The Berries with Kakadu plum. Photo: Jason Loucas
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After landing a reservation for Noma Australia last October, I found myself in the unusual position of being interviewed on the phone by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. The journalist had discovered me via Twitter and wanted to know why I'd personally paid $485 upfront to eat at a not-yet-existent restaurant about to transplant itself from Copenhagen.
Sure, the meal was extravagantly priced, I told him, but it was cheaper than flying to Denmark to dine at Noma (a celebrated repeat "offender" at scoring The World's 50 Best Restaurants' No.1spot). Also, Noma Australia would only exist for 10 weeks – a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would only live on in people's memory banks – and I wanted to know how the restaurant would translate local flavours.
Pumpkin, lantana and barley. Photo: Lee Tran Lam
But, most importantly to me, I was a huge admirer of chef Rene Redzepi's approach to food, and had always remembered something he'd once said in an interview on Desert Island Discs.
He used to see vegetables as simple garnishes, but "I could now suddenly see them as something strong enough to stand alone, to be the lead guitarist of a dish". As a vegetarian, I wanted to see him turn these ingredients electric, and take it right up to 11. I wanted to know his amped-up take on things loosened from Australian soil and sandy shorelines, swiped from local trees and plucked straight from bushes and shrubs.
If you've followed the megawatt coverage of Noma Australia, you'll know that the menu is headlined by seafood, particularly shellfish. (Rene Redzepi's Instagram feed alone seems to be a constant carousel of which sea creature he currently is crushing hard on, ingredient-wise.)
So what's it like to eat there as a vegetarian?
Avocado confit in the barbecued milk 'dumpling'. Photo: Lee Tran Lam
There's no way to downplay it – it's flat-out spectacular. Dining at Noma Australia was one of the best meals of my life.
Only one savoury dish on the menu is fully vegetarian and it's unshakeably good.
It's a cluster of raw indigenous berries – an unruly mix of lilly pilly, muntries, riberry and lemon aspen. Beau Clugston, the Australian sous chef that serves us this dish, explains that the fruits have come from different harsh climates across the country. You can really taste the fight in them.
Shiitake schnitzel. Photo: Lee Tran Lam
The berries have such pluck and colour – sour, astringent, citrusy, slightly sweet – they're like an untamed symphony of competing pitches; every chorus of flavour hitting a different flight of bright raw notes each time. They're dusted with gubinge (Kakadu plum), which feels like a native version of the sherbet that would power your recess break in school – both wild and unlike the sugar-blowout flavours of a school canteen. A seaweed oil of hard-roasted kelp and salted berries dials up everything further.
Some dishes I try are vegetarian variations of the standard Noma Australia menu. There's a "porridge" of golden and desert oak wattleseeds, enveloped in salt bush leaves and topped with bubbles of zippy finger lime.The wattleseed is beady and crisp, and the other ingredients keep unfolding new flavours of green – it's like descending down different Inception levels of green.
This dish is usually made with an oyster emulsion, while the barbecued "dumpling" is a toasted milk crepe that typically is a hiding spot for marron and magpie goose. My version is a delivery system for nasturtium and super-caramelised avocado confit and tart bubbles of finger lime. It's fantastic. ("Some of us actually prefer the vegetarian version," explained Redzepi.)
The scallop pie is made without its key ingredient; what I receive is an ultra-nutty pastry made with roasted baker's yeast, beeswax and grapeseed oil. What might sound like the ingredient list of lip balm is actually umami-loaded and earthy as hell. Remember those mud pies you made as a kid? Imagine if they actually tasted like gritty, nutty magic.
Instead of the famed abalone, my schnitzel is created with shiitake mushrooms, grilled and pressed in a terrine. The big star of the dish would be the little stars that circle the schnitty – the native condiments, such as the bunya nut that outlasted the dinosaurs and the under-the-radar mat-rush that brushed past your legs on so many childhood visits to the beach.
Two dishes are stand-alone originals. There's the slice of pumpkin that's been luxuriously confited in rye oil and beached on a fermented barley sauce that's essentially Noma's version of beurre blanc. It's lightly rich and has a multi-dimensional creaminess – and is as vibrant as the spectrum-rich lantana petals that float on top of the pumpkin.
There's also zucchini and unripe bananas cooked, skin on, directly on hot coals, and served with egg yolk, miso and lemon thyme. My boyfriend (not at all a vego) loves this dish and its straight-up vocabulary of smoke, cinders and char. The heat time-lapses the raw, unready fruit into something with sweet, coal-kissed punch and power. It's also amazing.
Noma Australia is a plate-by-plate trip through the country's rainforests, bush and shorelines – and I loved every detailed minute of it. I'm also grateful that the vegetarian dishes were no afterthought and could be headliners in themselves, like the lead guitarists that Redzepi mentioned.
So how often does the restaurant serve an on-request vego menu?
"Every day," says Redzepi. "And I don't mind the challenges. We're always experimenting. We're working right now with the cooking liquid from the wattleseeds – it tastes like chicken broth with roasted nuts in it. I'm not sure it will go on the menu, but it's fun to test."