Review: Nora, Carlton

Late last year, I received an email from Sarin Rojanametin and Jean Thamthanakorn of the fine dining restaurant Nora in Carlton. Shockingly and disappointingly, they were announcing the closure of Nora.

“It is with great excitement that we announce the closure of our restaurant Nora. 3 years ago we had a 1 year plan to create a space to explore creativity through hospitality. What a ride.

We’ve evolved over that time, understanding more, making decisions to reduce sittings and guests but expanding the menu and the journey; less is more. More room to create, more opportunity to dig deeper into our roots, cuisine and ideas.

We’ve loved every bit, but we’ve also realised that to fully reach our potential, we need to get back to our land, our home, our roots. To be surrounded by limitless inspirations that will challenge us to uncover new possibilities.”

Broadsheet Melbourne covered this news, and I think they were as disappointed as myself. In saying “But for all our multiculturalism, some things remain challenging for the majority”, Broadsheet were able to explain the reason for Nora’s closure. The food was simply too foreign, too challenging for many palates when the usual Australian exposure to Thai food barely extends past the $10 Pad Thai at the local takeaway. 

Let me tell you now – if you didn’t get a chance to experience Nora in the past three years, you missed out. K and I were lucky enough to dine at Nora in April 2017 on the occasion of his birthday, and walked away raving about our experience and rating it on par with some of the best meals that we’ve had – and we’ve had a few! 

The titles of many of the dishes were mysterious and only very barely gave a hint of what we were to expect – what after all, is Tom Yum Prawn, add extra egg for $2? With quirky titles that hark back to traditional Thai street food, the dishes that show up on your table are uniquely elegant, playing with textures, temperatures and tastes in a way that would challenge any palate.

Some of my highlights include the Daft Punk Is Playing In My Mouth dish of pickled fish, served with chilli ice and black sesame paste. The concept of chilli ice is as mind-blowing as it seems, offering both heat and chill in the one mouthful.

Another highlight, one which we’ve vowed to try to replicate at home, is that of a drink from the matching non-alcoholic drinks menu. Lychee and brie mocktail…yes, brie, as in brie cheese. The strong creamy ripeness of the brie was brilliantly offset by the sweet fresh fragrance of the lychee juice. I think if we were to attempt this at home, we would have to use fresh lychees – no canned lychee could possibly provide that freshness. 

With the closure of Nora, Melbourne has lost a young and innovative dining experience. It wasn’t just a restaurant. It was one of the most extraordinary culinary experiences around, embracing the intricacies of a cuisine that most people under-rate and under-value. Give me Nora’s modern exploration of Thai over traditional stuffy French or Italian fare any day.

Nora was located at 156 Elgin Street, Carlton.

Review: Vamos, Melbourne CBD

If I was to ask you where you might find a great little Spanish/Latin-style tapas bar in Melbourne, Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown probably wouldn’t be your first guess. The hip enclaves of the inner North perhaps – Fitzroy, Brunswick, Collingwood. Or the yuppie South – Prahran, South Yarra. The top end of Little Bourke Street in the city would hardly figure on your radar.

Yet that’s where you’ll find Vamos, a busy tapas bar located on the first floor of a fairly non-descript building. K and I headed there for a date night one evening after getting a 50% off food offer through Dimmi and lucked out with a little table overlooking the street below near the solo guitarist who was playing that night. Talk about setting the atmosphere!

Coconut Mojito ($16AUD) and a Pineapple and Coconut Frozen Mocktail ($12AUD)

We had a coconut drink each – a Coconut Mojito for K and a Pineapple and Coconut Frozen Mocktail for me. With the Australian summer heat still plaguing us, both drinks hit the spot perfectly in terms of quenching our thirst and refreshing our spirit. 

While most of you will know that I tend to opt for mocktails over cocktails on most occasions, this was a very particular choice on part as we’d just made the decision to start trying for a baby and I was cutting out all alcohol as a result.

Patatas Bravas – Spanish spicy fried potato with bravas sauce and chipotle mayo

We opted to order from their $35 per person menu, which allows you to order one dish from each section of the menu – $9, $14 and $18 tapas. Between the two of us, that meant sharing six different dishes and only paying $35 as we had the 50% off offer. What a bargain!

First up on the $9 menu was the Patatas Bravas, a favourite tapas option for us when we were travelling through Spain in 2015. What’s not to love about crunchy chunks of deep-fried potato smothered in garlicky spicy tomato sauce? While they served it with chipotle mayonnaise on the side, you really don’t need anything other than the bravas sauce with these patatas.

Mexican black bean and corn salad, coriander. lime and chilli

Our second $9 dish was the Mexican black bean and corn salad. As much as a bean and corn salad is a staple in our household (side dish out of cans – easy!), we very rarely use black beans as they’re just that little bit harder to get hold of when compared to chickpeas or cannellini beans. After having this version however, I might try a bit harder to get hold of black beans – or at the very least, adding some Spanish onion and coriander to my bean salads, because this mix was superb!

