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COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Claus Meyer, co-founder of Denmark's famous Noma restaurant, became a star chef by using local and seasonal Nordic produce. His new Copenhagen restaurant Nam Nam turns that concept on its head with street food from equatorial Singapore.
Nam Nam samples the cuisines of the different ethnic communities that live in Singapore - Chinese, Malay and Indian - and its menu reads like a selection from a food court in the city-state: roti prata pancakes, laksa soup, beef rendang stew, char siu barbecued pork and chili crab.
Taking the classics of the Chinese-Malaysian "Peranakan" kitchen to a fine-dining level, everything is cooked and presented with that mix of simplicity and sophistication that made a name for Noma. The food is not greasy, like it can be in some Singapore food stalls, and the spices give flavor but do not burn the tongue.
Nam Nam uses local vegetables from Meyer's gardens and Danish free-range pork, but it imports all the key ingredients like sambal sauces, chilis and pandan leaves from Asia.
Meyer does not care if that seems to contradict the all-local, all-seasonal philosophy behind Noma, which has been voted world's best restaurant in the S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna list in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
"When people said that the Noma guy says you can't eat lemons or kiwis, because they are not Nordic, it hurts my heart," Meyer told Reuters.
He said Nam Nam is a statement about his love for ethnic food, but most of all it was his way of helping his Danish-Singaporean friends and business partners Michael and Tin Pang Larsen, who had to close their restaurant a few years ago.
"I have had some of the best moments in my culinary life at their table, and it would be unjust if this food were not accessible anymore," he said.
With a new location in central Copenhagen, sleek interior design and, most of all, the Meyer brand that is a magnet for foodies world-wide, one-year old Nam Nam is thriving. Night after night, it packs in a hip Danish crowd as well as some of Copenhagen's many culinary tourists.
Anyone on a tour of Copenhagen restaurants would find it difficult not to leave some money in the pockets of Meyer, a serial entrepreneur who co-owns three restaurants and three delis, and runs a corporate canteen that delivers lunches for 14,000 people every day.
This month he opens a new restaurant with a cooking school outside Copenhagen and in October he will open a jazz club with three restaurants across the harbor from Noma.
Meyer says that while he is a very good cook, many chefs are better than him, and his strength is that of an entrepreneur, who creates and judges flavor, as he does at Nam Nam.
"I never challenge the sambals, but I do make suggestions on how to cook the meat and which dishes to serve," he said.
Singapore food stall owner Wee Liang Lian, in Copenhagen as part of a Singapore street food festival organized by Meyer, said one cannot compare the Nam Nam cuisine with the Singapore original, but he's found the East-West fusion very appealing.
"We applaud Nam Nam for adapting the traditional way and putting a new twist on it," he said.
"Street food" is a bit of a misnomer for Nam Nam, as Singapore's popular food is not served by the roadside, like in Thailand, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations, but in open-air, covered "food courts" where each stall serves one particular cuisine.
Prices too are on a higher level. A food-court meal in Singapore will set you back just a few dollars. At Nam Nam, we paid 766 Danish crowns ($140) for three, including drinks, but it was the highlight in a week of trying out some of Copenhagen's best restaurants, including "Manfreds", "Kodbyens Fiskebar" and Meyer's own "Radio", run by former Noma cooks.
Some of the Nam Nam food is distinctly un-Singaporean, like the goat cheese roti prata, and the creamy yoghurt dip, which nicely cools some of the spicier dishes.
The most incongruous item on the menu hides among the desserts: macarons. Not Danish and certainly not Singaporean, but they were as fluffy and delicate as any found at French luxury baker Laduree in Paris.
$1 = 5.5649 Danish crowns