While everyone else (with a spare $500) was at Noma’s 10-week residency in Sydney, I was at Nora in Carlton.
There’s more than just a single letter that separates the two.
Noma was the World’s Best Restaurant four years running. An Australian chef who worked in chef Rene Redzepi’s Copenhagen kitchen recently told me that at Noma, there are no limitations on time or resources to achieve the dish of your dreams.
Nora barely has a kitchen. The chef has no formal training. It seats 20. But it’s these limitations that make Nora the most fascinating dining experience I’ve had in a very long time.
Until recently, Nora operated as a cafe. It was opened by two relative novices – Jean Thamthanakorn, a former tax accountant, and Sarin Rojanametin, an advertising and fine-art photographer with a couple of Cannes Lions. Thamthanakorn taught herself to bake while Rojanametin decamped from advertising to learn about coffee at Brother Baba Budan, Seven Seeds and Everyday Coffee.
In 2014, the two took over a tiny site on Elgin Street. In that small space, their breakfast menu freely appropriated New Nordic, Nouvelle Cuisine and Thai home cookery at an accessible price.
The traditional egg breakfast came sous-vide. Liver, fungus, tongue, roe, pork jowl and fermented shrimp all featured heavily. “I asked people to define a cafe, and a lot of people said, ‘A place with an espresso coffee machine’,” says Rojanametin. “So I got rid of that.
“There’s nothing wrong with people wanting to eat smashed avocado and poached eggs, and I get it. It’s such a big culture here,” he says. “But I didn’t grow up with avocado. I didn’t grow up with anything like that.”
Some people hated it. “If you sat with me from 8.30am to 2.30pm, the amount of walkouts was massive,” he says.
Once a week, the cafe closed during the day to prepare for the Small Dinner Club, a evening with a set-course menu, natural wines and no vegetarian option. You may have seen the black, severed chicken heads on Instagram. “Dinner pushes more boundaries,” he says. “We experiment more with what pairs with what.”
In February, the pair shut the cafe for good, and installed a modest kitchen and some wine fridges. They now do the Small Dinner Club five nights a week. “We want control of every aspect, from when you walk in until you leave,” says Rojanametin. “That’s why we got started: we got fed up. We thought we could do better.”
When I visited a couple of weeks ago, the tiny venue was three-quarters full. Rojanametin stood sedately behind the new kitchen counter, which takes up about half the space. When the time came, he plated a dish on handmade crockery and sent it across the pass.
Called, unhelpfully, Too Many Italians and Only One Asian, the dish looked like a twist of capellini pasta delicately coated in breadcrumbs touched with a dab of ragù. But on closer inspection, this was julienned green papaya served warm; a pesto made from sator (known in Thailand as “stinky beans”); and crumbs made from school prawn. A touch of fermented garlic brought everything together.
“I get inspired by the fact we’re in Carlton, surrounded by all these Italians. I want to cook a pasta dish,” says Rojanametin. “But it’s Thai.”
What makes the dish brilliant is it’s both studious and deeply personal. A select bookshelf at the back of the shop holds Christian Puglisi and Thomas Keller. One of the most striking dishes of the evening is an homage (or a challenge) to great British chef, Marco Pierre White. But no matter how much homework the team at Nora has clearly done, the dishes are hugely intuitive, drawing in familiar flavours from Rojanametin’s childhood. Whether it’s technically accomplished or not doesn’t matter – it’s just exciting, unusual food.
“I just create the flavours that I know. That’s me. Every dish, if you eat and you think enough, you’d know it was Thai,” he says. “But I have to work harder than other people, because I have no [cooking] background. I don’t have the training. I have to read more, and I have to think more. I dream about food. I don’t mind, because that’s what I love to do.”
Another reason Nora is worth talking about is because of how much it achieves with so little. When the cafe first opened, the eggs went in the waterbath simply because they didn’t have a cooktop. Now there’s a cooktop, but much of the menu comes from finding creative ways to deal with space limitations. The best dish of the night, for instance, was a piece of blue mackerel, served slightly pickled under a small hill of spicy green-chilli granita, a slice of compressed watermelon and a black-sesame reduction. It’s visually arresting, disarmingly uncomplicated and totally delicious.
It’s not going to appeal to everyone. But Rojanametin and Thamthanakorn’s devotion to their vision, considering the inherent challenges of running of a restaurant business, is admirable.
If we’re not paying enough attention to Nora at the moment, it’s probably because there’s not an easy category in which to place the whole experiment.
“We’ll never compromise,” says Rojanametin. “It doesn’t matter how many people walk out. It’s not that we don’t care. We’re not here to change anything, but we’re here to make a statement. We’re here to please ourselves.”
The progressive experience tasting menu is $95. Alcoholic beverage match is an additional $75. Non-alcoholic drinks matching is an additional $55. Nora cannot currently accommodate guests who don’t eat fish or dairy, but is working on a vegetarian menu.