The waiter in the gray-green hemp shirt, purchased from Patagonia and laundered in the basement with biodegradable, phosphate-free detergent, fills your glass with triple-filtered water and sets down chunks of bread baked with organic flour. As you wait for the Pinot Noir made from grapes grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, you dip the bread into a pool of organic olive oil and fiddle with the wooden salt and pepper shakers whose contents are, yes, also organic.
This is just the beginning of dinner at Washington's Restaurant Nora, America's first restaurant to be "certified organic."
In April, the Dupont Circle hangout for the health-conscious achieved this designation, meaning that Restaurant Nora could prove to the private firm that certified the restaurant that nearly 100 percent of the ingredients in every dish on the menu have been grown or processed by environmentally sound methods. The process required owner Nora Pouillon to provide documentation in a fat notebook that took more than two years to compile.
For Pouillon, 55, whose relentless commitment to sustainable agriculture is sometimes seen as proselytizing and self-promoting, this "Oscar of organics," as she calls it, is the "ultimate recognition" of her long, hard efforts.
For diners tackling the Portobello Tart, it may be a different story. Will they understand what it means that the ingredients were "certified organic"? Will they know all the work that went into finding and buying them? Will they care?
"From my point of view, it's fairly meaningless," said Tom Bolkcom, who was waiting in the bar area of Restaurant Nora on a recent busy Friday night. Getting certified is certainly "an indication of dedication," said Bolkcom, a Manhattanite who often eats at Restaurant Nora when he's in town. But "I'm more interested in a good meal."
Ditto for Laura Adamczyk, who had just finished her dinner of Sauteed Calves Liver and Onions With Horseradish Potato Cake. Adamczyk said the idea of organic certification sounded "nice," but that it was more important that a restaurant "give me good food." The other four women at her table agreed.
Pouillon is not surprised. "That's the biggest problem with being organic," she says. "People are not educated or informed." But in getting certified, she wanted to show her peers in the environmental and natural food worlds that it could be done.
She didn't have much competition. In fact, none.
Although there are other restaurants--both locally and nationally---that focus on organic ingredients, this was the first one that ever asked to have its pantry inspected and its invoices verified. Similar to the organizations that accredit hospitals and colleges, an organic certifier combed through the restaurant, based on a request from Pouillon.
It was three years ago that Pouillon first approached that certifier, Oregon Tilth, one of 33 such private companies in the U.S. that have sprung up to fill a void. Although the government has been working on it for nearly a decade, there are still no federal regulations that define what it means for food to be "organic." In the meantime, certifying groups have defined it and make site visits to ensure that applicants are in compliance.
For a farmer to be certified by Oregon Tilth, for example, he must keep his land "clean" from agri-chemicals for three years, and may use only the fertilizers and weed- and pest-killers on a list of approved materials. He must also keep a paper trail showing when, where and how much of those materials he uses.
To certify a restaurant would necessarily be different. To get her certification, Pouillon would have to document that at least 95 percent of the ingredients she purchases come from farmers and processors who themselves are certified.
Like other restaurateurs serving New American cuisine, Pouillon buys ingredients from boutique businesses and small local farmers. Instead of using big wholesalers who deliver many products at once, she purchases from more than 50 purveyors, some delivering only one item. That meant gathering a lot of certifications.
What's more, although 60 percent to 70 percent of the food at Restaurant Nora was already organic, there were some ingredients--such as spices and staples--that had few or no certified organic counterparts. And often, the package sizes and distribution were not at all restaurant-friendly.
To understand some of the twists and turns it took, pretend you're having dinner at Restaurant Nora. Let's start at the beginning, with that simple bread, olive oil and salt and pepper on the table.
With the exception of a multigrain loaf, Pouillon had to drop many of the breads she had been buying from Washington's Uptown Bakers since they were not made with certified organic flour. In turn, owner Lou Statzer got his master baker to develop an organic country-style bread especially for Pouillon. "We took samples over and finally found a bread she liked," remembers Statzer.
The olive oil: Red Sage restaurateur Mark Miller introduced her to a certified organic one from Spain, but the importer stopped importing it. Then she found another supplier who would sell the olive oil to her only in large containers. But the restaurant couldn't use it up fast enough, and the olive oil oxidized too quickly after the containers were opened and stored in the restaurant's temperature-temperamental basement (where those hemp shirts are laundered). Then her sous chef, Steve Barter, who spends half his time sourcing certified organic ingredients, found the Spanish organic olive oil the restaurant currently uses. It can be imported only by the pallet, so the importer stores the excess in his warehouse as a favor to Pouillon.
The restaurant finally located certified organic sea salt from Brittany, France, but it's too expensive ($9 a pound) to buy finely ground, so Pouillon had to purchase a special grinder to pulverize the raw, still-wet grains. Still, at $4 a pound, it's more than 13 times as expensive as regular sea salt, according to the restaurant. And the pepper? It's imported from Madagascar, which the restaurant says is the only place in the world producing certified organic peppercorns.
