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: Alcron Restaurant, Prague, Czech Republic

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

Here’s something I didn’t know before this trip – Prague boasts three Michelin-star restaurants. I always thought of it as a somewhat run-down former Soviet-bloc country that was still finding its feet, proud of its hearty beer-swilling and roast pork food culture. Who would have thought that the burgeoning fine dining scene is one to watch as well?

Once I started looking into the different options though, there was one that stood out as the ideal place for us to celebrate K’s 31st birthday – Alcron Restaurant. They had fabulous reviews of course, but the intimacy and decor of the restaurant was what appealed. Seating only 24 guests, the small Alcron Restaurant in the Radisson Blu hotel in Prague is decorated with a large mural in an Art Deco style, evoking memories of the glamourous 1920s and 1930s.

I made a lunch reservation for the two of us on his birthday, and kept the destination a secret from K. “It’s a nice restaurant!” was the only hint he received from me. Luckily it proved to be a happy surprise!

Greeted warmly by the waiter and shown to our cosy corner table, the excellent service continued throughout the meal. Served alternately by the head waiter/sommelier and a blonde waitress, we enjoyed conscientious but not overwhelming service with a smile. Recommendations on both food and drink options by both staff were right on point, and they were both well-versed on introducing and explaining the different menu items when they brought the dishes to the table. It was the type of exemplary service that really sets a high-end restaurant apart from others.

This expertise was demonstrated with their drink recommendations. I asked the sommelier about non-alcoholic cocktails and he offered the option to have one mixed specifically to my tastes. With the request of something a bit fruity and a bit refreshing, he came back with a wonderful mocktail made up of a sweet cherry base with a spritz of citrus to freshen it up, with the tasting notes exactly as requested. The chardonnay he recommended to K (2014 vintage from the Piemonte region in Italy) was similarly excellent.

So what did we eat?

We started with bread and butter – but this wasn’t a simple choice! We had the option of choosing from a selection of breads including spinach, onion, pumpkin seed, tomato and olive amongst others. These were served with a selection of chilli butter, seaweed butter, lemon butter and normal butter – my pick was the salty umami seaweed butter which went a treat with the sweeter onion bread.

We also had a complimentary amuse-bouche of Celery Multi-Ways courtesy of the kitchen. In this little dish, the celery was baked with honey, creamed with vanilla and turned into crisps as well – the different methods turning a boring vegetable into something quite extraordinary.

Now here’s the extraordinary thing about Alcron Restaurant that sets it apart from other starred restaurants – you can order as you go. They encourage you to only order one or two courses at a time, so that you can structure your meal as you listen to what your stomach’s telling you. Had a cold seafood starter and now want a hot meat-based main? They can organise that. Want to finish off with a light vegetable dish, rather than dessert? You can do that too – just order each course as you go, and listen to what your body wants.

So for our first dishes, I ordered the Tuna Sashimi with Tapioca, Daikon and Parsley Mayonnaise and K ordered the Quail Breast and Rillettes with Truffle and Rosehip. The tuna tartare with a dab of the wasabi mousse was a real highlight of my dish, and I always enjoy lotus root chips as well. K’s quail breast was remarkably tender and juicy, and he went quite wild over the rich liver pate base of the dish.

We went on to have a seafood main dish each – Seared Sea Scallops with Cauliflower Puree, Roasted King Oyster Mushrooms and Lardo Si Colonata for me, and the Catch of the Day with Yellow Pea Puree, Scallop, Roast Potatoes, Mushrooms and Chicken Jus for K. The scallops were remarkably fat, plump and juicy, aided I’m sure by the melting fat of the lardo that was blow-torched over the scallops at the table! K’s fish had a wonderfully crispy grilled skin, but the real highlight were the crispy crunchy potatoes on the side. On the whole however, I found his dish a little too salty – too much chicken jus perhaps.

After our first two courses, we were both feeling quite full – K more so than me as his catch of the day was quite large. I decided to go on to order one more small savoury dish (the waiter was able to guide me to a smaller-sized offering) for myself – the Organic Goat’s Cheese with Baked Leeks and Beets. I loved the firm globes of goat’s cheese ice-cream with thin slices of radish and sweet baked leeks and beets, beautifully presented in a spring-like wreath.

