appalled. An elder gentleman in thick white spectacles then arrived and was the told the exact same thing. Cue further facial expressions that suggested unease. Finally a a Japanese man was introduced to the group. He didn’t even say hello. Instead he held his phone in front of his face as though to shield himself from the horror that is having travelled half way round the world only to be told you’ll be sharing a table with a bunch of strangers. (Presumably for the convenience of the kitchen rather than the customer)
Finally we were given the nod. The kitchen was ready for us. We were instructed to walk down a small pathway until we reached a heavy wooden door festooned with dozens of deer antlers. This, was Noma.
The door then slowly opened to reveal not one, not two but the entire kitchen staff who have come to greet us. Imagine turning up to a new friend’s house and opening the door only to find their mum, dad, aunt, grandmother and second cousin twice removed all rictus-grinning at you. It was a bit like that. Sweet but also slightly unsettling.
The unsettling feeling gathered pace as we moved further inside. For a start every server looked the same: wan individuals with wide scowls and the haughty disposition of a freshly elected local councillor. The chefs too looked identical, with thick muscular arms covered with tattoos of flora and fauna. Then there was the eery soundtrack: the sound of a dozen different chefs shouting YES in unison every time a dish was ready to go out. It was fun at first. But an hour into lunch it felt like aural torture.
This slavish devotion, or what I shall henceforth called Noma-core, became more strange and frightening as lunch proceeded. It started when I left some of my reindeer brain custard (as did the table behind us) inside the reindeer skull in which it was served. This was nothing to do with the fact it was essentially brain juice, and more to do with the fact the texture was chalky and unpleasant.
The waitress looked angry as she went to lift my plate.
’Not comfortable with offal?’ she asked.
I explained that was not the case at all; rather the texture rendered it difficult to eat.
There was no smile. No apology. Only a sneer. I felt like I had somehow failed Noma.
Two courses later and my husband rose to go to the bathroom, whereby a different waitress ran towards him, gesticulating wildly for him to sit back down.
‘Your next course is coming, you’ll have to wait,’ she explained looking genuinely frightened. (The next course arrived five minutes later and was a cold salad)
Not for the first time were we made to feel we simply didn’t ‘get’ Noma.
Over the next three hours we sat through a total of fifteen dishes, 12 of which were cold. And almost all of which tasted of vinegar. (Vinegars clearly being a thing for chef, Rene Redzepi right now). This, despite it being deepest winter in Scandinavia.
By dish 13, a saffron ice cream dish which had the remarkable feat of both tasting like Play Doh and nothing, all at the same time. (‘Not a fan of Saffron?’ we were asked. NO. NOT A FAN OF ICE CREAM THAT TASTE LIKE BARBIE’S LEGS, I wanted to scream.) Noma was beginning to feel less like treat and more like an endurance test.
How could we not love it? Everyone said it was wonderful. Journalists get misty-eyed when they talk about it. Was the problem us? We were just too conservative? Too pedestrian? Too unsophisticated to understand Noma. But then I looked at the table behind us who were also pushing cold food to the edges of their hand-turned ceramic bowls.
Finally we paid the bill and stepped out in the fading light of a Saturday afternoon that had cost us over £1200 and still left us hungry. Suddenly i felt betrayed.
Firstly by Redzepi. Like most people I have always had deep admiration for what he set out to do. His locally-sourced, nose-to-penis, forage-for-your-food philosophy has influenced everything from the way we eat to even how we think about the land around us. (Would hipsters be out picking wild garlic in Britain’s woods were it not for Noma? I doubt it). But Noma now feels like a cult to worship rather than a restaurant to eat at.
I wonder if this is what happens when you’ve been at the top for as long as he has. Instead of staff who push and challenge you, you collect goggly-eyed fans. In place of journalists who keep you on your toes, you get fawning bloggers (and journalists) who worry that an unfavourable review of the world’s best restaurant says more about you than it does Noma. Holding unchallenged influence and power for too long does another thing too. It pulls at the fabric of who you once were, distorting everything. Wild ambition turns to blind arrogance. Obsession becomes myopia. You become over-indulged, forget the audience and completely disassociate from the point at hand. (Which, one presumes, was always to be both experimental AND enjoyable?).
