Few places could make the change from daytime café to dinner-only dégustation restaurant seem like business as usual. Then again, not too many places would start a meal with a container covered in synthetic turf bearing crunchy deep-fried coriander roots dusted with "tasty powder" and a deep-fried sardine skeleton laying on edible dirt (dehydrated mushroom, scallop and longan) inside. And then call them What Goes Up Must Come Down and Beneath the Ground. And then manage to turn a potentially disastrous collision of multiple ideas into something delicious.
Not many places. But Nora does, emphatically. Understanding just how surprising this is calls for a bit of backstory.
Its owners, Jean Thamthanakorn and Sarin Rojanametin and, are restaurant novices who fled the worlds of advertising and finance to open Nora in Carlton in 2014. Before they opened, Rojanametin spent time working in cafés such as Brother Baba Budan and Seven Seeds, and Thamthanakorn taught herself to bake. The black charcoal pastry tarts she began supplying to various cafés attracted a cult following.
That scant experience aside, all the couple appeared to bring was a singular vision and an uncompromising determination to present that vision intact in one of Melbourne's most traditional food suburbs.
Not everyone appreciated the no-espresso, no-avocado, no-bacon-and-eggs approach at Nora. And when breakfast expectations are thwarted by a menu of smarty-pants dishes such as Churning of the Sea of Milk (smoked jasmine-cured fish, coconut ricotta, flying-fish roe and succulents) some might interpret uncompromising as arrogant. There were walkouts.
There was also a groundswell of fans drawn to food cooked by a self-taught chef who combined the ingredients he loved when he was growing up in Thailand with a fascination with modern cooking technique. But the format remained problematic.
Rojanametin might have been creating unique flavour combinations but did people want to keep eating them for breakfast?
The answer came when the set-course Small Dinner Club that Nora started running on Friday nights kept selling out. Thamthanakorn and Rojanametin shut the place down, renovated the tiny open kitchen, bought some new furniture, added booze to the repertoire and reopened as a dinner joint.
"Sorry I'm Crabby Today"
It's still uncompromising. The three sittings a night pretty much discourage all but the most well timed of walk-ins. The menu can be tweaked but Nora's ability to cater to the swell of dietary requirements is limited. Even common or garden vegetarians have to be patient, with a meat-free menu still in the works.
And speaking of menus, there isn't one. A list of what you ate and drank is given to you afterwards but as you eat you just get the name of the dish as it lands.
This is not particularly illuminating when the names include the likes of The Study of Perspective, Too Many Italians and Only One Asian or Daft Punk is Playing in My Mouth.
Still, the experience is playful not punishing, helped in no small part by calm and beautifully hospitable service. And it gets you eating things that, had they been written down, you might have decided to skip.
Take Tagliatelle of Oyster Not Oyster. The hint's there: this oyster-looking dish may not actually contain any oysters. It arrives on a platter of real oyster shells but the edible part, another oyster shell sitting on the top, is actually pastry made with two different-coloured doughs, giving it the marbled effect of the real thing. It's one bite, but what a bite: crunchy, soft textures; sweet, salty, tangy, fishy flavours. And surely the central ingredient is an oyster? But no. It's a chicken heart, marinated in a mix of coriander seed, black and white pepper, oyster, fish and soy sauces and coconut milk. It's cooked sous-vide to give it oyster-like texture and is then served in the "shell" topped with a sweet fish sauce, fermented fish paste, coconut cream, frozen pomelo and a "tagliatelle" made from pickled shallots. Its effect is like that of a miang, Thai street food's betel-leaf snack, with flavour explosions that come from every angle but end up making complete sense.
There's similar instances of joyful sleight of hand throughout the two hours it takes to work through the menu.
Too Many Italians and Only One Asian, Rojanametin's ode to operating in the middle of an Italian culinary heartland, looks like pasta tossed with a pesto-like sauce. But the pasta is green papaya cut and blanched to look something like linguine. The pesto is bright and punchy, a mix of roasted cashew nuts, sator (aka stink beans) and pieces of school prawn, combined with a sorrel oil and sprinkled with fermented garlic powder.
