Monday, May 02, 2005

Restaurant 12: Nora's

LOCATION: 2132 Florida Ave, NW Washington, DC
DATE: April 29, 2005
FOOD: Warm Wild Mushroom Soup served tableside with a Lobster Croquette; Spinach with Roasted Beets, Goat Cheese, Shaved Red Onion, Aged Sherry Vinaigrette; Spring Leg of Lamb in Garden Herb Crust with Chickpea Tabbouleh, Baby Zucchini, Tomato Confit, Olive Jus; Ginger Creme Brulee with Pumpkin Seed Brittle; Ginger Shortcake with Strawberries and Whipped Cream;
BEVERAGE: ½ bottle of Gewuztraimer; Glass of House Red Wine
PRICE: Ask my mom and give a happy birthday to my father

Traditionally, my dad likes his birthday to be a bit anti-climatic. Unlike the rest of the family, he, true to his humble Wisconsin background, desires only a home-cooked meal completed with fresh strawberry-rhubarb pie. But, because we now see each other so infrequently, we decided to take his birthday show on the road and sample a culinary showcase of Washington, D.C. We had originally intended to go the Mid-east Mezze focused up-and-comer, Zaytinya, but after my six hour fiasco on the Chinatown bus and a great deal of collective hunger, we didn’t want to wait an hour before even being seated. My mom remembered loving Nora’s on a previous visit, so we all fell ass-backwards into a thoroughly delightful meal at the country’s first officially designated organic restaurant. How do I know this (not the ass-backwards part, of course, which I’m all too familiar with, but the organic aspect)? Nora’s commitment to organic ingredients occupies the entire backside of the restaurant’s menu, including this historical tidbit, “In April 1999, Nora received organic certification - the first restaurant ever to achieve this designation - meaning that 95% or more of all ingredients used in the restaurant must come from certified organic farmers, growers and suppliers.” Clearly, Nora’s focuses on serving only the best to their customers. For the most part, Nora’s succeeds in this mission marvelously.

To my mind, fresh mushrooms are the food equivalent of mixed-genre literature. Countless variety, innumerable combinations, and the unforgettable and mind-blowing fact that you’re eating fungus(!!) make these rubbery forest growths as eclectic as Cormac McCarthy’s prose. One such permutation is mushroom soup, which apparently Nora’s has decided to reinvent and perfect just because they can. My first course was spectacular from start to finish, from the opening stanza of the soup being poured tableside from a tea kettle-like device, to the first liquid bliss spoonful, to the unexpected explosion of the lobster croquette that I had saved to the near end. The lobster biscuit, outfitted with corn kernels, seemed to tip its hat to New England’s chowder and put the soup in a broader perspective. The soup was an act of devotion, looking and tasting like fresh mushrooms, without the fatty tongue deadening that heavily cream soups typically have, Nora’s foray into the forage closer to sautéed chanterelles than Campbell’s condensed.

My father, mother and I were about as united as Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh on the salad course, each of us opting for something different. I went with the spinach, goat cheese and beet salad, with a sweet and tangy sherry vinaigrette and red onions. The salad was above average, but missing some key components to be truly great. Firstly, it would have been well accompanied by the crackle of some walnuts (or more adventurous sunflower seeds). Secondly, the cheese on all three of our salads came in huge blocks. This resulted in a lack of integration with the greens, reminding me that a good salad is only as good as the sum of its parts. No one ingredient should dominant the others, but with huge cheese chunks, it was hard to avoid this. My mom had the same complaint about her salad’s Roquefort triangle that went largely uneaten.

On the entrees, though, Nora’s rebounded like Ben Wallace. My mom went with the succulent scallops, tenderly grilled and excellent. I cannot vouch for the halibut which my father ordered, other than to say that he enjoyed it so much his plate was empty before he thought of offering the rest of the table a nibble. However, I was more than content with my choice, getting the Mid-East flavors I had missed from Zaytinya in Nora’s Moroccan spring leg of lamb with chickpea tabbouleh. North African spices flitted through this Casablanca fusion of American and Mid-east cuisines, the lamb hearty enough to make even Bogart happy to stay in the desert. The chickpea puree was impressive as well, akin to hummus, but without an overwhelming garlic plunge, and a silky consistency allowing for a perfect spread or dip across the lamb’s vermillion meat.

My dessert, the ginger strawberry shortcake, was disappointing. The cake itself was too dense, more like a dried out buttermilk biscuit than an appetizing dessert. While the strawberries and cream were alright, I didn’t taste even a hint of ginger until my final two bites of the dish, spending the rest of the time wondering if the kitchen had perhaps forgotten the headline ingredient altogether. However, my mom had ordered astutely, selecting the ginger crème brulee with pumpkin seed brittle and I ended up devouring half of this dessert. The ginger they forgot in the shortcake, the kitchen remembered in the crème brulee and the taste was refreshing and light, like a Chinatown ginger rock candy. The pumpkin seed brittle would be an ideal post-Halloween indulgence and the dual crunches of the brittle and the brulee’s scorched top were an awesome combination, especially when paired with the ginger cream.

Thus, despite a few minor lapses, overall Nora’s cannot be described as anything but astounding. I would happily order the soup, lamb or crème brulee again and it’s remarkable to see that a restaurant can passionately dedicate itself to nutritional concerns and still manage to whip-up innovative and delicious creations. Nora's was a great way to ring in my dad's __ (let's leave it up to the imagination, shall we?) year, a menu not overly daring, but nowhere near boringly mundane and for palate's of all sophistications. In a Washington food scene that has in my experience fallen far short of New York’s, Nora’s excellence measures up anywhere.

RATING: 7.7/10

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