But here’s who I felt most betrayed by. Anyone who has ever felt too frightened to speak up and tell the truth for fear of not fitting in. I looked online to see if there had been any other experiences like ours. And sure enough there they were- dozens of people who had had a similar experience. And yet, every single one of them had been met with angry, mob-like ripostes telling them they ‘didn’t understand Noma’, or that they had ‘missed’ the point. There was no reasoned discourse; no attempt to understand the other person’s point of view. It was angry and tribe-like. Irrational hissing and spitting in the name of brain custard.
Because who gets to decide what is good taste and what is bad? Is it they who shout the loudest? Is it the media, who feel increasingly so out of touch with the public they are built to serve? Or is it the individual with the meal in front of them; the curious young adult with the Roald Dahl book on their lap and the middle-aged woman who realises she has just eaten a £100 reindeer penis that tastes exactly like a Marks and Spencer’s nut salad.
A Guide To Copenhagen
Still, I did love Copenhagen. Here’s my guide to the places worth knowing in the Danish capital
We stayed here and it was great: beautiful rooms with stylish art on the walls and pine-scented beauty bits in the bathrooms. Just a few things to note. First, specifically ask not to have a room on the 3rd floor in the corner. This has teeny porthole windows and feels like a cell. We asked to move and it was a completely different experience but the same price. Also best to avoid rooms on the first floor on the side of the hotel near the pool, as it gets noisy. In my opinion this is one of the prettiest buildings in all of the city, though the surrounding area is a bit ‘gritty’. But otherwise there’s a delightful on-site bakery, a real ‘scene’ in the courtyard in the evenings and it’s still one of Copenhagen’s coolest addresses
I so wanted to stay here but you have to get in quick since it’s only one very cosy bedroom above a coffee shop! Technically this is probably the smallest hotel in all of the city, but it makes up for it in charm and location. The owner, Leif Thingfeld also owns nearby Cafe Granola which is great for a Saturday brunch and since you get breakfast thrown in for free with every stay it would be rude not to.
If it’s simplicity and location you’re after then this is for you. It has a sort of Citizen M ‘feel’ to it, with small rooms and guests being on the younger side. If you can deal with lots of beautiful young things taking snaps of their vegan lattes and laptops in the lobby then book.
Fans of Soho House will love this sexy hotel with flattering lighting, great cocktails and a central location. I found it to be a teeny bit overpriced for what you got- some of the furniture and fittings felt quite cheap but maybe that’s just me. You’ll certainly struggle to find a smarter address in Copenhagen.
THE MEAT PACKING DISTRICT
This is an entire area at the back of the railway station that underwent some serious gentrification back in the 90s. It’s just the right side of edgy- with nightclubs and lots of hipster places to eat. I can recommend Mother for pizza. It’s quick, cheap and they play Grace Jones. I’d like to have gone to Tommi’s Burger Joint but you need to get there very early to get a seat.
Despite the fact its located in a leafy suburb about a 45 minute walk from the centre of town, the fashion crowds come from afar. That’s something to do with the fact it’s run by Frederik Bille Bragh, one half of Copenhagen’s fashion sibling duo, The Bille Brahs. The food is so-so (the blueberry pancakes are the thing) but if you want to be surrounded by hip young things taking pictures to prove they were actually there, then it’s worth the trip.
This is a high end burger joint run by a couple of former NOMA chefs. That means this is your above average hamburger and fries joint. Be warned though, if you want take-out, when it’s gone it’s gone! So go early.
Think of this more like a cool coffee house that sells artisanal jams in pretty jars, rather than a bakery. That said the cakes are second to none and the local neighbourhood is a lovely way to while away a Sunday morning.