We finished our meal (or so we thought!) with the Cold and Hot Textures of Valrhona Chocolate and the Marinated Pear with Malt and Nougat for dessert. I loved the different textures of my dessert, with fudge, mousse, caramel crisps, ice-cream and crumble all making an appearance. The real highlight was the salted caramel ice-cream though – I’m a salted caramel fiend! K enjoyed the malt elements of his dessert, with the crisps in particular reminding him of childhood days drinking Horlicks.

Now we thought that was the end of our meal, but as we sat at our table happily sipping our tea (fresh mint for me, Earl Grey for K), the waiters came out with a surprise birthday cake for K! I had forgotten that I’d mentioned a birthday celebration when I made the reservation, but the restaurant hadn’t and had prepared accordingly with not only the cake, but a gift of a bottle of their Alcron house wine for us to take home to enjoy as well. Now that’s superb service – thank you Alcron Restaurant!

Alcron Restaurant proved to be a superb choice for K’s birthday celebrations. Not only do they offer superbly crafted modern European cuisine, they do so with a customer-focus, allowing the customer to really craft their meal according to however they’re feeling. It was a wonderful experience, and one I would recommend to anyone who visits Prague!

Alcron Restaurant is located in the Radisson Blu Alcron Hotel, at 40 Stepanska in Prague, Czech Republic.

Review: Masons of Bendigo, Bendigo

My measures of what I consider to be ‘good value’ in a meal are somewhat skewed. At one extreme, I think $500 is a reasonable amount to pay for a meal at The Fat Duck. At the other extreme, I think any more than $20 for a main at an everyday casual restaurant or pub is daylight robbery.

That murky area between $20 and $500 is where I can find it hard to decide. At the end of the day, ‘value for money’ comes down to food source and quality, innovation of the chef, atmosphere of the restaurant and promptness and friendliness of service. If all those elements are ticked off the list, then the price point becomes less of a focus.

What I can say for certain is that Masons of Bendigo ticks all those elements on the list and definitely rates as ‘good value’. As one of the few restaurants in Bendigo that regularly earns its Chef’s Hat in the Good Food Guide, I chose Masons as the destination for my birthday dinner during our weekend sojourn to Bendigo.

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Given that their menu offers nearly a dozen options each under smaller bites, larger plates and sides, K and I decided to make it a lot easier on ourselves by opting for their chef’s choice ‘Roaming Menu’ for $62.50 per person. Putting yourselves into the hands of a chef and trusting them to guide you through a delicious dinner has never led me wrong so far. In fact it worked particularly well for my 28th birthday dinner at O Bar and Dining, and it was the same for this 30th birthday dinner. 

We started with some house-baked charcoal sourdough bread – soft, dense, and still warm from the oven. There’s nothing better than freshly baked bread!

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Having had some drinks earlier in the day at The Dispensary, I decided to go non-alcoholic and chose a local natural Blood Orange Sparkling Mineral Water from Daylesford and Hepburn Springs Mineral Springs Co. From the same range, K chose their Organic Cola. Mine was particularly light, fresh, spritzy and refreshing without being sweet, while K’s was very easy on the palate without the strong medicinal undertones that often characterise organic colas. All in all, I’d definitely try more of the Daylesford and Hepburn Springs range.

McIvor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers, roasted shrimp, pineapple and cashew salad
McIvor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers, roasted shrimp, pineapple and cashew salad

First course was made up of some Pork Belly Skewers, topped with some roasted shrimp pieces and interestingly, sweet chunks of pineapple. It sounds like the recipe for a bad seventies dinner party dish – pork, prawns and pineapple – but surprisingly, it works! The melt-in-your-mouth quality of the smokey pork definitely helps, especially when contrasted with the prawn pieces which have slightly more bite.

Cauliflower and Manchego croquette, quince aioli, flaxseed crisp, parmesan
Cauliflower and Manchego croquette, quince aioli, flaxseed crisp, parmesan

I was delighted when our second course arrived, because I had been eyeing the Cauliflower and Manchego Croquettes on the regular menu. I’ve only really just started discovering the delights of Spanish manchego cheese – creamy, buttery, and cheesy without being too strong. It’s the perfect everyday cheese to suit all situations. In this situation, the manchego really helps to complete these delightful little cauliflower croquettes, helped by the snap and crackle of the flaxseed and parmesan crisps that add a bit of textural interest to the dish.

