Nora is a Thai-inspired bakery cafe in Carlton recently opened by Thai-Australian couple Tong and Jean.
They have been supplying their distinctive charcoal tarts to various cafes around town and decided to strike out on their own with a minimalist shop filled with beautiful things.
What strikes you about the cafe when you enter is the dreamy, relaxing atmosphere created by the easy-on-the-eye blond wood and cute cartoon-coloured stool. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the gorgeous still life set out in the sunny front window showcasing their famous tarts and the ingredients going into them.
What makes Nora‘s tarts unusual are the black charcoal crusts. The flavours are generally Asian, with glances at kaffir lime, star anise and lemongrass in the custard and toppings.
The all day breakfast/lunch menu is quite unusual too. There are only about half a dozen items to choose from and they vary from eggs done ‘our way’ ie 30 minute sous vide to ‘Pig from the Ground it’s Raised From’. The effect is whimsical and poetical and wow what comes out on the plate is a work of art.
I ordered ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’ $19.50, an artful arrangement of Smoked Rainbow Trout, Coconut Ricotta, slithers of nashi and beets, succulents, Flying Fish roe, mizuna and a dabs of herb oil. A fresh, light, flavoursome dish with a particularly expert combination of textures and colours on the plate.
All their dishes come with a popover, sort of like a Yorkshire pud, plus a hunk of raw wombok with curry paste applied to it – an unusual side dish if I ever saw it. Based on the light and crusy popover I’ll be buying a loaf of their freshly-made sourdough bread next time.
To drink I couldn’t go past the Harry Potter-esque pumpkin juice, cold-pressed with carrot, orange and cinnamon ($6). Refreshing and super-healthy but a bit more cinnamon would have been welcome.
For dessert there are generally only four tart flavours at any one time and only about 100 tarts made a day. At middy on my visit already one of the tart flavours had sold out but no matter, because I had my heart set on sour cherry with kaffir lime custard. Mostly because I like the combination of colours against the inkiness of the tart base.
So imagine my surprise when the tart arrived, beautifully presented with a scattering of pistachios and crumble…but upside down. ‘I dropped your tart’ the waitress said cheekily, before explaining that they serve all their tarts, smashed and upended. Just for fun! I loved it. Shows that the kitchen doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
Nora‘s tarts are not traditional sweet shortcrust pastry inked with black – the casings contain charcoal made from coconut shells and are a different texture all together. The closest I can liken it to is filo pastry, but less flaky and more papery. As for the flavour I didn’t detect any particularly smokiness or burnt flavours in the tart, so it seems to be more for aesthetic (and apparently health) effect. And it was a bargain at $5!
Head to Nora for a twist on the standard cafe fare that you can find everywhere in Melbourne and prepared to be delighted and surprised by their attention to detail and imagination.