London - “Do you need an antacid?” quips Bill, one of my dining companions. I've just eaten my second helping of live ants. Yes, ants. That are alive. This is Noma, named for the past three years as the world's best restaurant, decamped from Copenhagen to London for a 10-day pop-up at the fabled hotel Claridge's.
The “real” Noma gets about 100,000 booking enquiries a month, such is its reputation; the place seats just 40. Chefs battle to serve a stint in its kitchens to learn at the elbow of René Redzepi. He is seen by many as a food visionary, using foraged ingredients and borderline bonkers presentation (pots of edible soil, anyone?)
So I'd been expecting a hushed reverence and po-faced foodies (after all, the £195-a-head event sold out in two hours). But the hotel ballroom thrums with chatter, led by Noma's main man himself. Instead of hiding away in the kitchen, marshalling the 110 staff that will cook for and serve 178 guests per sitting, Redzepi, 34, is strolling around the room, clad in a crisp brown apron and answering our questions about, yes, ants.
The creation, listed, sensibly enough, as “Ants” on the menu - has become the talked-about dish.
Redzepi tells me his ant-hunter, who has already brought in 27,000 insects for the pop-up, is heading back to Denmark today for more. Gathering them is laborious: he finds the four anthills in which this particular species lives, then sucks them gently with a straw into a tiny net at the end. They're flown to London to be served in a glass kilner jar as they scramble over cabbage leaves dressed with crème fraîche.
If this sounds like so much gastronomic claptrap, a dish designed to make headlines, not excite palates, that might be 50 percent true. Everyone in the room either giggles or grimaces, but everyone I can see gives it a go. The overwhelming flavour is lemongrass, there's no texture to speak of, and once you've chewed once, the ants are no more. I can report that there's no wriggling.
But there's so much more to experience at A Taste Of Noma. A miniature tea and scones comes with caviar atop the clotted cream; what looks like a baked potato (is this the reinvention of a student supper special?) turns out to be a roasted celeriac on a slick of black truffle cream. Beef tartare with sorrel, juniper salt and tarragon cream was, head chef Matt explains, all made by hand. “And so we want you to eat it by hand.”
We've already been told to “dig in and get dirty” with a pot of crudités in that soil. I didn't expect finger-licking dining. Luckily, hot towels are at hand. The standout dish is perhaps the most traditional - 48-hour-cooked neck of lamb (seen as a humble cut) is served on smoking hay, accompanied by vegetables that have been barbecued on the roof of Claridge's - how cool is that? We pick and suck the very bones of it, so delicious and melting is the meat. Where are those hot towels when you need them? We finish with a plate heaped with dark red, white and beige powders. This tricksy ensemble is a delectable combination of dried berries, frozen yoghurt and crisped ground oats, with walnut ice cream.
And then it's over. I'm given a hand-drawn map of Great Britain (with corners of Denmark and France) that illustrates where each ingredient has come from. My head is spinning, my belly is full - it has been a feast for all the senses.
And, unusually for a celebrated restaurant, the pace is brisk; Japan's biggest pop star is in one corner, apparently, but there's barely been time to rubberneck. The place is thick with London's own star chefs (for whom is trade is down, thanks to the Olympics). Stephen Hawking and Jamie Oliver have already been in; alas, not together. And Stella McCartney is visiting tomorrow, I'm told. She'll be having the veggie menu. Without ants, I assume. Shame, everyone should try ants once … -