Nora enjoys quite a distinguished pedigree... The building that now serves as home to the restaurant was originally constructed in the 19th century as a grocery store... but you'd never know it. The walls of the rustic main dining room are decked out in antique Mennonite and Amish crib quilts. There is also a wine cellar, garden room, and parlor, all of which add to the feeling of stylish intimacy.
But Nora's real claim to fame came in April 1999 when it was knighted America's first certified organic restaurant. "This means," according to their website, "that 95% or more of everything that you eat at the restaurant has been produced by certified organic growers and farmers all who share in Nora's commitment to sustainable agriculture."
And this commitment is also carried over to the restaurant's related activities: their custom blend coffee is roasted by the James Cannell Organic Coffee Company; servers' shirts are made of 100% certified organic cotton from Cottonfield USA; heat and air conditioning are made possible by renewable resource energy; and menus are printed on 100% acid-free post-consumer recycled paper with environmentally sound dyes. And since the restaurant was the scene of a surprise birthday party for the First Lady back in January, it has become the social and political "place to be" as well as a culinary cause celèbre.
To the grab 'n' growl crowd all this probably sounds like just so much gastronomic and semantic mumbo-jumbo; but since my wife and I are very much into organic foods, recycling, and sustainable agriculture, it is this restaurant's unswerving commitment to these endeavors that attracted us in the first place.
But "the proof of the pudding," as Cervantes reminded us, "is in the eating." And it is here that Nora appears to stumble just a bit. On the positive side, the menu changes daily, duly noting those fruits and vegetables that are in season and utilizing them to the fullest possible extent. Obversely, chef/proprietor Nora Pouillon's creative new-American cuisine can be, at times, a bit too creative. Presentations - especially entrées - have a great deal going on; and the multitude of ingredients occasionally strike one as being downright convoluted rather than complementary.
... And the wild Alaskan Halibut is a case in point. The filet shares the plate with caramelized fennel & sautéed wild mushrooms on one side and a roasted tomato half & dandelion greens on the other. No problem. But then things get a bit dicey. The halibut arrives at table basking in a pool of pea purée tinged with mint; and that probably would have been just fine, had the chef not felt compelled to throw in a spirited splash of lemon vinaigrette, which significantly queered the gastronomic pitch. This was a marriage that was definitely not made in heaven.
Another problem with this dish was that the fish was decidedly undercooked. When properly prepared, halibut should exhibit a snowy white countenance yet still be moist and flaky. The specimen proffered here was translucent at the core and, at the same time, not terribly flavorful... or maybe it was just the hodge-podge of other components that ganged up and succeeded in stealing the show. Halibut is an exceedingly pleasant mild flavored fish that is easily overwhelmed by accoutrements that are too assertive - and that was clearly the problem here. Delicate denizens of the deep are, in my opinion, best served by sauces (and other ingredients) that intrude the least.
The Amish veal roast suffered from similar maladies. Once again, the list of ingredients seemed to go on ad infinitum, ad nauseam: wild ramp, spätzle, fava beans, baby leeks guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig's jowl or cheeks), carrots, dandelion greens, and charcuterie sauce. Unlike the hapless halibut, however, the veal was well able to withstand the assault... but the meat had its own problems. Like the fish, it was undercooked; it also exhibited a rather strange, off-putting consistency. Not the kitchen's finest hour.
Appetizers fare somewhat better, undoubtedly because the ingredients are less prolific and more circumspectly chosen. The Prince Edward Island mussels, for example, utilize a "variations on a theme" approach to a tried-and-true formula. It helps, of course, that the bivalves are plump, succulent, almost ethereal on the palate, and at the very peak of good health. But they also come swimming in a first-rate broth that is buttressed by chunks of tomato, chorizo sausage, red onion, and fennel. The crowning touch is a generous crostino smeared with an addictive garlic aîoli.
The local red beet salad, a picturesque presentation, is another excellent starter. Diced beets are diagonally arranged with strawberry halves, orange segments, generous crumbles of feta cheese, and a beet tuile. On the down side, even though a splash of pomegranate vinaigrette added a rather provocative consummatory touch, the dish remained surprisingly bland.
Desserts, in my opinion, have the most going for them, as they are the least burdened by culinary hangers-on, thus allowing fresh, local ingredients to speak with a clear unencumbered voice. The local strawberry & lemon curd tart is sheer delight. The strawberries are just sweet enough, the lemon curd sufficiently tangy, the crust properly textured, and the crowning touch a simple dollop of whipped cream.
Then, of course, you also can't go wrong with either the local rhubarb pie or the strawberry & peach crisp, accompanied by strawberry and vanilla ice creams, respectively. And for purists, there is also a praise-worthy assortment of artisanal cheeses.
The Bottom Line: I did enjoy dining at Nora. The ambiance is comfortable and pleasant, the service knowledgeable, the wine list excellent... but I was somewhat disappointed in the food. Ingredient-wise, as I mentioned at the outset, there's a great deal going on here... sometimes, in my opinion, more than the palate can comfortably endure. Many chefs have attempted these highly-stylized constituent-heavy innovative infusions - usually at their peril - precious few have succeeded. I would humbly suggest to Ms. Pouillon that, when it comes to creative cookery, less is often more.
The Artful Diner
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Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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