Noma Mexico – the third international pop-up restaurant by René Redzepi and his team. Destination of choice: the touristy beach paradise of Tulum. A small town south of Playa del Carmen and one and a half hours drive from the closest airport in Cancun. The venue: a jungle restaurant carved out and naturally designed around the trees. Close to 5000 tickets were ripped away within a day of them going on sale. We secured our table in December last year, and after a short stopover in San Francisco, we headed to the Quintana Roo region of North-Eastern Mexico.
Noma the Nomad Restaurant
Did you believe that Noma is closed? While the restaurant has been removed from all official listings (including the Michelin Guide and the World’s 50 Best) and is moving to a new location next year, it never actually shut down per se. Everyone in the Noma family is still there. The most influential restaurant in the world is simply not stationary, neither at its physical location nor with its cooking. Noma has become a nomad restaurant of sorts, with a base in Copenhagen. Their philosophy, at whichever place they are situated, is to cook with indigenous ingredients and learn the local cooking techniques. That’s why Redzepi and selected key team members spent months exploring Mexico last year – its cuisine, ingredients, history and culture. They got to know the people there, learned from them, and worked with them. Chili as a flavor enhancer, which is not used in the New Nordic cuisine at all, seems to have been one of their most substantial discoveries – even dubbed the sixth flavor by René.
“I use from three to ten seconds to saw through each of the coconuts, depending on the quality.” – Gaute Berrefjord, chef de coco at Noma
Understanding the Noma Mexico Pop-up
To get the ultimate experience you would have had to follow René Redzepi on Instagram. Through his daily dispatch of ingredients, you could watch René slice open bright yellow mangos, regional mamey fruits and guanbana, cocoa beans, huge jackfruits and all sorts of weird berries. He took his viewers through the kitchen, where they cooked without electricity, and casually chatted with his staff members so we got to know each and every one of them better. Like his head chef Benjamin Paul Ing who wore long socks at work every day despite the heat. Ali Sonko, the dishwasher who has worked at Noma for more than 10 years and just became a co-owner. Not to mention, Gaute Berrefjord, one of the Norwegians at Noma, who’s sole task at Noma Mexico seems to have been sawing coconuts in half. “I use three to ten seconds to saw through each of the coconuts, depending on the quality,” Gaute later revealed to us as we toured the pop-up kitchen.
The Noma Mexico Experience
We grabbed a taxi from our hotel, Azulik Resort and Maya Spa, and paid 70 pesos to get to Noma Mexico further down the beach strip. Half a week in Tulum had taught us that 70-100 pesos was a fair price for a ride along the waterside – more than that and the drivers weren’t being completely honest. Mads Kleppe, the beverage director and yet another of the Norwegians at Noma, showed us to our two-top table. Hedda was wearing heels as always, so Mads encouraged her to kick them off and stick her feet in the sand (she did). He filled our glasses with a cooling Champagne from Jacques Lassaigne to accompany the first snacks. One of only three glasses of wine that was included in the drink pairing it would turn out. The rest were juices, cocktails, beers and, of course, mezcal. Soon, our first dish arrived: Piñuela with tamarind. A cactus fruit that has to be prepared in a certain way to be edible (if not you would be left with blisters in your mouth), marinated in tamarind and decorated with coriander blossoms. An intense acidity – sweet and tart at the same time. Noma Mexico was finally happening! We had looked forward half a year.
