If I was an investor interested in creating a new high-end restaurant in Norway, or a restaurateur looking to hire the next talented chef out there, I’d look to Bergen right now. More specifically, to a pop-up restaurant called NOMNK. Every six months since 2016, Simon Nilsen (21) has arranged a multi-course dining experience focused on ancient Norwegian cooking traditions and local produce, combined with a modern mindset and creative thinking. Together with his colleagues at restaurant 1877, chef apprentice Stian Leon Holme, chef Marius Martinsen, and waiter Alexander Johansen, Nilsen hosted the 4th edition of the event this April. Finally, I found my way across the mountains from Oslo to Bergen to take part.
NOMNK – A New and Modern Norwegian Kitchen
I first heard about Simon Nilsen in March 2015, even before the first NOMNK pop-up. Words about his talent got to me from the Oslo merchant Joachim Anker-Karlsen, who had Nilsen as a customer in the kitchen supply shop where he worked back then. Simon would come into the store and buy the kind of equipment that no other 18 year-olds would buy, and Anker-Karlsen understood that he was something out of the ordinary. As a young chef apprentice, Nilsen quickly grasped that school hadn’t prepared him for the real world out there.
– The idea of NOMNK came about as a result of me realizing that I didn’t know enough about the Norwegian kitchen, Nilsen explains.
The name NOMNK means Nytt Og Moderne Norsk Kjøkken, which translates to a new and modern Norwegian kitchen. Nilsen’s grand vision is to help create a new fundament on which to base the Norwegian cuisine. By going back to our roots and traditions, while at the same time adding new knowledge and a more modern approach to cooking, Nilsen wants to contribute to the evolution of the Norwegian kitchen.
– A lot of the dishes are inspired by restaurants where I’ve worked, like Maaemo in Oslo.
Chef Esben Holmboe Bang is perhaps his biggest inspiration because of his decision to use only the Norwegian kitchen as his foundation. Furthermore, Simon mentions Rasmus Kofoed at restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen, where he also staged for a few months. Kofoed is a perfectionist known to take the simplest of ingredients and transform them into something brand new. Last, but not least, René Redzepi of Noma, who is considered one of the main founders of the New Nordic kitchen.
A Multi-Course Tasting Menu
Starting with twenty-five servings the first year, the number of dishes have gradually been reduced and currently counts eighteen. Each dish at NOMNK contains only a handful of ingredients in order to better highlight each individual product. Use of salt and spices as flavor enhancers is limited, instead, the team deploys natural additives like homemade vinegar, and various pickled and preserved elements.
– We get our produce from local farmers and fishermen. Most of the shellfish comes from Scalmarin in Øygarden, while the butter and milk are supplied from the wonderful Aud Jensen at Voss. Of course, we also go foraging for a lot of the ingredients ourselves.
One of the signature dishes at NOMNK is a butter porridge that stems from the old food traditions of Northern Norway. Farmer’s had access to basic products like butter, milk, and flour. From these simple elements, they made porridge. Nilsen and his team combined this classic recipe with a meadow cress vinegar gel from a previous experiment and discovered that it worked very well to give acidity to the fatty dish. Finally, to add even more sweetness and umami, they use honey-cured egg yolks that are dried and shaved on top.
– One of my favorite dishes of NOMNK is the leek cooked in browned butter and beer, which is served with caramelized cream, hazelnut crumble, and two-years-old pickled hazelnuts, Simon tells me.
This happened to be one of my personal top dishes too. From the salty browned butter to the sweetness of the heavy cream and onions, to the crunch of the crumble and, finally, the acidity from the hazelnuts that completely balances the dish.
The NOMNK Experience
We arrive at restaurant 1877 in Bergen a little later than 18.30 in the evening. From the booking e-mail we know that the event begins at 19.00 sharp, and we have no intention of being late. The hostess guides us upstairs, to the restaurant’s banqueting room. Coats are hung, seats are taken, bubbles are poured, and we find time to study the menu that is provided on the table.
