Sunday, August 20, 2006

So fresh and so clean

Restaurant Nora
2132 Florida Ave NW
Washington DC 20008

There are restaurants, and then there are restaurants. This past week marked an annual tradition in DC – Restaurant Week – where a whole litany of otherwise unaffordable eating establishments offer a 3-course prix fixe menu for $30. The downside of this, apart from having to dine with the riffraff, is that there are only so few participating restaurants that put their usual heart and soul into their cooking this week compared to others, and there is every chance you will wind up with a thoroughly unsatisfying meal. Fortunately, there are some who maintain their dedication to gastronomic greatness – Corduroy, for example, offers its full menu for Restaurant Week – and I had the pleasure of dining at just such a place yesterday, the famed Nora.

Nora is, quite frankly, a damned good-looking building; the corner rowhouse at the end of one of many beautiful tree-lined streets in the area. A short ways off the main drag that is Connecticut Ave and nestled on the edge of what I like to call the sleepy side of Dupont Circle, it is muted red brick and looks more like home and hearth than anything else. The inside is made out to look like a stable and is equally lovely. A model airplane hangs from the pine beams that criss-cross the high ceiling, and a collection of Amish quilts are framed and draped on the painted brick walls. Doors lead to steps that lead to more rooms, and people appear from out of nowhere. It is the kind of place that makes you feel like exploring, but puts you too much at ease to start.

I had made this reservation a month and a half ago, so I was understandably excited. Allison, though, was even more so than I. She lives just a couple of blocks away, and as we walked over from her place I had to struggle to keep pace with her. We finally arrive though, right on time for our reservation, and are ushered right to our table. There is a shaded paraffin lamp on the table, and a bottle of olive oil – both lovely touches. When dining with one other, I like to sit at right angles; facing the other person directly always makes me awkward. I continue to fidget throughout the duration of the meal and am calmed only when there is food on the table or wine in my glass; it must have been a sorry sight.

It is so important, in food as in any and all other endeavours, to begin well. And we do, unequivocally. Allison and I both start with the vichyssoise – light and refreshing and quite delicious. There is a slice of something or other in the soup which we find out later is a tuile – French for ‘tile’ – a thin cookie made from wheat or potatoes that is placed over a rounded object when still fresh from the oven. Whatever the case, it is a detail that is much appreciated, as were the efforts of our waitress to find out for us. She was extremely nice, equal parts whimsy and charm and had a smile that made me think of my momma for some reason.

I go on to order the wild mushroom and corn risotto, while Allison has the Atlantic salmon baked in parchment paper. I don’t particularly care for salmon, but I had a bite of hers and the freshness was overwhelming. My own meal was – shockingly, vegetarian – but an explosion of colours and flavours that warmed my heart. I have a long and lovely history with mushroom risotto, from when Morgan first taught me to make it, right through to the days when Jose would bring chanterelles back from his work and we would break out the truffle oil and eat like kings. This, then, was another scenic step in what I am sure will be a lifelong love affair.

Nora’s whole deal – and possibly why the a la carte prices are so high – is that it is dedicated to fresh, local and organic ingredients. It was, as we read, the first restaurant in America to be certified organic – and the cooking certainly let that shine through. Everything we tasted was so good and wholesome and fresh, and to paraphrase something Allison said – made me feel like a better person.

We close out with dessert and I have a coffee to ward off the food coma; the night is young yet, and so are we. As we walk out I cast a glance back to look for our waitress, but I cannot see her anywhere. I am sure, though, that our paths will cross again, for I must certainly return to Nora; and so I am content to save the wave goodbye for the next time we meet, or never, as it were.


KOB said...

Nice write-up. You got me interested in trying it.

MB said...

I appreciate Nora's use of organic cuisine, but seems like every time I am there for a prix fixe meal (New Years, Valetine's Day, etc), the vegetarian choice is always mushroom risotto. Is a little creativity too much to ask!? Especially from such a non-traditional restaurant.

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