I hadn't heard of Nora until a friend linked their Facebook post being humbled to be listed as one of the best Melbourne restaurants by Timeout (https://www.timeout.com/melbourne/restaurants/the-best-restaurants-in-melbourne). To keep company with Attica, Brae and Dinner is a remarkable achievable. I read their story about Thai origins and their online menu which gives away absolutely nothing and so immediately made a booking for a few weeks later.
It's a cosy little place and the full glass windows meant I walked straight past it initially trying to look for it. Inside is reasonably heated for winter and there's the choice of private tables, the voyeuristic counter and a communal table where couples avoid looking at the other couples.
The menu is set and only differed to cater for food intolerances. What is interesting is that when each dish is serve, there is no effort to explain what it is. I'm not sure if that's intentional to make our palates discover for ourselves or just an error from the wait staff, but it's certainly different considering each dish's name is cryptic.
Luckily the wait staff are happy to answer questions when asked at the end of each dish and a menu is even emailed afterwards for sentimentality and reminiscing.
what goes up must come down
- a seafood flavoured little snack with great savoury flavour. I could eat these by the handful. Reminded me of either the Chinese prawn chips or the flavour of the grilled dried squid;
beneath the ground
sardine - dirt, root, coriander root, tasty powder
- under the green revealed the fossils of a sardine with bones crisp and chewy. The dirt was a remarkably flavoursome salted chewy bit that was wonderful. I could sprinkle that onto any dish;
tagliatelle of oyster not oyster
chicken heart - onion, shallot
sadao, pomelo, sweet fish sauce
- beautifully sat above non-edible oyster shells was a little non-oyster cupped in a crisp mini non-oyster shell. Simple chewy and nice;
silver fish - blue mackerel broth, young coconut, lovage
- a lovely fish ceviche minced and housed within a leaf, followed by a fish broth that I thought lacked impact. Maybe I'm used to the much stronger Thai soups (tom yum/tom kha);
too many italians & only one asian
papaya - sator, cashew, fermented garlic, school prawn
- green papaya salad meets pesto. Interesting to see a new way of Vegeti-style-pasta concepts;
daft punk is playing in my mouth
blue mackerel - chewy watermelon
capsicum annuum, black sesame
- I'm not really sure where the Daft Punk reference comes from (I was going through a mental list of their songs trying to figure it out). Perhaps it is Around the World because the flavours and textures vary from a firm fish sashimi, a tangy watermelon, a chilli sour granita and a strong black sesame past;
freshly milled toasted red rice bread sourdough style
fermented shrimp butter
- how can the simplest homely bread be so good? A warm smoky mist exudes from the claypot and the delectable and unique bread lies within. There's a firm (not crisp) crust and soft medium density interior on which to spread the butter (some thought it was blue cheese spread at the time);
duck and hide
aged air dried roast duck on the bone
fermented lady finger banana & purple kauliflr
- my duck looked quite unimpressive. Others received a piece of much thicker meat. I think this inconsistency is a little rude. Luckily the duck has a crisp skin and nice warm flavour. The banana is very sweet (thought it might be a plantain) but the rice seemed a bit too firm and slightly undercooked;
fermented glutinous rice, red ant eggs
sawtooth coriander, olive oil
- this palate cleanser was odd. There was a shaved ice texture, a gummy half-al-dente rice texture and tasted tart (as cleansers should) but not in a clean way;
12am in the fridge
pumpkin - egg, shrimp, mushroom
- very mixed reactions to this strange slice of firm slightly sweet, slightly savoury pumpkin. Perhaps a more standard fruit with its natural sweetness would complement better?
thai cupcake wanting to become western
king edward potato - chive
- a baked potato disassembled and reassembled to look like a baked potato. The inside of a soft mash potato and chive (couldn't taste the chive) is housed in a delicious crisp potato skin;
the study of perspective
tripe - coconut, kaffir lime
- petit four of ox tripe sweetened and crispened to sweep up the coconut yoghurt dusted with lime (I hoped initially it might be green tea powder).
The food concept is interesting and they've done well to design unusual dishes. I think the experience was good but overall the flavours weren't what I was looking for, and fixed signature menu mean that I don't think I'll come back again (at least not for a while until the menu changes). Perhaps I have a certain concept of bold Thai/SE Asian flavours associated with the cuisine and that I thought these may be parcelled in prettier, skilful and more refined ways. Nora certainly has the pretty, the skill and refinement but not my desired flavour palate (other than that seafood snack and mackerel skeleton).
In any case it's worth trying for yourself especially if you like neo gastronomy.
The wall around the toilet door is a design board of food. I'm not sure the significance of it but I assume it is as cryptic as the menu. I washed my meal down with an elixir of housemade chrysanthenum, lemongrass, corella pear, seaweed. It was an odd tasting drink with all the flavours discernible but not necessary a harmony to me. Perhaps the seaweed added a bit too much salt to a drink I hoped was more sweet. The one with tamarind, star anise and coriander may be more my liking next time.