Seared scallops with brown butter, fresh chilli, avocado, chive cream and traditional corn chips

My highlight dish of the night were these Seared Scallops off the $14 menu. Perfectly tender, a little bit caramelised, and wonderful with the fresh avocado and chilli. A simple dish executed perfectly. K could tell that I enjoyed it so much that when I (very generously) offered to split the third scallop with him, he told me to just eat it and stop pretending like I was ready to share!

Free range grilled chicken skewers with Mexican cacao and cinnamon sauce, sultanas and Spanish rice salad

Next up the Free Range Grilled Chicken Skewers, which unfortunately I didn’t love as I found the cacao and cinnamon sauce strange. I couldn’t quite make the mental leap from ‘cacao – it’s dessert’ to ‘cacao – it’s savoury’. This is more my own personal fault though, as K had no issues with this and really enjoyed the dish!

Twice cooked pork belly, celeriac and chipotle slaw, apple and basil puree

We could both agree on this dish though – Twice Cooked Pork Belly. In fact, K loved the crunchy crackling and tender pork so much that I generously offered the third piece to him rather than insisting that we share it. It was, I think, the herbed sweet apple puree that really made this dish stand out. Is there anything better than apple and pork as a combination?

Roasted mushroom caps with charred sweet corn duxelle, Manchego, salsa roja, sour cream and fresh herbs

We finished our meal with the Roasted Mushroom Caps – juicy mushrooms topped with a mix of cheesy, corny, creamy goodness. A lovely lighter vegetarian dish to finish on after the heavier pork and chicken dishes.

While we dined at Vamos on a 50% off voucher, we both agreed that the food was so good that we would definitely return to try some of the other tapas dishes. While we haven’t yet had the chance, I can definitely see us bringing my in-laws here next time they visit Melbourne. A top pick for tapas in the city.

Vamos is located at 37 Little Bourke St in Melbourne CBD.

Review: Up In Smoke, Footscray

I lied. Sometimes, just sometimes, I will venture outside of my East/South-East bubble for food. If you’ll allow me to co-opt a musical classic: I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more, just to be the one who walks a thousand miles, to gorge myself on smokey American BBQ meaty goodness. 

When a friend came and visited from Sydney earlier this year, we decided to make our way to Up In Smoke in Footscray for some finger-licking goodness. I would recommend making a booking if you have any more than four people (we had five), as there is a slight wait without a booking. As it was, we ended up seated outside on a high table in the beer garden – which under normal circumstances wouldn’t be so bad, but was a bit difficult considering it was a very warm day.

Guacamole with tortilla chips, $12AUD

We started out with some smaller bits and pieces to share – the Guacamole with Tortilla Chips first. I enjoyed the guacamole, but others thought it difficult to share as it was still very chunky. There certainly weren’t enough chunks of avocado to go with the number of chips provided – somewhat of an oversight.

Hush Puppies, $8AUD

The Hush Puppies were ridiculously crispy and crunchy, almost exceedingly so. The ratio of batter to actual creamy goodness inside was a little off, and I think it would have benefited from a lighter hand with the deep fryer. 

The Big Tray (pulled pork. brisket, pork sausage, apple slaw, succotash, milk buns, pickles) $48AUD

This is the piece de resistance – a sharing platter of the Big Tray including pulled pork, brisket and sausage. While it doesn’t look like much, it’s actually quite filling and more than suitable for a group of five people. My highlight was probably the brisket – smokey, and tender to the point of almost melting in your mouth. It went remarkably well with the soft sweetness of the milk buns.

Apple, fennel and dill slaw

One of the sides with the Big Tray is the Apple, Fennel and Dill Slaw. While fennel isn’t an ingredient I would normally use as I’m not a big fan of aniseed-type flavours, this was surprisingly fresh and mild in flavour, pairing well with the sweet apple and stronger dill. A lovely refreshing salad for a summer’s day.

Smoked chorizo succotash

The Smoked Chorizo Succotash is another side that comes with the Big Tray. This is my favourite type of easy salad mix that I make quite often at home, with a good mix of beans, corn and capsicum. The spicy chorizo and fresh spring onion in this mix was a real winner.

Up In Smoke is a prime example of an eatery that does their specialty very very well. The smoked meats, brisket in particular, were superb but the non-meaty entrees we ordered were mediocre at best. If you’re to visit Up In Smoke, I recommend gorging yourself on smoked meat goodness, and giving non-meaty entrees a hard miss. Sorry vegetarians and vegans!

Up In Smoke is located at 28 Hopkins St in Footscray, Melbourne.