“We’ve never tasted something so pure and beautiful. So we made a dish that has all the fruits which blew us away.” – Rosio Sanchez
All the Flavors of Mexico
A quick succession of three superb dishes followed: the melon clam, the cold masa broth, and the local fruits. Naturally sweet melon clam from the Sea of Cortez had a pure flavor of sea, gently lifted by the squeeze from a sour mini orange. A cold masa and mussel broth, which was like drinking liquid tortillas, came with crispy local flowers and a berry granita. Then, a tamarind broth with chili oil and a variety of local fruits presented by Rosio Sanchez. She’s an American of Mexican descent, and a former Noma chef turned taqueria owner in Copenhagen, who returned to cooperate with René on the Noma Mexico pop-up. “Some of the best things we’ve discovered on our trips is that all the fruit here tastes absolutely amazing. We’ve never tasted something so pure and beautiful. So we made a dish that has all the fruits which blew us away.” They sure did to us as well, especially when their flavors were enhanced by chili and citrus. In the glass was a refreshing mead with wild honey made in cooperation with the Mexican brewery Cervecería Escollo.
My Favorite Dish – Young Coconut & Caviar
Salbute – a puffed tortilla, with dried tomatoes, beach herbs, and grasshopper seasoning – was more interesting in texture, and pretty in its presentation, than it was exciting in flavor. The next one up, however, was a highly memorable course and probably my favorite. Namely, Gaute’s responsibility: young coconut and caviar. “We cut the coconuts down before they are fully developed,” Gaute explained, “the meat is like jelly – make sure to get some of that and a bit of the coconut cream and caviar with every scoop.” We sure did. The sweetness and rich mouthfeel of the coconut fruit combined with the salty and creamy caviar, bitter and sour local lime peel, and crispy Japanese seaweed salt, was ever so fulfilling.
Surprising and Exciting Flavors and Textures
Restaurant manager James Spreadbury served us a ceviche of mini-bananas. Plátanos manzano, to use the local name, had been cooked in their skin for four hours. They came in a charming-looking ceramics bowl, sliced, with roasted seaweed oil and a marinade of burnt banana skin. I expected the dish to be sweet and mushy, but instead, it had plenty of crunch and the dominant flavors were salt and chili. Surprising and exciting. Less intriguing to me was the chaya taco with oyster, which tasted mostly of that – cabbage and sea. Quickly making up for it, though, was the fun Michelada cocktail encapsulated within a bulb of giant kelp. It popped in the mouth and had the consistency of eating raw sugar snaps.
“This is the one that people not from Mexico always go: Woha. I’m actually gonna eat a pile of ant eggs?” – René Redzepi
From Ants to Ant Eggs!
Hedda loved the grilled pumpkin from Oaxaca filled with avocado, tomatillo, and herbs. It somehow brought forth memories more of Copenhagen Noma than the jungle pop-up to me, but it was hearty and flavorful. Tostadas with escamoles was a quick snap back to reality. Ant eggs! Of course, Noma had to top their anty reputation by serving ant eggs. Presented by Mr. René Redzepi himself: “This is the one that people not from Mexico always go: Woha. I’m actually gonna eat a pile of ant eggs?” Hedda and I, however, had managed to taste them two days prior at restaurant Mur Mur nearby. There, they were used in a sort of risotto, delicious as such, while Noma put them on a tostada. Sadly, this one failed to impress me. It tasted mostly of the grilled tortilla, but who cares when you’re eating ant eggs, right? By the way, if you expect them to be slimy and weird, they are not. Quite ordinary, in fact, with the texture of white beans or cottage cheese and a mild, nutty butter flavor.
The Iconic Octopus Plate
I think the octopus dish will become iconic for Noma Mexico, and a dish they might replicate with a Nordic twist once back in Copenhagen (just like they did with the crab and egg yolk from Noma Australia). Extremely tender meat in a so-called dzikilpak sauce made from toasted pumpkin seeds. Apparently, the recipe is six pages long and takes an equal amount of days to prepare. First, our waiter explained, the octopus is massaged with salt by hand for half an hour. It is then blanched and wrapped in corn husk which has been cooked underground and left for 3-4 days. The corn leaves give the octopus a sweet, smokey and fermented flavor. The whole thing is then encased in a masa dough and baked under charcoal for about an hour.
