For someone who was born in Vienna, Austria, where whipped cream and opulent sauces flow like the Danube, Nora Pouillon is an anomaly. Her approach to cooking couldn't be more different from her native city's caloric, cholesterol-laden cuisine, like goulash and Sachertorte.
"You are what you eat," says this celebrity chef who, in the 18 years since she opened Restaurant Nora - and Asia Nora more recently - has become one of the nation's most famous chefs. A leading advocate of organic food and regular exercise as the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle, she begins each day with either yoga or aerobic exercise and is an avid sportswoman.
PRICES: Appetizers: $7 to $10; Entrees: $19 to $24
At 54, Nora is the best advertisement for her belief in using top-quality foods and seasonal ingredients, prepared simply and with a minimum of fat and sodium, to produce a distinctive multi-ethnic cuisine that is healthy, nutritional and surpassingly good.
On the night my wife and I were there with two guests last week, Nora had doffed her chef's hat and was heading for a benefit for a worthy cause. But she stopped at our table to visit with us. My guests were Betty Friedan, who lives nearby and is back in circulation after a recent heart operation, and Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), an old friend of hers.
Friendly, enthusiastic and personable, Nora explained the approach to cooking that has won her numerous honors, including the International Association of Culinary Profession's 1997 "Chef of the Year" award. "Healthy, great-tasting meals start with good quality and organic ingredients that require only simple cooking techniques to let the natural flavors shine through," she has stated.
Nora, who still retains a trace of her Viennese accent, has a simple philosophy on food that echoes Einstein's dictum that the ultimate sophistication is simplicity. "When food tastes good, and is high in nutritional value, you don't need to eat as much to feel satisfied. And the preparations can be simpler, allowing the cook to share more time with family and friends."
I wondered if Nora's absence from the kitchen would affect our food, but I needn't have worried. Our starters were superb: chicken livers on caramelized onion bruschetta with raspberry-walnut vinaigrette and mesclun ($7); roasted hen of the woods mushroom with mixed grain salad, mesclun and red pepper juice ($9), and goat cheese-stuffed artichoke with herbed wild rice salad, red pepper and saffron aioli ($8).
Rep. McCarthy, arriving late from a fundraiser for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), missed out on the starters, but made up for it by ordering, as an entree, the Mediterranean vegetable risotto, with eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, olives, artichokes and goat cheese ($20). Instead of an entree, my wife chose a second appetizer, roasted butternut squash soup with sage creme fraiche, pumpkin seeds and chives ($7), while I had cornbread stuffed chicken breast with caramelized shallot sauce, cole slaw and Romano beans ($20).
They also were flawless, but Ms. Friedan, who is a regular here, ordered the only dish that disappointed, veal in cashew curry, with mint raita, lentil dahl, chutney and Indian breads ($21). In addition to being overwhelmed by the curry sauce, the delicately flavored veal was a bit tough and gristly.
There's an impressive, but pricey, wine list that includes the outstanding Eisele Cabernet from Napa Valley - it's from the vineyard of a distant relative - but even with my name on it, I wasn't about to shell out $70 for a bottle of wine. We settled for a glass each of California chardonnay and cabernet ($5 to $6).
Ms. Friedan and I finished up with the poached bosc pear with fresh mission figs in port wine and ginger ice cream ($7), and chocolate souffle cake with caramel ice cream ($8), which we shared. The former was fabulous, and the latter would do credit to Vienna's famous pastry shops.
Two years ago, Nora opened her second organic restaurant, Asia Nora, at 22nd and M Streets N.W. (tel. 202-797-4860), with chef de cuisine Christian Thornton. It features her interpretation of Asian cuisine in an eclectic menu that proves Kipling was wrong when he wrote that "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." I haven't eaten there, but have heard good things about it from people who have, so I'll save it for a future review.
The veal curry aside, we came away feeling that this is a very special restaurant where we were treated like honored guests. From the antique Amish crib quilts that decorate the walls to the beautifully presented food served on colorful plates, excellent service and low noise level, you're virtually guaranteed a memorable dining experience at this unique restaurant.