February 12, 2017
“Fine dining is bullshit.” This is quite a widespread sentiment among my peers and colleagues. I too share some of this cynicism — fine dining is more often than not a creation for expense accounts rather than sensible culinary fulfillment. Hong Kong is as guilty of this as any place on Earth; a combination of high operating cost and the need to fly in most of the ingredients translate to astronomical prices. Even when I have spare cash I am very reluctant to spend it on dining in Hong Kong.
Soon after the launch of 108, Noma’s less-expensive offshoot run by Kristian Baumann, René Redzepi’s decision to offer a $600 tasting menu in Mexico, where the average daily income per person is $15, draws a lot of flak. Fair or not, it is easy to ridicule a famous chef’s vanity project and his jetsettering clientele, despite Redzepi’s pledge to support interns and students at his pop-up.
Only 100 m from Noma, 108 is trying to carve out its own identity, especially in regards to accessibility with $15 lunch options and several walk-in tables each night. Baumann admitted initially he has difficulty expressing his own style after spending so much energy on understanding Redzepi’s, but a few staples have emerged. The food and atmosphere are generally well-received and just a few months after its opening it has received a Michelin star.
Again I arrived late, this time after a longer than expected sunset shoot at Børsen, but fortunately my table in front of the kitchen had yet been assigned to others. The former warehouse has high ceiling and a simple and slightly industrial decor. To settle down I ordered a glass of 2013 Alsace Riesling from Pierre Frick, a practitioner of biodynamic since 1981. The wine was high in minerality, nuttiness and green fruit acidity with a slight note of cheese rind in the aftertaste.
I ordered five items from the à la carte menu. First up was a plate of raw shrimps with green strawberries and oxalis petals. Catch off the coast of Skagen, the northernmost point of continental Denmark, the shrimps are marinated overnight with salt and rose oil. Similar to the Canadian spot prawn, a common sushi ingredient with extremely soft texture, the gentle seasoning brings out an unmatched sweetness in these pink shrimps. The petals aren’t merely decorations — they provide a hint of crunchiness to the mix.
The braised oxtail with pine turns out to be a reimagination of the Japanese street food takoyaki (octopus ball). The oxtails, braised and seasoned with shallots, coriander and lemon thyme, are then stuffed in a wheat flour-based batter and deep fried. The finishing touch is a glazing of fermented barley, pine needles and a sprinkle of salt.
This dish combines several Noma trademarks: foraging, fermentation, inspiration from other cultural sources. Yet it doesn’t quite work for me — I personally am not a fan of takoyaki’s soft batter, and the main reason why the snack is so beloved by many is the contrast of texture between the batter and the chewy octopus. Here both the batter and the stuffing are soft, and the pine adds an unusual but mostly superfluous dimension.
A side note on how Noma and 108 conduct their foraging. A few times each year the staff would go on foraging trips and collect several tons of their desired ingredients, which are then stored in the kitchens’ freezers. The pine needles were collected back in August.
The winter beetroot with hot-smoked veal heart and blackcurrants probably best represents the frigid season. The heart oozes an intense smokiness and bloodiness, which is supposed to be offset by the sweetness of the beet, pickled rose and blackcurrant. I see the thinking behind it — a crossover of two winter ingredients of different tastes and textures. But they don’t compliment each other well when eaten together; I can’t decide if the beet’s sweetness overwhelms the heart’s bloodiness or verse versa. A strange dish.
Main course was Caramelized milk skin with grilled pork belly and watercress. The milk skin serves as a wrapping to hold the ingredients together. The pork belly is a savoury mass of fattiness that melts in the mouth. The greens provide a little freshness as a counterbalance. Rich and filling.
Unlike Noma, Baumann doesn’t limit himself to use solely local ingredients. An example was my dessert, an ice cream imbued with seaweed from the eastern Hokkaido town of Rausu and toasted bailey. Consumed with blackcurrant wood oil, this was one of the best ice cream I have ever had, with silky smooth texture, rich flavour and a lovely smokiness from the seaweed.
At the end of the evening’s first round of service, René Redzepi dropped by to visit his crew. I had a very brief chat with him, touching his thoughts on 108, Noma 2.0 and the upcoming pop-up in Tulum. Upon returning to Noma he introduced me to Baumann.
The bill came to 760 DKK (1 USD = 6.95 DKK), including wine, service and credit card surcharge. I was already full before dessert, and the price was reasonable for such quality. I agree with the general consensus — for a fraction the price 108 offers a high quality Nordic dining experience with many Noma elements. With time it might achieve a higher consistency dish to dish.
Like any kind of consumption, dining presents a wide range of options. Anyone who does their research can usually discover options that fit their palate. While not exactly cheap, a meal at 108 is about four to five times more expensive than a typical sit-down dinner in Hong Kong with utterly forgettable food. The memory at 108 will last much longer.
Address: Strandgade 108, 1401 Copenhagen, Denmark
Opening hours: 17:00 – midnight