RENE Redzepi’s charisma can charm dragons. Through two decades, the Danish chef’s lofty gastronomic ambitions and unfussy approach to hospitality turned his Copenhagen restaurant Noma into a culinary magnet — paradoxically inaccessible to most diners, yet enchantingly popular. He has withstood controversies, relocations, critics, closures and Michelin’s long refusal to give him a third star, before it finally relented in 2021.
Those charms have made Noma the restaurant that gastronomes have to get to when they visit not only Copenhagen but any place in the world Mr. Redzepi decides to set up shop. That’s why I flew all the way to Japan from London. He had brought Noma to Kyoto, making it the center of the gourmet universe for the season. Every foodie wanted to be there.
I’d never been to Japan before this Spring. And yet I kept running into people I knew. I was at a table in a humble izakaya in Ebisu, Tokyo — of which there are innumerable in Tokyo — when a photographer I know only from Instagram called out to me from the counter. He was headed for Noma’s pop-up at the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, too. Of course, we discussed who else was headed there.
Foodies were flying into the country from Hong Kong, London, New York, Mexico City, Adelaide and elsewhere. My booking was for dinner, but lunch at the hotel was a particular magnet for famous chefs keen to see what Mr. Redzepi was cooking up. David Muñoz of DiverXo in Madrid was in attendance at the same time as Rasmus Munk, who runs the extravagantly theatrical Alchemist, the latest Copenhagen rival to Noma.
The world is an enormous place, but the community of food lovers can make it feel like a small town. And like any community, privilege is key to standing: Booking at Noma Kyoto’s very limited run (March 15 to May 20) provides bragging rights for a lifetime of dinner conversations.
I’d missed out on the restaurant’s other incarnations — Tokyo, Tulum, Sydney — so I was determined to be present for this one. I jumped on the reservation queue back in November 2022 as soon as it opened and got a table for four in a scrum that filled out the Ace immediately. (I later tried to change the booking, but it was impossible; I was told to sell my spots if I couldn’t make it. I reordered my work schedule — and life — instead.) At Juugo, a monastic but delicious little soba shop in northwest Kyoto, I met a couple from Hamburg who’d been on the waitlist for months and hopped on a plane when a place opened up for them at the last minute.
The table-grubbing was worth it, along with the price tag (775 euros — $853 or £681 — plus 10% service charge, wine or juice pairing included). The meal was magical. Mr. Redzepi has spent years cultivating relationships with suppliers in Japan, first with his 2015 Tokyo pop-up and then with his ill-fated but critically acclaimed entry into the Tokyo’s restaurant scene, Inua, which fell victim to COVID’s shutdown of the global economy.
That commitment to local farms has paid off with exceptional produce in Kyoto — from tofu to tomatoes to seafood, including kinki, a large-eyed fish prized for its unctuous flesh, silky texture and vibrant color. Appropriately, there are places in Japan with the name Noma, which can mean “amid the field” or even “amid the wild.” It’s a good match for the way Mr. Redzepi sources and forages for the very best products: the most vibrant citrus from farms in southern Japan, the perfectly in-season crunchy yet tender bamboo shoots, the plumpest swordfish belly. His long relationship with Japanese fermentation techniques is in full display: with koji cakes and miso tartlets, probing savory depths.
The dinner was a showcase not only for nihonshu — what’s called sake in the broader world — but for Western-style wines cultivated and produced in Japan. Japanese wines I’ve had before tended to be one-dimensional, designed to be drunk with specific food. The bottles served at the Ace were revelations: complex and fun all on their own. Among them, the 2020 Fumizuki Blanc from Hakodate in Hokkaido and the 2019 A Hum from Hokuto, Yamanashi.
Yet as Japanese as the ingredients and drinks were, the language spoken by dishes was Nordic: the piney, floral, sweet-and-sour, musty, fermented culinary lexicon that Mr. Redzepi has taught global gourmands to love. There was a shabu-shabu with seaweed instead of meat and vegetables with what I believe was a touch of bergamot in the bubbling broth, and the luscious sashimi of swordfish in an equally luscious pool of kelp butter. Noma’s vaunted trompe l’oeil and culinary wizardry was also in evidence: a gorgeous rose carved out of an intense tomato; a delicately sliced bamboo shoot splayed like a pale rainbow by an iridescent dashi of tea and squid; beautiful green rice — every grain as polished as a cultured pearl — served with crab and rose petals. Almost everything was a pièce de résistance — so much so that a lobster with sancho pepper and its fiery red head as a baroque ornament, a marvel in any other space, seemed almost ordinary.
Noma Kyoto was a transubstantiation: the soul of Copenhagen embodied in Japanese ingredients. It’s the kind of culinary metaphysics Mr. Redzepi has executed before with other kitchen traditions, but it comes off as high art here in the sophisticated, tradition-bound old capital of the archipelago.
But for all the mileage I plan to get out of my Noma Kyoto experience, the meal in Japan that’s truly burnished my foodie status was in Tokyo. I got to eat at Nihombashi Kakigaracho Sugita in Tokyo, acclaimed as the best sushi restaurant in the country. A 22-course extravaganza, it’s even more difficult to get into than Noma Kyoto: It might be the toughest reservation on Earth. The best way to snag a spot at the counter — which can fit nine people — is to come as a guest of a Sugita regular. And if you think I’m giving up the identity of my regular for your benefit, think again.
I will remember both Noma Kyoto and Sugita forever. But I’m likelier to get back to Noma (albeit in Copenhagen, and maybe just once or twice more before it closes at end of next year). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to return to Sugita.
Still, here’s a tip for other culinary status seekers. In an offhand conversation, Mr. Redzepi told me that he’d like to do an autumn version of Noma Kyoto. So, get ready, get set… — Bloomberg