“We Just Can’t Make Tortillas Like the Locals”
Earlier in the meal, the whole roasted pork was presented. Mexican Creole hairless pig, also known as Cerdo Pelón in the native tongue, had been barbecued in keg grills in the backyard together with leftover juice from Gaute’s coconut massacre. Now, it came as a taco in the corn tortillas made by local Mayan woman that Noma’s security guards transported back and forth to their home village every day. “We just can’t make tortillas like the locals,” our waiter admitted. It was a tasty pork taco, but definitely needed the optional topping of “al pastor” banana for sweetness and the local lime for acidity. Clearly, there were no plans of leaving us starving by the end of the night, which became evident when the next dish arrived: grilled hoja santa leafs glazed with a scallops paste and served with Rosio’s mole. A rich, spicy sauce of chocolate, chilis, nuts and a bunch of other ingredients which our current waiter, Danish Mette Søberg, didn’t even know about. The Sanchez family secret! I can see why it’s well kept, and I am glad we got extra tortillas to scoop it up. “The only dish inspired by a Noma classic, but the mole makes it Mexican,” Mette revealed.
Memories of the Best Ever Noma Dessert
Noma desserts always make me happy, and the Tulum twist was no exception. Grilled avocado with ant paste (they just can’t help themselves! *insert tear laughing emoji*) with an avocado ice cream and mamey seed oil brought back memories of one of my all-time favorite Noma desserts. Rosio Sanchez once created the epic combination of potato puree, plum compote, and a cream flavored with the plum seed. The latter gets a marzipan-like flavor, which happens to be the same taste you can extract from the mamey seed! “Except this is much less hassle since the mamey seed is huge compared to the tiny plum kernels,” Mette told us.
Lastly, a Mixe chili filled with chocolate ice cream of local cacao. This dessert had to be made by the chefs in one of the cooler rooms. Imagine traveling to sunny Tulum and getting that job! Apparently, Norwegian chef Eline Bordvik was among the lucky ones. “You can eat the entire chili,” Mads Kleppe explained, “but beware, some of them are extremely hot. You’ll know if you get it. We’ll know too.” Reassuring! The Mexican chili gods were with us on this dream-like evening, though. So was the Norwegian coffee God Tim Wendelboe. Together, Mads and Tim had selected the coffee farms and roasting profile of the beans. “I brew filter coffee in the morning, add honey and a reduction of sour orange, before I cool it down. The result is a floral, juicy, fruity and cold coffee drink. That’s what you want in this heat,” Mads finished. So did our meal, a magical one as such, after a quick kitchen tour with Gaute (who has given me the tour on 4 out of 5 Noma visits) and some final cocktails in the bar.
Noma’s Take on Mexico’s Produce
Noma Mexico was never an arrogant attempt at improving the Mexican cuisine, as some critics were eager to suggest. In fact, René said they would never be able to cook Mexican food as well as the locals, who, after all, have thousands of years and generations of skills and knowledge passed down. Nor was it a pursuit to make a Nordic-Mexican fusion kitchen. Noma Mexico was simply Noma’s take on Mexico’s produce. The local fruits, vegetables, and plants of the country seen through they eyes of Redzepi and his R&D team. A unique and different menu developed by the world’s leading restaurant – to be enjoyed by foodies from near and afar. More than anything, I think it was a humble learning process for the Noma family. “So, was it the ultimate, life-changing meal?” a friend of mine asked me the other day, suggesting that the pop-up was unreasonably hyped by Noma’s fan crowd. No, Noma didn’t alter the way I view food, but they certainly taught me a lot more about Mexico’s vast natural resources. And it wasn’t just a thought-provoking meal, but also a delicious dinner all the way through. A journey into the jungle that I would not be without, and could easily have repeated had it not been a limited once in a lifetime experience. Today, May 28th 2017, is the last day of Noma Mexico.
Read what some other select foodies think about Noma Mexico:
Did you attend the Noma Mexico pop-up and which ones were your favorite bites? Please share in a comment below.