"Too Many Italians and Only One Asian"
Sorry I'm Crabby Today is another dish that hints at the existence of something in both title and appearance but the "crab" is shreds of custard apple sitting in a cool broth made from roasted mackerel bones. In it float holy basil seeds, finger lime, star gooseberry and it's topped with a delicate slick of seaweed oil. It's so clever, interesting and downright flavoursome that you forget to feel cheated that no actual crab died in the making of this dish.
Daft Punk is Playing in My Mouth stretches it in terms of how dish and name relate but is a highlight. It's a good-looking mix of slivers of pickled blue mackerel sitting on a piece of compressed watermelon and topped with a sparkling green chilli and lime granita and smoked salt. To the side there's a circle of ink-dark black sesame sauce, its earthiness adding a clever extra layer to all the salty, vinegar, chilli notes.
There are layers with the drink matching, too.
On one hand there's the very reasonably priced and interesting alcohol pairing from fresh-faced sommelier Kentaro Emoto. On the other is the surprisingly excellent juice option, put together by Thamthanakorn. Emoto is deeply committed to his job but is never boring. He communicates his excitement with ease, pulling out pairings from a list of New and Old World minimal-interventionist wine, unfiltered sake, whisky and artisan beer.
Glenglassaugh Torfa, a Highland single malt, is a particularly great match with Childhood Bread, a course that lands in the middle of the menu and consists of a superb small roll made from sourdough starter and toasted red rice. It's served in a lidded terracotta pot, sitting on a bed of smoking red rice, the smoke wafting about when the lid's lifted. There's fermented shrimp butter in the mix too and so the smoky, peaty Scotch becomes a perfectly logical fit.
Thamthanakorn's juice combinations are all intriguing but they're particularly noteworthy for the absence of overt sweetness. The match with Grandma's Cabbage, an outstanding blend of pork mince spiced with white pepper and brushed with a roast pork hock glaze then tucked into lightly fermented cabbage leaves, is a refreshing, even thrilling blend of Granny Smith apple, shiitake mushrooms and coriander.
Somellier Kentaro Emoto works the floor.
Then there's the subtle, thirst-quenching coconut and chive combination that's served with Thai Cupcake Wanting to be Western, a dessert that looks like (and sort of is) a baked potato wrapped in foil.
It's actually a salt-baked King Edward potato skin, hollowed out, frozen and then deep-fried. It's served skin-side up, semi-wrapped in foil, so it looks like a jacket potato but flip it over and there's a coconut cream and sugar-flavoured potato soufflé to tuck into. It's not really sweet but the texture and flavour emphatically drag it into dessert territory.
Nora's dining room is its least thrilling aspect. It's stylishly done on a tight budget and the wider-berthed among us will be relieved that the toy-like stools from Nora's café days have been banished, replaced by comfortable armchairs. There are now five seats at the tiny open kitchen-bar for those after a chef's table experience, and a round table that seats eight at the front of the timber-floored space. But the lighting is too bright at certain tables and the room feels a little utilitarian, despite the appeal of the illuminated Nora sign, some charming wine shelves, coloured napkins and the lists of ingredients painted onto the walls near the toilets.
But a utilitarian room could be part of the plan.
The focus here is on the food, with the juice, wine, service, handmade plates and low-key décor playing fiercely loyal support cast. And that's how it should be because what Sarin Rojanametin is creating in his pint-sized workspace is original, surprising and delightful. Artful, even. The Thai aspects - the ingredients and techniques, the names that emulate the traditional way Thai dishes are named - make Nora particular in terms of dégustation in Melbourne.
But combine that with Rojanametin's obvious influences (New Nordic, Blumenthal, Bottura, Marco) and his non-trained, non-linear, creative approach to cooking and you get something else again. And that's unique.