• What happened when René Redzepi went meat-free at his acclaimed restaurant (short version: the results were spectacular). (Lee Tran Lam)Source: Lee Tran Lam
You’ve seen the celeriac shawarma on Instagram. But what was the world-leading restaurant's Plant Kingdom menu actually like?
Lee Tran Lam

8 Oct 2018 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 2 Oct 2018 - 3:36 PM

René Redzepi used to undervalue vegetables. Then he realised they weren’t just simple garnishes, but strong enough “to be the lead guitarist of a dish", he told Desert Island Discs, back in 2014.

This year, the chef behind Copenhagen’s Noma, gave these ingredients enough power and decibel range to turn vegetables into full-volumed, onstage megastars. The celeriac shawarma, for instance, became a recognisable international hit after Redzepi posted a picture of it – in caramelised, slow-cooked and charred glory – on Instagram in July (after dropping a demo version on his social media accounts in April).

The celeriac shawarma was the blockbuster course on the Plant Kingdom menu, which Noma served during Denmark’s warmer months, until the season ended recently. It’s the second menu that the restaurant has presented since its reboot in February. Noma – which has been named the World’s Best Restaurant four times – moved into its new location earlier this year. The site was chosen for the area’s link to progressive communities and nothing captures such thinking better than the power plant across the water – which looks cartoonishly like some evil construction you could imagine Captain Planet trying to righteously shut down. It seems at odds with Noma’s wildly overgrown garden full of sunflowers and its understated building complex, which includes three greenhouses and a farmhouse-style dining room that’s in tune with the landscape.

But the apparently sinister incinerator is anything but: it's actually an “ultra-green waste-to-energy power plant” that’s also an artificial ski slope (yes, imagine blazing downhill among those plumes) – and is part of Copenhagen’s plans to become the first zero-carbon capital in the world. It might seem strange to devote so much attention to the smoke stacks across the lake from Noma, but it’s telling that both buildings are by the same architect: Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).

Just as the background intel about those waste-generating towers make you rethink what you’re actually seeing, so does the hidden-in-the-fine-print revelations about Noma’s interiors (by architect David Thulstrup). The unshowy main room includes solid-oak flooring from 200-year-old trees; a central counter is made from salvaged timber that’s just as old and naturally darkened after all the time it spent in the harbour; and the walls are fashioned from planks that are discreetly held together by 250,000 screws

Similarly, the vegetable menu is also full of impressive creations that quietly contain a staggering amount of work. Like the celeriac shawarma, for instance.

“It takes four people most of the day to slice and build the shawarma,” says Hugh Allen, an Australian chef who has been at Noma full-time since April 2016 (his CV also includes Melbourne’s Vue de Monde and Rockpool Bar & Grill). While it looks like something that’s cooked on a spit, the celeriac dish is actually cooked like a terrine.   

“It takes four people most of the day to slice and build the shawarma.”

“Firstly, we slice and vacuum-bag the slices in truffle juice and brown butter, they are then steamed for 15 minutes and iced down until cold," he says. "Then it’s layer by layer built in a rectangular mould; between each layer, it’s brushed with truffle purée, a linseed fudge, and celeriac purée.”

At times, Allen got to parade the shawarma throughout the restaurant, giving the ultra-savoury dish its close-up, before it was presented on a plate with a Finnish hunting knife. You’re given slices of sourdough (by ex-Tartine baker Richard Hart) to help soak up the celeriac juices and the mushroomy, burnt butter sauce it’s served with.

Analiese Gregory, the head chef from Hobart’s Franklin, named this course as one of the menu highlights, for “its ridiculous meaty richness”.

She also loved the “fruit ceviche” layered with green and red strawberries (Firedoor’s Lennox Hastie called this “the dish that made the biggest impression on me” and Chat Thai’s Palisa Anderson said it was “delightful”, although the Scandinavian dolma, with “immense flavours” extracted from the poached cucumber skins, was also a close favourite).

Given Gregory’s extensive experiments with mould at Spain’s Mugaritz, perhaps it’s not surprising that she name-checked the “mould pancake” with plum kernel ice-cream and balsamic vinegar (sourced from Massimo Bottura) as another knock-you-out highlight.

Perhaps a dish with the word “mould” would shut down your appetite rather than inspire it, but Acme’s Mitch Orr breaks down the dish’s appeal pretty easily: “the mould pancake was basically an ice-cream sandwich … you can't go wrong with that.” (It helps that it didn’t taste or look scandalously mouldly; the pancake had an earthy, wheaty flavour, like eating a tortilla wrapped around a cold, creamy dessert.)

“The mould pancake was basically an ice-cream sandwich … you can't go wrong with that.”

Orr also ranked the dish made of thin, crisp layers of caramelised milk as another standout, because it was essentially “a truffle cheese toastie”. (He is right.) Both dishes were technical wonders, but also had enough comfort-food familiarity to hook you in.

You could say the same about the sea buckthorn and blackcurrant butterfly, which looks like a multicoloured lollipop and tastes like a Roll-up from your childhood.

Surprisingly, that was one of the “most stressful dishes” to make, because it “takes days of different steps to prepare” and “you’re stuffed” if something goes wrong, because there is no quick fix, says Allen. It’s a reality that isn’t so obvious when you scroll through the eye-catching Instagram imagery that diners post from their Noma table.

Given Noma’s international standing, it’s not surprising that the Plant Kingdom menu left an impact on the Australians who dined there. “The whole conversation of ‘vegetable-forward dining’ can only be helped by having one of the most talked-about restaurants in the world backing it up,” says Anderson, who also runs Boon Luck Farm in Byron Bay and “was extremely fortunate” to visit the farm where many of Noma’s organic vegetables are grown.

“I spent a morning chatting with Richard Hart in his greenhouse bakery out the front about bread, starters, feeding, flours, wood-fired ovens versus decks, which was illuminating,” says Gregory. Her visit to Noma hasn’t just upped her sourdough game, it also gave her a creative push: she wants to be more experimental with vegetables and not worry about guests who ask “where is the meat?”; she’s also isn’t going to take Tasmania’s short veg-growing seasons for granted, either. Hastie, meanwhile, left “fascinated by Noma’s fermentation programme” and the way the restaurant propels vegetables to their upper limits.

"The whole conversation of ‘vegetable-forward dining’ can only be helped by having one of the most talked-about restaurants in the world backing it up.”

While Orr thinks it’s pointless to put yourself in the same league as Noma (because it would be “so unachievable”), the experience can resonate in other long-lasting ways.

“Seeing them integrate ingredients, flavour profiles and techniques they've picked up from their different pop-ups [in Japan, Australia and Mexico], shows that even the restaurant most of us think is the best in the world isn't ever finished learning.” 

Reservations are currently open for Noma’s Game & Forest season. The Plant Kingdom menu returns next year, after the Seafood season.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam. 

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