By Kris Kitto - 10/29/09 11:48 PM EDT
Nora made its name in Washington when, in 1999, it was declared the country’s first certified organic restaurant. Dignitaries proceeded to grace its dining room, sampling the farm-fresh salads and free-range meats. In those days it was understood that Nora was one of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s favorite restaurants.
So what has Nora done in response? Stayed the same. From its décor to its menu, Nora continues to rely on its distinction as the country’s first certified organic restaurant to bring in diners otherwise enticed by the increasingly bright and glitzy restaurants that have come to town.
Today’s Nora diner may first make that realization upon entering the restaurant, which continues to use a country-farm motif to decorate its dining room. Patchwork quilts with varying color schemes — rose pink and Dutch blue on some, black, white and bright colors on others — hang from the painted-brick walls. Track lighting, suspended from the ceiling’s barn-like rafters, illuminates the quilts, and a wicker model airplane acts as the room’s chandelier. A back party room was once the building’s horse stable, an employee explains. Together, these components say: This is where organic food was born — the milking cows out back, apple orchards ready for picking, a hearth warmed for eating.
The October menu is an extension of this sentiment. The options for starters range from a roasted corn soup to a dish of handmade potato gnocchi and rabbit confit.
My dining companion and I chose the Maine Jonah Crab salad and local red and yellow beet salad to start.
The crab salad was one of the night’s winning dishes. A heaping mound of meaty crab chunks came out on an inch-thick circle of guacamole, the two components separated by light, snappy strands of tortilla chips. The result was an exciting mouthful — the weighty crab added heft to the silky guacamole, and the chips lent a faint crunch that balanced the textures. It perfectly stimulated the appetite.
The beet salad, on the other hand, was simple — almost too simple. It arrived on a long, rectangular plate, half-inch cubes of red and golden beets scattered among orange and grapefruit sections and pebbles of goat cheese. The vegetable itself kept its signature earthy flavor. But the other ingredients were sparse, preventing what could’ve been dynamic flavor pairings. The citrus fruit sections, though juicy, were small and few, and the limited goat cheese hid under tufts of microgreens.
Surprisingly, the restaurant also missed the mark on the local baby Tom Thumb lettuces salad, the course we chose to precede our entrees. The salad, though fresh and crisp, was anemic, from the two florets of lettuce that looked to be from the season’s last crop to the thin pear slices along the plate’s perimeter. Its menu description tantalized us with talk of spiced pecans and brie — but let us down with five small nuts and a couple of flimsy cheese slices that peeked out of the leaves.
The night’s main courses restored our faith in the restaurant’s command of organic eating. Though Nora’s second restaurant, Asia Nora, closed in 1997, its influence is apparent in the original’s entrée menu. Two selections are Asian-inspired — the shichimi-crusted sustainable salmon and the shichimi-crusted tofu Tokyo hot pot.
Other options include pan-seared Maine diver scallops, sautéed Amish chicken livers and grilled grass-fed skirt steak.
We opted for the pan-roasted Alaskan halibut and roasted Ayrshire pork loin medallion. The fish had an effortlessness to it, both in its natural yet satisfyingly salty seasoning and its pillow-soft texture. The underlying spaghetti squash not only provided a splash of orange to the plate but also pleased the palate by lingering only slightly before disintegrating on the tongue. But the accompanying roasted sunchoke and chestnut mélange competed equally to be named the plate’s best element.
The chestnuts provided a firm counterbalance to the rest of the meal’s smoothness.
The dessert menu leaned toward fruit-themed options, ranging from a local pear tart with caramel ice cream to a lemon cheesecake with blueberry compote. The night’s special dessert, a chocolate lava soufflé cake with cappuccino ice cream, seemed too good to pass up — and its pure, clean flavors did not disappoint. The local peach and plum crisp with amaretto ice cream, however, included an unimpressive, cereal aisle-like topping. (“This is like granola,” my dining companion remarked.)
Service seemed unfortunate, as did the wine menu. Our server’s cell phone went off twice while at our table, and he missed several opportunities to up-sell our drinks or check in on recommendations he made. Luckily, his colleagues were more than gracious when we flagged them down for help.
The wine list, while extensive, included only one by-the-glass option for red and white each — a limitation to diners who might want to sip different drinks.
Yet Nora has managed to maintain its touch. The dining room was consistently full throughout a Wednesday night — a few tables of multigenerational groups, some business deals clearly being struck at other tables, and one couple celebrating a milestone at a two-top. At one point, a diner speculated that a security detail waited outside for a VIP to finish eating. It wasn’t Clinton, but it was an example of the eatery’s continued draw to the city’s elite.
Restaurant Nora occupies a unique space in today’s organic food trend, and any diner who wants to add depth to his understanding of where it all began would do well to make a reservation there soon.