Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Saturday, 6:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $2.75, dinner entrees $5 to $9, desserts $1.50 to $2.
Where does dinner end and ideology begin? Nora's is more than a restaurant, it is a culinary statement of radical chic. That establishes it as a pacesetter, whatever its flaws.
Nora Pouillon of Nora's, a onetime food writer, was the founder of the Tabard Inn's restaurant; and Nora's Restaurant is her restaurant fantasy realized on the site of the old Cafe Lovcen. The new Pouillon establishment immediately became a neighborhood pub for a neighborhood that stretched to include major media offices. Nora brought well-defined principles to her restaurant, many of them stated on the menu. Vegetables are fresh, and locally grown when available. Meats are raised without additives. Farm-fresh eggs, Vermont cheddar, pure apple cider are served. When you order a whiskey sour, it is very sour, made with fresh juice, and served, as the bartender explains, with no cherry because maraschino cherries have food colorings. It is hard not to like a restaurant that goes to such trouble for your health and welfare.
Furthermore, Nora's makes its own mayonnaise, its soups from scratch, and all the breads for its sandwiches (though the dinner rolls are commercially made, and certainly good). On Sundays it makes it own bagels.
Some of the lengths Nora's goes for purity may not appeal to everyone. The kitchen tends to undersalt the food, on the theory that Americans eat too much salt. That strikes me as a find idea, since it is easy enough to add salt at the table. Nora's also takes no credit cards, which is less easy to remedy at the table.
Nora's commitment shows as soon as you enter the restaurant. The main dining room, a few steps upstairs, is as fresh-looking as a homegrown tomato, the tables set with a variety of flowered cotton prints to match the waitresses' aprons, daisies in little cream bottles (you can't do that if your kitchen uses ultrapasteurized supermarket cream in cardboard cartons). The most significant decorative-ideological statements, however, are made by the large skylight that floods the room with daylight, and the enlarged photographs of fruits and vegetables.
The servers, too, have a dewy freshness to them, young and srubbed and cheerful, though they remain self-conscious and slow, sometimes forgetful. They are well-versed in the food and its preparation, but lack experience in serving it. That, however, may be remedied even by the time these words see print.
The kitchen, too, demonstrates a lack of experience. Too often the food looks better than it tastes; indeed, some dishes have seemed as if nobody had tasted them in their preparation. So success and disappointment play leapfrog trough dinner.
Appetizers are primarily pates, soup, seviche, liptauer cheese and cold vegetable dishes. While the rillettes and heavily brandied chicken liver pate with green peppercorns are excellent, on two tries Nora's Pate was bitter and gritty from excessive ground spices. While in the restaurant's early days underseasoning was a problem, the kitchen sometimes seems to be making up for lost time, overpeppering a vegetable soup, overpowering a zucchini frittata with herbs. Watercress and sprouts salad haunted an entire evening with its intensity of sesame oil.
Main dishes tend to be simple - beef as chopped steak with peppercorns or herb butter, nicely marinated kebabs, steak with herb butter. Pork chops are basted with Chinese seasonings. Fish is prominently featured (usually fresh, but sometimes inexplicably frozen fish is chosen as a daily special). And every day there is a special chicken dish - perfectly roasted, crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken if you hit the right day - as well as a few specials. The two best dishes I have found at Nora's (besides the homemade breads) have been cold poached sea trout with sorrel and homemade fettucine with pesto or tomato-pepper-caper sauce provencal. Both illustrate the careful timing and balanced seasoning the kitchen can accomplish. The fesh ingredients and homemade touches - mayonnaise in the fish sauce, and the noodles - are shown to advantage. By contrast, other dishes fall flat. A Chinese duck lacked crispness or any other excitement. Main course salads have tasted bare.
Rely on simplicity at Nora's. Melon with country ham is a mating of two excellent ingredients. Take advantage of the fresh fish and specially purchased meats. Vegetable garnishes are a treat - brown rice, crunchy cucumbers, tangy imported olives, boiled new potatoes in their skins.
Desserts rarely disappoint. Two nut-based cakes - the chocolate rehruecken and the mocha-tinged walnut cake - are dense and rich. Apple strudel is made with the skins remaining - no to everybody's taste - and lightly sugared. Each day has its own mousse, one day a delicious apricot version.
Beverages are one of the assets of Nora's, starting with the thoughtful wine list; although it is slightly immodestly priced, that factor is saved by a noteworthy house wines at $5.50 a bottle. Nora's also squeezes fresh orange juice (and optionally serves it whipped with egg and lemon, a pleasant invention that works better than the similarly concocted tomato juice). There is a choice of tea. But, oddly, the choice of coffees is too narrow. That is because the coffee is Nora's special, brewed with cinnamon and cardamom. It is a clever idea, but should be an option rather that the only choice. There is also epresso, but it is really just a stronger brew of drip coffee served in a demitasse at $1.25, rather than authentic espresso.
Which brings us to price. In general, the prices are restrained, with most dinner main dishes around $6.50. A few dishes, however, are usually high - the chef's salad for $4.95 at dinner, and several of the beverages (hot chocolate uses superb chocolate too thinned with water at any price, much less at $1.50 a cup).
With its flaws, Nora's is a special place, a restaurant with a distinct personality. It brings a fresh approach to dining in its neighborhood, which has sorely needed a worthy restaurant. And any restaurant that makes it own bagels is on the right track.