Noma pops up in Japan

Rather wonderful: Fermented shiitake mushroom in dark chocolate.
Rather wonderful: Fermented shiitake mushroom in dark chocolate. Photo: Jill Dupleix

Sydney chefs pop up in Melbourne restaurants, Melbourne chefs pop up in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong chefs pop up in New York. Chefs these days are busier popping up than chopping up.

The Big Poppa is, of course, Heston Blumenthal, who is moving the Fat Duck restaurant holus-bolus to Crown Melbourne for six months from February 3, with $525 a person reservations available only by ballot, but the most audacious of the "here now, gone tomorrow" trend-setters must be Rene Redzepi, of Copenhagen's Noma, the world's No. 1 restaurant for four years, who has just moved to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo for five weeks, until February 14.

At about $420 a person for lunch or dinner, it's cheaper than dining at the Fat Duck, but don't get excited. Seats sold out within hours, and there are 60,000 people on the waiting list.

Native produce: Hyokkori pumpkin, cherrywood oil and salted cherry blossom.
Native produce: Hyokkori pumpkin, cherrywood oil and salted cherry blossom. Photo: Jill Dupleix

Unlike Blumenthal, who will be essentially recreating the celebrated dishes of the Fat Duck in Melbourne, Redzepi is cooking food he has never cooked before. He and his research and development chefs, Lars Williams and Thomas Frebel have visited Japan seven times in the past year, sourcing suppliers, meeting farmers, and scouring the vast Tsukiji fish market for ideas and ingredients, to create a kaiseki-inspired (multi-course) menu based purely on Japanese native produce.

"The easiest thing would have been to bring all the foodstuffs from back home, but we don't want to just copy Noma," says Redzepi. "To be truly inspired, we had to be more than just culinary tourists."

Along the way, they sampled Japanese ants, mountain grapes, larvae from lethal hornets, venison tongue, horsemeat, and farm-raised snapping turtle. Foraged local plants were tasted and tested, five kinds of local woods were processed into oils and broths, and 40 different lacto-ferments and garums (sauces resulting from fermenting) were tested in readiness for opening night.

Assorted Japanese citrus and long pepper.
Assorted Japanese citrus and long pepper. Photo: Jill Dupleix

The Noma team hasn't just moved into the 37th-floor Signature Restaurant, but it has dismantled and rebuilt it, to reflect the innate simplicity and nature-driven traditions of Japan and the utilitarian naturalness of Danish design. The conversations between Redzepi and the Mandarin Oriental's general manager, Anthony Costa, mark a significant shift in thinking from restaurant pop-up to restaurant-in-residence.

Denmark's famed Carl Hansen & Son was commissioned to design the oak tables and chairs, and 13 different local Japanese artists and artisans created every serving plate, tray, bowl and utensil used.

The cost of the tableware alone was greater than the total cost of flying the 77-strong Noma team, including the dishwasher, from Copenhagen to Tokyo. "We need to sell these objects afterwards, piece by piece, or we're in the shit," says Redzepi. "It's a mind-bending exercise to risk everything coming here. We still don't know if we are going to break even. To pay the rent on Noma in Copenhagen and here in Tokyo, it is a lot of pressure."

Truly inspired: Rene Redzepi says the Noma team wants to be more than just culinary tourists in Japan.
Truly inspired: Rene Redzepi says the Noma team wants to be more than just culinary tourists in Japan. Photo: Arsineh Houspian

Clearly, it hasn't been done solely as a money-making exercise. "We wanted a life experience for the whole team," he says. "Being here throws us off balance. That is good. Who knows what will happen?"

Of the 6500 diners who will pass through Noma's residency, more than half are Japanese. The big surprise is the number of Australians, including a family of six from Sydney who built their three-week holiday around their Noma reservation, making up one-third of the bookings.

"Australia and Noma have always had a special affinity", says Redzepi, citing the long-serving Australians on Team Noma, from sous-chef Beau Clugston(Coffs Harbour) to restaurant manager James Spreadbury (Adelaide) to team leader Katherine Bont(Sydney).

The dining experience itself is slightly surreal, with chefs producing 16 consecutive dishes during three hours. One, a delicate, thin-shelled tart topped with astringent wild kiwi and shavings of fingernail-sized freshwater clams (the sort lurking in the base of every Tokyo bowl of miso soup), requires 3850 raw clams to be opened by hand for every service, lunch and dinner. Thirteen people do this, for four hours, twice a day.

At one point, a whole roasted wild duck – not shot, but caught by traditional saka-ami hunting nets – is brought whole to each table, before being dissected and returned in all its beak-to-claw glory with a blood-red matsubusa berry sauce.

Another dish is a play on zaru soba, the "noodles" thinly sliced cuttlefish coated in fermented cuttlefish, ready to dip into a resinous broth of pine and rose petals. Another is a glossy black "leather" made of black garlic, folded origami-style into a leaf. Yet another is a crystalline hokkai ebi prawn, still twitching, dotted with citrus-spiked black ants from the forests of Nagano in western Japan. It's all very Japanese and, strangely and rather wonderfully, it's also very Noma.

MENU SAMPLER

Assorted Japanese citrus and long pepper

Shaved monkfish liver

Just-steamed tofu with wild walnuts

Sea urchin, maitake mushroom and cabbage

Scallop dried for two days, beech nuts and kelp

Hyokkori pumpkin, cherrywood oil, salted cherry blossom

Garlic flower origami

Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day

Fermented shiitake mushroom in dark chocolate