There are two memorable dining experiences in London during the Olympics. The first is at the world’s biggest McDonald’s at Olympic Park. The second is 20 special "events" by the world’s best restaurant, Noma of Copenhagen, at Claridge's in Mayfair.
Let’s deal with McDonald’s first because, like its food, the experience can be dismissed quickly and leaves no lasting memories. But the phenomenon deserves attention because of its popularity and impact on the Games.
It had been more than six years since my last McDonald's burger after a heart scare, but the reports from my cardiologist indicated I may be strong enough to withstand a single assault from a McDonald’s meal. I chose a cheeseburger and not much had changed during my abstinence; it tasted like a cotton wool sandwich with the airy bun hiding a grey disc of indeterminate origin smeared with a bright yellow substance the consistency of ear wax.
McDonald's has been an Olympic sponsor since 1976, an irony noted by many food police who fail to see the synergy between the global celebration of physical fitness and one of the international icons of the worldwide obesity epidemic. For more than a quarter of century of sponsorship loyalty, McDonald’s gets four exclusive outlets at Olympic Park and a clause banning any other food outlet from selling fries (apart from a traditional English fish and chips stand -- apparently some English things are sacrosanct, even from the grip of McDonald's).
The four outlets include one in the Olympic Village and the giant, world's largest, in the public area. Here is its story in fast-food prose: 120 staff designed to serve 1200 meals an hour; two-storey building about 40x60 metres, downstairs for ordering and upstairs for eating; Super Saturday crowds managed by controllers who allowed people to enter the building only after others had left; a 20-minute wait at regular counters but this reduced to five minutes by express service lines manned by people with hand-held registers; diners seated on the floor upstairs during busier periods; healthy food options touted in McDonald’s promotions but rarely seen in the hands of diners.
The venue has omitted perhaps the most attractive aspect of regular McDonald's outlets, the well-serviced toilets. Perhaps this is to discourage toilet visits by people not buying McDonald's fare. There is a toilet for people with disabilities, but it is not clear whether obesity or diabetes qualifies as a permissible disability.
Despite this grotesque temple to modern dining habits, it is almost possible to forgive McDonald's for all its trespasses on the Olympics because of the company's involvement in gathering and training the Games volunteers, a program that is surely one of the defining elements of the success of these Games for their friendliness, infectious humour and spontaneous smiles.
To describe an experience at Noma as a meal is a bit like describing the Olympics as a play group. Twice in the past two years, the Copenhagen venue has been named best restaurant in the world. Time
magazine this month named head chef Rene Redzepi one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Noma specialises in foraged food, using natural ingredients from the earth. Their presentation and method is workshopped for months before deciding how the food is best served. In Melbourne, one or two of the dishes at Ben Shewry's Attica comes closes to resembling the Noma style.
The 20 sessions for 170 people at Noma were the hottest ticket at the Olympics after the beach volleyball. Claridge's called for expressions of interest and received 11,000 names. When bookings opened, they were sold out in two-and-a-half hours at $A300 a seat, a price that easily doubles after wine, water, coffee and service charges.
The grand ballroom at Claridge's was transformed into a very effective light grey Nordic pop-up ambiance by interior designer Guy Oliver in a very impressive way that belied the use of chipboard and mirrors and capped with an elegant modern chandelier that looked like rotating disc-shaped mints.
On arrival, guests were handed a map of Europe showing where all the elements of the meal were gathered: truffles from Madame Babette Pebeyre in Cahors France, grape seed oil from Ritter Courivaud in Sardinia, virgin butter from fourth-generation butter maker Patrik Johansson in Sweden, beef from the Castle of Mey in Caithness, Scotland.
The scene was set by the two appetisers. The first was a small terracotta pot with planted vegetables, looking like something on anyone’s window ledge, with green leaves and two colourful nasturtiums (nurtured in Norfolk, England, according to out map). Under the surface grew some radishes and carrots. Everything was edible, we were told, even the soil.
But this did little to prepare us for the second appetizer: a sealed glass jar filled with small gem lettuce leaves (from Kent). On the leaves were ants -- live ants -- anchored on a dab of sour cream to prevent them escaping. The ants were from Jutland in Denmark, where ant man Thomas Lauren harvests them by the thousands, inhaling them through a glass straw with a bubble in the middle to trap their progress to his mouth.
Noma has used 32,000 of these ants during the Olympics, sending for more supplies after a few days when supplies were running low. A concierge from Claridge's was sent on a mercy mission to Copenhagen for an airport pick-up. His dash back from the airport was monitored by telephone and he arrived to applause just as dinner was being prepared, more triumphant than the final torch carriers at the Olympics.
The ant thing needed more explanation. Our table helpers and Noma chef Matthew Orlando explained the ants were found to have the same chemical compounds and taste as lemongrass, a taste usually associated with Asia. Noma felt this was an appropriate way to demonstrate the universality of natural foraged food and it was especially apt to bring it to England. I remain unsure whether his tongue was firmly planted in his chic. But, yes, I tasted the lemongrass.
The first of the five courses was preceded by sourdough bread and virgin butter. Virgin in this context, it was explained, meant that it was not churned as much as normal butter, giving it a more liquid feel and curdled appearance.
The Noma take on Claridge’s afternoon tea was simple and striking: a small scone was accompanied by a dish of clotted cream from Cornwall, topped with a generous dollop of caviar from white sturgeon in Belgium. As a fat/sugar/salt bomb, it matched anything on the McDonald’s menu -- but remember it was a small serve.
Soon we were served neck of lamb from Romney Marsh in Kent, marinated for 24 hours in fermented pea sauce and then cooked slowly for 48 hours. It didn't so much fall off the bone, but did a two-and-a-half twist and double pike. It was served on a bed of hay that was smouldering when it reached the table. (The hay was from Holly Hill Farm in Hertfordshire and chosen by hay consultants from Trent Park Stables. This was one of the few substances not meant to be eaten, although some diners wondered.)
The rest of the meal was a blur of oysters from Britanny, tarragon emulsion, sheep sorrel, chickweed, samphire and celeriac cooked in goat’s butter. All foods were hand-harvested and hand-cooked without the use of machines. All wines on the matched wine list were organic or biodynamic. The petit fours were potato crisps coated with dark chocolate and decorated with fennel seeds.
On the way out I encountered a young couple nursing an infant in a cradle. I warned them to keep a close eye on the baby and keep it away from the kitchen. As I left, I couldn't help wondering whether we had witnessed a defining moment in the evolution of early 21st-century cuisine … or whether it was a giant celebratory send-up, much like the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Either way, it was a lot of fun.
Then it was off to the beach volleyball, where I knew from a previous visit that the quickest place to get dinner was at the sole Healthy Food stall, the only place in London this week without a queue.
*Michael Smith is a former editor of The Age. In his 25 years in journalism, he never did a single restaurant review and he hopes it shows in this piece.