A reasonably priced cool restaurant for dinner with a lovely, cosy ambience. The same people own Les Trois Cochons, which is another good choice for a simple dinner.
Those in the know book a table at this low-lit joint. (It’s so hip, the sign outside is still the sign from the Asian restaurant that came before it, so you might be a bit confused). One of the most fun places for a late night dinner in Copenhagen. The feel is Neo-bistro, with lots of French vintage furniture, confronting art on the walls and simple, tasty food. Expect excellent people watching.
If you fancy somewhere a little fancier then try this Michelin-starred restaurant which is popular with locals on date night. Its very sleek inside with lovely little banquettes (though you must ask for those tables) and wonderful, obliging staff. The drinks selection is second to none, as were the desserts.
This is one of the city’s oldest restaurants. It’s a little out of town but the walk there is through one of the city’s most romantic neighbourhoods- Amalianborg. Lumskebugten means ‘unpredictable waters’ since the restaurant is perched on the edge of the esplanade.There’s not, however anything predictable about the food. If you do go please, please order the caviar and blinis. It is my new ‘last meal on earth’ meal. The blinis are plump little puddings filled with what I think are potatoes and cream. The point is they are spectacular. (We tried to go back for lunch the following day they were that good). Everything else is similarly stand-out. The interiors are also as pretty as a picture with blankets folded over the backs of rickety chairs and stacks of books for browsing.
You’ll spot this iconic bakery by the queue that snakes down the road. Find several different versions of the classic cinnamon bun, as well as various honeybuns, breads and ‘cakes of the month’. The packaging is super cute too.
Danes love a ceramic and you will find every brand under the sun at this grand shop. There are a shelves filled with Ferm Living, Royal Copenhagen and my absolute favourite KH Wurtz.
Speaking of things for the kitchen, this independent interiors shop is a wonderful way to while away an hour or so. It’s a treasure trove of crockery (a wider selection of the highly covetable KH Wurtz can be found here); weird cooking utensils (because every one needs seven different types of cheese slicers) and gorgeous linens.
I’m guessing this is Copenhagen’s version of Selfridges. Basically if you’re short on time but want one place to see all of the cool girl brands that Danish girls swan about it- Ganni, Baum Und Pferdgarten, Samsoe- then head to the third floor. They also have a truly exceptional chocolate selection in the basement. Summerbird is the big sweet brand the Danes all love. Take home a box of their meringues for a loved one.
This is vintage with a high-end twist. Think of it like an art gallery, except with the most delicious vintage pieces artfully hung everywhere. If you’re after some 80’s Alaia, some early doors Ganni (pronounced Gaaah-knee, who knew?) or rare Comme Des Garcons, this is the place for you.
If you don’t know this Danish brand, then you really should. It’s pricey, yes, but this Copenhagen born and bred designer creates the most delectable earrings, necklaces and rings. (I have a gold cameo necklace that I will cherish forever.) A trip to the showroom then is a must. And if you can’t afford any of SBB’ creations, then at least take home one of her cult velvet jewellery boxes, which start at £75 and come in lovely jewel colours. They are the best for travelling.
If you go with a male counterpart in need of a makeover then send him to this shop pronto for checked lumber jack shirts, artfully dishevelled cardigan and jackets (it’s a thing) and good, mannish boots.
Hay is a Danish institution serving up colourful chairs, mats and stripy candles to first time home owners. It’s sort of four steps up from Ikea, very cute and you’ll almost certainly come out with a pack of dinner candles, as I did.
Carl Hansen and Son Carl Hansen & Son
Design lovers will love the entire street known as Bredgade. Here you’ll not only find the Carl Hansen and Son flagship store, selling all their classic pieces as well as beautiful Murano glassware, but over the road there’s another Carl Hansen store specialising in hand crafted small decorative homewares. The street is also home to beautiful art galleries, lamp shops and dreamy vintage furniture stores.
Did I miss anything? If so feel free to share your favourite Copenhagen spots with everyone.