Gourmet trailblazer — years later 

Café Nora still serving Mediterranean mainstays

Café Nora still serving Mediterranean mainstays

When it opened over a decade ago, Café Nora was a revelation, a groundbreaking culinary enterprise that introduced the taste buds of provincial Indianapolis diners to many of today’s gourmet givens: prosciutto, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes. Even if you couldn’t winter in Toulouse, you could order cassoulet right here in Indiana, bubbling hot from a wood-fired oven. Today, it’s still one of only a few places to get paella and perhaps the only place to get it for lunch.
But age takes its toll. Restaurants become complacent; dust settles. Sticking too rigorously to the concept that first won over customers can leave even the most interesting eateries falling behind, looking a little square and old-school while newcomers corner the market on chic.

Café Nora always suffered from the looming red glow of neighboring Target in Nora Plaza. Despite the quality, there was always something incongruous about paying high prices for highfalutin food in a strip mall. But growing pains sent Target to a site a few yards north; early this summer, Café Nora was divested of its corporate neighbor, leaving it to forge its own identity. Surely this would usher in other changes.

Fueled with nostalgia and curious about the difference Justin Wendt has made since he became chef in early 2003, we stopped in on a recent Saturday night. It was hard to say what had changed, but the place was packed with a crowd looking like they might have been there since the beginning. The open kitchen with its blazing wood oven, the warm, earthy walls and the menu heavy with pastas and stews remained. Somehow we didn’t remember the maddening muzak soundtrack that played throughout the meal.

A wine insert highlighted wines from Spain. But the waiter couldn’t recommend them. Instead, he directed me toward a Midnight Cellars Zinfandel ($8/glass), which, unfortunately, came served, as at so many local restaurants, in too small a glass filled practically to the brim. Only after drinking down a bit could I really assess the complexity and spice of the vintage.

An appetizer of baked goat cheese in marinara sauce ($8.95) came exactly as advertised, though the cheese had hardly browned in the oven. Accompanying bread was also errantly toasted; two croutons were golden and warm, the others pale and cool. The tang of the chèvre seemed dominated by the heft and sweetness of the sauce.

Salads and soups betrayed the kitchen’s carelessness. A house salad offered mostly watery chopped romaine with a smattering of vegetables; a lackluster balsamic vinaigrette added little flavor. Choices of soups were also less than thrilling. With so many creative entrées, why would a restaurant still serve such a mundane soup as cream of broccoli? Nonetheless, the soup had a nice consistency and flavor, if light on actual pieces of broccoli.

Café Nora staked its early fame on interpreting Mediterranean cuisine as much more than pasta. Their kitchen continues to turn out such dishes as Cocido Madrileno or Madrid Stew ($18.95). This curious pan-European concoction comes in two dramatic parts. First, the waiter poured the steaming broth off of a piping hot crock into a shallow bowl of angel hair pasta. Then he produced a giant slice of peasant bread and upended the crock, sending down a deluge of chorizo, prosciutto, pork loin and hearty hunks of vegetables onto the bread. The pork loin was quite tender, the chorizo lent some nice spice, and the vegetables hadn’t disintegrated in the oven’s heat. The broth was a little thin but bore the rich undertones of all the constituent ingredients.

Yes, Café Nora still delivers intriguing Mediterranean fare.

From the specials, a veal chop came perfectly grilled to medium with a rather heavy but tasty reduction sauce with wild mushrooms. A diminutive dollop of garlic mashed potatoes hid under the meaty chop, and a few inconsistently trimmed stalks of asparagus sprawled over the top. The whole arrangement slid to one side of the plate when the waiter set it down. It was a tasty enough dish, but for $25.95, one might have expected more care in both the presentation and preparation of the individual elements.

Desserts here are heavy on chocolate, which comes in forms as traditional as mousse or as once-trendy as tiramisu. All of these have to be better than the tight-as-a-drum, gelatinous flan ($4.50) we ordered. Caramel sauce was drizzled over the top rather than the usual burnt sugar sauce. Slightly hardened by the cool custard, it came off in the first bite, leaving us a wan, flavorless pudding to contend with.

Café Nora can still serve one of the most interesting meals in town. The secession of Target might have been an opportunity to shake off some cobwebs, but the place is still resting on its laurels, betting enough customers will still buy its original concept. Here’s hoping a few months of independence will inspire a little more daring — and a lot more precision — at an institution locals have come to love.

Café nora 1300 E. 86th St. 571-1000 Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-9:30 P.M. Friday-saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-10 P.M. Sunday, 5-8:30 P.M. Food: 3 stars Atmosphere: 3 stars Service: 3 stars

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