Crispy fried spiced calamari salad, toasted peanuts, roasted rice, fragrant herbs, lemon and lime dressing
Crispy fried spiced calamari salad, toasted peanuts, roasted rice, fragrant herbs, lemon and lime dressing

What first arrives at the table looking like a big heap of salad leaves is the Crispy Fried Spiced Calamari Salad. The liberally-dressed salad leaves hide the real star of the salad – the lightly battered and beautifully fried calamari. I don’t know whether the spices are hidden in the batter or coating the calamari under the batter – either way, it’s stunning. Honestly, I would have actually preferred to eat the fried calamari as separate ‘popcorn calamari’ bites, rather than mixed through a salad, as I think it could shine better standing alone.

Steamed organic broccoli, smoked miso butter, fried shallots
Steamed organic broccoli, smoked miso butter, fried shallots

Like the broccoli we had at The Dispensary which was coated with lemon butter, the Steamed Organic Broccoli here at Masons was beautifully creamy and buttery. Like The Dispensary, some texture is also added to the dish with a topping of crispy fried shallots to make it just a little bit more interesting.

Roast Wanbi Plains lamb loin, crispy belly, rolled shoulder, black olive caramel, fromage, beetroot crackle
Roast Wanbi Plains lamb loin, crispy belly, rolled shoulder, black olive caramel, fromage, beetroot crackle

Our main dish was the Roast Wanbi Plains Lamb Loin, with lamb served two more ways – a crispy belly, and a rolled shoulder. K loved the hefty serve of tender and succulent lamb in this dish, but I have to say that my highlight had nothing to do with the lamb, and everything to do with the delicious crispy beetroot crackle – just like chips/crisps, but better. Unfortunately, other parts of the dish didn’t quite hit the mark – like the slightly pickled little baby beets sitting on top of the lamb, which was quite stringy and fibrous.

Roasted Mount Prospect Russet Burbank potatoes, toasted parmesan cream, parsley
Roasted Mount Prospect Russet Burbank potatoes, toasted parmesan cream, parsley

I could hardly do justice to the final side dish, but did manage to squeeze in a few Roasted Mount Prospect Russet Burbank Potatoes. What a mouthful for a fairly simple crunchy roasted potato. The real highlight here was the delicious cheesy cream on top.

Masons Dessert Tasting Plate
Masons Dessert Tasting Plate

While I said above that I could hardly fit in the final sides, that obviously doesn’t apply to desserts, which go in the ‘dessert stomach’. It’s a real thing, ask any student of anatomy. We finished off with the Masons Dessert Tasting Plate, which is made up of:

  • Creme Brulee
  • Berry & Lychee Pannacotta
  • Chocolate Delice with Caramelised Popcorn
  • Salted Caramel Macaron
  • Strawberry Eskimo Pie
  • Lemon Cheesecake with Sweet Dukkah
  • White Chocolate Pot with Coffee Soil
  • Vanilla bean Favourite Flavours ice-cream with Persian Fairy Floss

While all the desserts had their own merits in small doses, I think that the one I would pinpoint as wanting a full serve of it rather than a small taster would be the Strawberry Eskimo Pie. The strawberry ice-cream (from local ice-cream maker Favourite Flavours) was just the way a strawberry ice-cream should be – full of real rich and deep sweet strawberry flavour with no artificial colouring or sweeteners at all. 

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Masons of Bendigo really ticks all the boxes for me. Our waitress for the evening was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and talked us through each dish of the tasting menu so we knew what we were having. The atmosphere was lively, full of Bendigo families celebrating special occasions and couples out on a Saturday night date.

The food was exceptional – smaller bites more so than the main, but still excellent overall. And priced at only $65 per person for a meal that fills you to the gills and has you rolling out the door, you really can’t go wrong! Masons of Bendigo is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in the Goldfields region of Victoria.

Masons of Bendigo is located at 25 Queen St, Bendigo.