Shortly after, service commences. The entire NOMNK team enters the room and Simon Nilsen takes us all through the concept. We learn that the menu we’re about to experience has been created over the course of the six months that has passed since the previous pop-up. Nilsen developed the menu on his days off, with assistance from Stian Leon Holme.
The first course is a shellfish and cabbage bouillon. Rich and warming. Similar to the way a meal starts at Bokbacka in Oslo, or even at the new Noma 2.0. A juniper-marinated salsify and juniper kombucha provides a refreshing transition to the next serving of potato cake french fries made with the cheese Min Gode Nabo Sverre and toasted yeast. A dish that could have been even better if served warm, or at least lukewarm, in my opinion, but it’s understandable that a kitchen staff of only three people come with certain limitations that have to be offset by a lot of mise en place and pre-made elements.
The bread serving of NOMNK easily passes as one of the better I’ve come across. A fatty potato pancake saturated with butter and cream, glazed with a stock of fenalår (salted, dried and cured leg of lamb), and served with whipped Vossasmør (the butter from Aud Jensen) and shavings of fenalår. You are left craving for more, but the chefs quickly move on to the next course.
A lovely dish of cucumber spheres marinated in cucumber juice, horseradish juice, and two-years-old pineappleweed vinegar, is served with herring roe from the Barents Sea and sweet alyssum flowers in a Rocky Bowl from Odd Standard. A provocatively sharp sting from the horseradish, but I like it.
Another of my favorite NOMNK plates arrive next. Beets that have been grilled hard on 250°C for two and a half hours, giving them that soft, chewy, texture, and bringing forth the root vegetable’s intrinsic sweetness. Paired with thinly sliced discs of raw beet, acidic white currants, and tarragon oil.
A fresh cheese with tomatoes and parsley is a Norwegian take on a classic Caprese salad. A great idea and the taste is lovely, but the tomatoes could use some more work to really make it stand out. Mahogany clams from Scalmarin in Øygarden, which are between 90 and 150 years-old, are served raw with oxalis, and a juice of fermented red cabbage and nettle vinegar. There’s a special kind of respect reserved for moments when you eat or drink something that’s older than yourself, like a vintage wine or a marine mollusk from the deep ocean.
I’m particular about my mahogany clams, though, and this dish does not make my top list. A single Norwegian scallop, perfectly cooked, with nothing else than reduced birch sap poured over, does, however. We learn that it takes 100 liters of birch water to make 1 liter of sap. Wow! The water can only be extracted during cold nights that follow warm days, which adds to the glory of this dish.
After the aforementioned leek and butter porridge dishes, which are both among the very best, we end with a marvelous dessert. Honey ice cream with a browned butter hazelnut crumble, lemon thyme and meadowsweet is way up there on the deliciousness-o-meter of Esben Holmboe Bang’s sweet creations. I can also see the evident Maaemo inspiration in this one, but Nilsen has made it his own.
The Future of Norway’s Food Scene
I salute restaurant 1877 in Bergen for allowing and supporting their chef’s apprentices to experiment at such a high level and to host these amazing pop-ups. Also, I find it refreshing in an environment where the trend is moving away from tasting menus and fine dining altogether, that someone dares to challenge that. There’s no doubt in my mind that both Simon Nilsen and his partners in crime will be important contributors to the future food scene of Norway. The menu of NOMNK was not perfect, but it was definitely impressive given the young age and limited resources (both money and labor) of these talented people.
Can you believe that Simon just finished his chef apprenticeship in February this year? During that short time, he has staged at Geist, Geranium, and Maaemo in addition to working at 1877. Perhaps equally important to their success is the fact that Simon and Stian regularly travel to eat at some of the best restaurants in Scandinavia. I know that because I follow them on social media, and I sometimes think they are trying to keep up with me! Working hard, saving money, traveling, and getting inspiration, all to develop their own skills and spur the creativity. They’ve won my respect and more.