Noma Australia: first diners share their verdicts
Crab, marron, seaweed and delicious green ants. They were challenged, but the first customers of Noma Australia give it a resounding thumbs-up.
As far as invitations go, it was like being asked to the Oscars – or at least the Arias. An ice-blue cardboard square arrived in the mail, half an inch thick and embossed in silver lettering, express posted from Audi Australia. Could it be?
'Join us to experience the flavours and creativity of award-winning chef Rene Redzepi with 56 special guests to celebrate the all-new A4.'
As someone who would consider flying – or perhaps swimming – to Copenhagen for a seat at the original Noma, I almost started sobbing all over that gorgeous, ice-blue invitation.
Popping up at Sydney's new Barangaroo precinct for just 10 weeks, Noma Australia booked out in four minutes, and there's an optimistic waiting list of 27,000 people keen to pay around $485 per head for 12 innovative courses (and that's without the $215 natural wine pairing).
Is it worth the hype? In a word: definitely.
It was more than dinner. It was theatre, it was art. Was it wanky? Nah. Not really, I promise.
While some flourishes might sound slightly eye-rolling, it never felt pretentious – in fact the evening was surprisingly casual. Redzepi himself personally welcomed every diner, which on this night included actor Richard Roxburgh and chef deluxe trio Matt Moran, Kylie Kwong and Shannon Bennett.
The whole experience (dare I say it? the Journey) was an education and a revelation. Redzepi enlisted teams of researchers to scour the country for the best native ingredients and delivered a brave and irreverent take on Australian cuisine that arguably could only have come from a foreign gaze.
The first taste of the night, for example, was Noma's version of notorious antipodean drink the Snakebite, poured from an unlabelled flagon. No raspberry cordial here, but a subtle cider-beer hybrid made in Tasmania's Derwent Valley. Delicious.
Every detail was of the highest quality, from stunningly thin, brilliantly clear glassware, to earthy wooden cutlery and vibrant clay bowls and plates seemingly ripped straight off a pottery wheel.
Candles flickered on bare tables adorned with bush flowers, kangaroo fur was draped over the back of perfect leather armchairs, gauzy curtains shimmering over a distant view of Darling Harbour, the terracotta floor burning underfoot like the red centre.
A revolving cast of 85 Viking-esque staff clad in sand-coloured linen were cheerfully candid, teeming in and out of the spot-lit open kitchen like dancers on a stage.
The highlight dishes
And what about the food? While it wasn't always traditionally delicious, the diverse plates were always inviting and inventive. In contrast to another fine dining pop-up, last year's Fat Duck at Melbourne's Crown, Noma wasn't overly tricked-up – no melting fob watches here.
The dishes were largely meat free, save for a hint of kangaroo juice in a heavenly bowl of snow crab and cured egg yolk, or a whisper of chicken stock that lifted a shard of sticky crocodile fat atop fresh oysters, mussels and treasures from the sea.
A bowl of tart, sour Australian berries arrived dusted in a shower of dried plum, followed by a flamboyant, taco-like tortilla made of burnt milk filled with rich marron and magpie goose.
Then a thick fillet of abalone, crumbed like the world's fanciest schnitzel, fried golden and served alongside sprigs of verdant herbs and a small bowl of syrupy, umami gravy.
Sweet and sour
For dessert? A palate-cleansing sliver of mango studded with peppery tree ants with a cube of marinated fresh watermelon and a chunk of hibiscus pineapple: excitingly new, but reassuringly familiar.
Then two riotous takes on Australian icons: a lamington, light and frozen and whispered with rum, tamarind and grated milk, and finally the Redzepi spin on the Golden Gaytime (dubbed the Baytime for copyright reasons), peanut milk set on a twig of lemon myrtle, covered in toasted freekah instead of chocolate, centred with salted caramel, a fittingly decadent finale.
"Are you full?" asked one of our (many) waiters, a bright young thing from Osaka, suggesting that if we weren't, we could reasonably ask for seconds.
But the night was coming to a close, and we lucky 56 spilled outside to a scattering of tables on the harbour, where a small but perfectly formed bar was open for a final nightcap. It was smartly stocked with rare orange blossom gins, craft whiskies, sake, vermouth, and ice-cold sparkling white.
I drank a glass, and then another, not ready to let the night end. A glossy Audi arrived to take me home, and as I sat in the back scrolling through snaps on my phone trying to remember the best bits, I was simultaneously elated and melancholy.
I was happy that it was as good as I'd hoped, but a bit flat that it was over, and I might never get an invitation that fabulous again.
Oh well ... there's always the Oscars.
The writer was a guest of Audi's Lifestyle Experiences program.