Thursday, April 29, 2010

Noma! El Bulli No More Numero Uno

A restaurant lives and dies by the quality of the food it serves. That's the bottom line, plain and simple. Yes, food presentation, service and atmosphere do play their own parts as well but at the end of the day, isn't the food really what people go to a restaurant for? Now, if you are Ferran Adria, the Catalonian molecular gastronomy guru, the restaurant becomes your culinary playground-cum-laboratory and the food, well.....it becomes the stuff of almost science fiction. As for your your guests, they become sort of like privileged children who gets to play in that playground every 6 months out of the year.


The new culinary discipline of molecular gastronomy has gained prominence in the culinary world thanks in large part to Adria's creative genius in dazzling his guests with outlandish food creations like spherical olives, powdered yogurt, parmesan marshmallows, gorgonzola shell, popcorn cloud, melon caviar and various savory foams (here is a link to a gallery of Adria's creations). Adria's playful and almost whimsical ways in redefining and reinventing how we look at food is ingenious and certainly one of the most original ideas in the restaurant business in a very long time.

El Bulli, Adria's famed 3 Michelin Star restaurant is located in the town of Roses on the beautiful northeast coast of Spain. In 2006, El Bulli ascended to the throne of being named the world's best restaurant, an annual list compiled by Britain's Restaurant magazine, and has stayed on top ever since. Known as The "S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant," this list, whose influence is debatable, has been published since 2002 and in the 8 years of its existence, only 4 restaurants have been honored with the best restaurant title, with El Bulli claiming an astonishing 5 of them (it also came out on top in the inaugural 2002 list). After playing second fiddle to England's The Fat Duck (another molecular gastronomy restaurant) in 2005, El Bulli has never looked back since. (Here's a list of books that has been published about El Bulli: A Day at El BulliEl Bulli 2003-2004El Bulli: 1998-2002 and El Bulli 1994-1997)
However, in January 2010, Adria shocked the culinary world by announcing that El Bulli would be closing its doors permanently at the end of the 2011 season, putting an end to one of the world's culinary meccas. Adria also announced that it will reopen in 2014 as an academy for advanced culinary studies. As to why El Bulli was closing, Mr. Adria revealed that the restaurant was losing as much as half a million Euros a year and was not able to sustain this level of financial loss any longer.

On the heels of that shocking El Bulli announcement comes the brand new 2010 list of the world's 50 best restaurants. Revealed just a few days ago, the list puts a sort of a coda on El Bulli's waning influence on the culinary world. After 4 years on top, El Bulli has finally been dethroned and is replaced by Noma of Copenhagen, Denmark. Noma was placed no. 3 in the 2009 list and has leapfrogged both El Bulli and The Fat Duck to become numero uno for 2010. Unlike both the restaurants that it beat to get to the top, Noma is not another forerunner in molecular gastronomy but features cutting edge regional and seasonal Nordic gourmet cuisine.

Here are the opening paragraphs of how Noma describes itself:

At noma, we aim to offer a personal rendition of Nordic gourmet cuisine, where typical methods of cooking, fine Nordic produce and the legacy of our common food culture are all being subjected to an innovative gastronomic approach. Carrying this line of thinking further, we view it as a challenge to play a part in bringing forth a regeneration of Nordic culinary craft, in its capacity to encompass the North Atlantic region and to brighten the world with its distinctive tastiness and special regional character.

What you will find here at noma is not centered so much on olive oil, foie gras, sun-dried tomatoes and Mediterranean black olives. We’ve been busy traveling around in the Nordic regions and we have been finding a number of simply phenomenal ingredients that we have flown into town for our use: Horse mussels, deep-sea crabs and langoustines from the Faeroe Islands, which are living right up until the moment they are served to our visitors. Halibut, wild salmon, cod and seaweed and curds from Iceland. Lamb, musk ox, berries and the purest drinking water from Greenland. In much the same fashion, we are constantly scanning for new sources of inspiration in Denmark, especially, as well as the other Nordic regions, for purposes of securing reliable sources of top-quality raw produce. This pertains both to very costly ingredients and also to ingredients of a more everyday character that we feel have come to be overlooked in the formulation of a salient Nordic approach to cooking: cereals, hulled grains and legumes, which you will come to experience here in the context of surprising preparations.

In a sense, this changing of the guard is an appropriate statement to how we see the culinary world today. Yes, experimentation, cutting edge food science and originality do have their places in this world but clean, regional, fresh and sustainable have become key ingredients to dining out. And Noma is now a perfect example of that concept.

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