NoraNovember 28, 2014
156 Elgin Street, Carlton
First of all, a big warm welcome to readers to the new Let Me Feed You! This new blog has been a long time coming, and after so much time spent on it, I’m simply thrilled to finally be sharing it with all of you! I’m very pleased and proud of how it’s turned out, and armed with a beautiful new blog I’m excited for what 2015 holds. To readers new and old, welcome, and enjoy! xx Natalie
To launch the new Let Me Feed You, I’ve decided to write about a new favourite of mine – Nora in Carlton. Nora’s black charcoal tarts had been causing a stir around cafes in Melbourne long before the duo behind the magic, Sarin Rojanametin and Jean Thamthanakorn, opened up their Carlton bakery/cafe. While the charcoal tarts are a real treat and patisserie-victory, the savoury menu and friendly staff also shine through at this quirky cafe.
As I walked along Elgin street and ducked into Nora’s front door, a bus roared loudly past me on Elgin Street. Once over the threshold, I was in a world of calm. A large front space is taken up by a communal table which, pleasantly, is artfully covered in ingredients for their famous charcoal tarts. It’s like an extension of a shop front window, beckoning you to try and guess the flavour combinations. Behind, there is an open kitchen and a narrow line of tables, and at the very rear, a glowing NORA sign.
The space is small and light-filled, with pale blonde wood and light grey bench tops giving a slightly Scandi feel to the place. The tables, if I’m honest, are just a touch too small and a tad too cramped together, but I only really noticed this when I initially sat down with Y for brunch. Once the menus were in front of us, we were in our own little bubble.
The menu reads a bit like poetry: flour, water and salt; churning of the sea of the milk; pig from the ground it’s raised from. I’m sure the names of dishes all have some meaning to Sarin and Jean, but they sound beautiful regardless. Broadly speaking, the menu is Thai-inspired, but much like their jet-black tarts, Nora’s menu borrows both from East and West. Take the Nora Flakes, so example, a very Western notion of breakfast cereal modified with wild rice and lotus root.
But first, drinks. Even these are a touch above the normal here, with sparkling water being served to each table, and an unusual coffee menu on offer. For example, take Y’s drink, the ‘Saigon’, a pandan infused ice coffee. I had a sip and was pleasantly surprised – there was an undeniable grassy hit of pandan, which added a certain earthiness to the coffee. Beautiful spherical ice cubes, too. Too happy about the emerging sunny weather to care about warm drinks, I ordered a black cold brew topped up with sparkling water and a touch of sugar syrup. It was incredibly refreshing.
As far as food was concerned, Y and I would have tried everything on the menu if we could have. As it was, we restrained ourselves to a dish each, and also sneakily shared the Nora Morn Flakes (‘huge instagram props, obviously’). Y ordered the Churning of the Sea of the Milk, with smoked salmon, succulent greens, nashi pear, heirloom beets, flying fish roe, and coconut ricotta. Each dish arrived with a side plate of some wombok rubbed with a peanut-curry paste, and an individual raised loaf. It adds a lovely element of ceremony, and also means that proper attention may be paid to the presentation of each dish.
Presentation wise, the folks at Nora know their stuff. They absolutely romp it in on presentation alone – this plate of smoked salmon looked so refined and delicate and beautiful it was almost a shame to ruin it. I particularly loved the hypnotic rings on the beetroot. Y really enjoyed his dish, and I had such food envy that I returned two days later to order it myself! The combination of the oily salmon and the crisp, raw vegetables was sublime. The complexity of this dish was quite astounding, with each little element combining with the others beautifully. I enjoyed learning that the black dust on the dish was made from mushroom and scallop, and that the salmon had been lightly smoked with jasmine, revealing how much effort goes into the food here.
I ordered ‘Martin’s Place’ a dish of ox tongue, kale, white fungus, cured egg yolk and water chestnut. Wow. What a sophisticated dish. The tongue was cooked perfectly, till soft and tender, and it matched very well with the crunchy water chestnut and slightly pickled white fungus. There was an incredibly generous serve of tongue on the plate, and I found the wombok served on the side a helpful accompaniment to what is otherwise a very meaty dish.
In a strange breakfast-reversal, we finished our meal with a shared bowl of Nora Morn Flakes, a clever and fun way to serve house-made cereal. Just check out the adorable packaging!
These were fantastic, actually. I loved the Thai-take on corn flakes, including the puffed polenta shards which added a slight corn flavour. I know it was just a bowl of cereal at the end of the day, but I thought the balance of grains, crystallised nuts and fruit was spot on, and the flavour profile was just sweet enough to still be refreshing. I also couldn’t help but delight over the interactive nature of the dish. Below, Y and his guns are kind enough to model Nora morn flakes for us.
Breakfast is served!
Finally (and really we couldn’t leave without trying one), we shared one of Nora’s famed black charcoal tarts.
Absolutely jet-black, these beauties really are something to behold. Even Yotam Ottolenghi came here to try one when he was in town a few weeks ago, and when I heard him speak at a Wheeler Centre event that evening, he was very impressed with the technique.
The only catch is that due to their immense popularity, they sell out quite early in the day, usually by midday. They only make around 100 a day, for quality control purposes, although when I visited a second time they mentioned they were looking to increase their production capacity. On the day we went, they had just made a fresh batch of dark chocolate, honey and sesame tarts.
Other flavours sometimes on offer include coconut and pandan, sour cherry and kaffir lime, and a lemongrass and ginger brûlée. Just more excuses to return, I suppose!
In a final quirky flair, the tarts are served upturned on a plate, still in their baking dish, with a few extra pieces of topping scattered around. Picking up the dish revealed the black-shelled beauty that is the Nora charcoal tart, tinted with burnt coconut husks.
Much crisper than I had imagined, the pastry shell is almost flakey in consistency, and marries incredibly well with the rich chocolate filling. What would normally be very sweet and buttery in a classic tart case is instead a sophisticated mouthful of sweet (honey), bitter (dark chocolate), and salt (sesame seeds).
Because the tarts had been freshly made the, and the warm chocolate filling had melted all over the plate, Y gave a final thanks to Nora. Yum. Sums it up pretty well, now that I think about it!
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