Sun 13 Jul 2008
In the world of organic dining, just about everyone is a chef-come-lately to Chef Nora Pouillon. Restaurant Nora was the first in America to be certified organic and after 11 years with the title it remains only one of four in American restaurants to earn that certifcation. This means 95% of Nora’s menu items are certified organic. Items not certified, such as the morel mushroom and leek tart (since wild harvested mushrooms cannot be guaranteed organic), are noted for diners.
The organic philosophy at Nora goes beyond menu items. The restaurant installed a special water system so all water in the building – from the tap water on your table to water used to clean produce – has been triple filtered to remove chlorine, bacteria and metals. The soap in the restrooms is organic (and smells lovely, by the way). Even the shirts worn by servers are 100% organic cotton.
But we didn’t make a reservation at Nora to marvel at the organic-ness of it all. We went for the food.
Luckily for us, the food is excellent. Mike and I went to Nora recently to celebrate his
30th second 29th birthday. Notified ahead of time that we were celebrating a birthday, the restaurant printed “Happy Birthday Mike!” on our menus and everyone from our server to the table runner wished him well. (This was especially amusing since at first Mike was so focused on reviewing the entrees he didn’t see his name and thought the entire staff has amazing, birthday-detecting superpowers.)
The full seasonal menu boasts New American dishes such as Amish duck liver and pistachio pate and sake glazed scallops. Mike and I opted to go with Nora’s tasting menu. Mike started with a remarkable chilled cucumber and basil soup that came with smoked shrimp, tomato salsa and creme fraiche. This soup is summertime distilled into a single bowl. I wish I could have it every single day. My first course was a dressed up caprese: a local beefsteak tomato cut into generous slices with woodstock water buffalo mozzarella and sprinkled with anchovies, baby corn, baby arugula and a lemon terragon vinaigrette. I’ve always loved a fresh caprese salad but it never occured to me how much the salt from the anchovies and crunchy corn added to the dish.
For the second course, Mike selected the baby zucchini and blossom stuffed with goat cheese. The blossom was lightly battered and fried which created a nice offset to the goat cheese. I opted for the lump crab salad with guacamole, tomatoes, ancho chili lime vinaigrett and tortilla chips. It was a delicious fusion of southwest flavors with the fresh seafood. This crab salad was all killer, no filler – light, fresh, delicious crab meat the brought out the flavors of all the ingredients.
Our main courses were the only disapointing element we had with the restaurant. Mike’s asparagus and morel risotto had all the flavors but the texture was off. Iinstead of clinging together to create moist, rich bites, the grains of arborio were too seperate. When we make risotto at home, this is usually the texture we have before adding the final cup of grated parmesan (and dash of butter, if it is winter time and we’re feeling crazy). The dish came with a parmesan chip and we wondered if that was meant to replace the final parmesan step in the risotto. My pan roasted, grassfed filet mignon was fine except that it was overcooked: I requested medium-rare and the kitchen served a warm, pink-centered medium. Our server noticed as well and offered to have the kitchen fire up a new piece, but I declined.
There are two options listed on the chef’s tasting menu for dessert but the server let us know we could select our choices from the full dessert menu, which was nice. I already had my heart set on the molten bittersweet chocolate cake and Mike selected a slice of seasonal fruit pie. We both selected port to accompany our final dishes (heyyy, we were celebrating). My cake was delicious but Mike totally out-ordered me on the dessert. The berries in this pie tasted as though they had just been plucked that morning and the flavor simply burst in our mouths. The top lattice crust was so rich and buttery it could have doubled as shortcake.
A note about the wine menu at Nora’s: The wine list is thoughtful, extensive and pricey. In lieu of wines by the glass, Nora’s offers about a dozen options of half-bottles which I thought was interesting. Mike and I happily shared a syrah and it the quantity was ideal – it came to about 2 glasses per person which lasted the entire meal. However, I can see the half-bottle not working as well with larger tables or folks who truly only want a single glass with their meal.
Nora’s serves up quality fare and this is reflected in the service, the menu options and, ultimately, the price. A chef’s tasting menu runs $70 ($65 for the vegetarian option). If you opt to order a la carte, expect to pay $12 for a salad and around $30 for an entree. We thought this was fair considering the quality of ingredients used and the high-level of service. The decor of Nora’s is simple Amish country. Nora has several antique Amish quilts hanging on the wall and the atmosphere is neither stuffy nor casual. This isn’t a sleek hipster joint but instead a very comfortable environment that is also parent-friendly.
It is worth taking into consideration that Nora’s restaurant is highly seasonal. I’m curious what fresh local ingredients they serve in January but I’m much more comfortable making a reservation during a lush DC summer.