All this before you've even gotten to the Portobello Tart appetizer, a pretty fluted pastry filled with organic mushrooms. By chance, someone spotted certified organic portobellos at Fresh Fields, the supplier was tracked down to Kennett Square, Pa., and the mushrooms were delivered to Pouillon via Federal Express. Then, to save on shipping costs, the restaurant arranged a rendezvous with the supplier's truck at Dulles International Airport, where it was dropping off mushrooms for air shipment to other accounts. But that was "one step too many," says Pouillon. In the meantime, her former mushroom distributor, dropped by Pouillon because he didn't carry certified organic products, now carries the organic mushrooms and trucks them to her from Kennett Square.
That's just the mushrooms. The organic flour and eggs that go into the pastry shell were relatively easy to find, says Pouillon. But the butter! "I can't tell you how difficult it was to get." The few dairies that make certified organic butter were selling their limited production to much larger accounts, such as natural-foods supermarkets and organic manufacturers. "We are just little people who don't take much," says Pouillon. Finally, she was able to arrange distribution through Albert's, her organic wholesaler in Pennsylvania.
And that's just the tart. The appetizer is served with rapini and roasted eggplant, which come from small certified farms in Pennsylvania. And the tart is topped with sun-dried tomatoes and cheese from goats that forage freely, both of which are shipped directly from a family-operated business in Sonoma, Calif.
As the restaurant fills up with a casual, non-pin-stripe crowd, the main course arrives, Crispy Soft-Shell Crabs With Mango, Blood Orange and Cilantro, a colorful combination served on a pink plate rimmed with drawings of pears and plums. There's no mechanism for certifying seafood, but Pouillon says she doesn't serve products that are overfished or come from polluted waters.
Seasonality is her mantra, too. Take those soft-shells: "I refuse to get them if they don't come from local waters." Her supplier promised her they were harvested from Virginia, but she tested him by asking the delivery man where he got them. "I knew the driver would not lie," she said, adding that he didn't know who she was. "He would not know why he should lie." He said Virginia.
The soft-shells are sauteed in organic canola oil, which is available only in 55-gallon, 400-pound drums. The supplier "drops it [the drum] on the sidewalk and doesn't move it one inch," says Pouillon, adding that the kitchen staff, en masse, helps roll the unwieldy container into the basement.
The mangoes? Pouillon used to buy them from an organic farm in the Dominican Republic owned by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, but now she gets them--as well as the blood oranges and kabocha squash served with the soft-shells--through Albert's. And the cilantro? It comes from a farm in White Post, Va., that was certified specifically so that it could sell vegetables and herbs to the restaurant.
After a brief respite, it's time for dessert and the Tower of Chocolate Mousse, a stunning checkerboard cylinder of white and dark chocolate with an interior filled with chocolate mousse and genoise. But getting all those certified organic ingredients wasn't such a pretty task.
Take the chocolate. It comes from Ecuador, where the hurricane season can wipe out the whole supply. There's another source for organic chocolate, but the quality is not very good, says Pouillon. And the sugar: It's imported from Paraguay in huge pallets. Walnut Acres Organic Farms gets it in bulk and ships some to Pouillon along with the beef the restaurant buys from the Penns Creek, Pa., farm and mail-order company.
Desserts have been difficult, and understandably, some of the kitchen staff have felt constrained. "I've had pastry chefs quit on me because they can't work with the [organic] butter or sugar or chocolate," says Pouillon. "They're dealing with a much cruder product."
Actually, there's no easy course, even the coffee, cream and sugar that ends the meal. The coffee beans Pouillon had been buying were certified organic, but the facility that roasted them was not. So she had to get the coffee from elsewhere until her longtime roaster got certified. The cream, produced by a Mennonite family in Gap, Pa., is available only sporadically. And it's delivered in 2 1/2-gallon pouches (the type organic cheese and ice cream manufacturers want), which makes it tricky to pour into those small cream jugs. As for the sugar, getting it in tabletop-size packets proved impossible, so Pouillon had to have it custom-packed.
If you had really eaten at Restaurant Nora, you'd be full now, and probably oblivious to all that went into your meal.
Most people "don't have a clue," as to what "organic" even means, says Laurie Demeritt, director of marketing for the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash., market research firm that has extensively studied the organic industry. And a 1997 survey conducted by the firm found that less than 3 percent of the public indicates any interest in certification.
Sounds like Danielle Dewey, who had just finished paying the check after a recent meal at Restaurant Nora. It's "doubtful" it means anything to her that the restaurant is certified organic, she said. If anything, Dewey said, "it makes you feel a little less guilty about indulging."
Even for someone like Chuck Savage, a local environmental publisher who has been eating at the restaurant since it opened 20 years ago, the certification "doesn't really change anything" as far as his dining experience there. What it does, says Savage, is make Pouillon "a more effective advocate for the cause of clean food."
And advocate she does. The top of the menu now says that Nora is "America's FIRST CERTIFIED ORGANIC Restaurant," and the framed certification will be hung in a spot in the restaurant, says Pouillon, "where you can't avoid noticing it."
CAPTION: Above, Nora Pouillon and chef de cuisine Jeff Olsen, at right, waitress Spomenka Gajic pours organic wine.