Nora Handily Woos Westerners
By Warren Rojas / Photography by Kate Bohler
It’s not that we were totally shocked to find a rather progressive but still deeply personal Lebanese restaurant like Nora had sprouted up in an otherwise non-descript shopping strip along Gainesville’s main thoroughfare.
It’s who we routinely spotted dining there that ultimately blew us away.
For those who’ve not yet been, Nora is a dual-themed establishment owned and operated by veteran toque Walid Boustany.
Whereas his previous business pursuits entailed overseeing local outlets of the once-prominent Aladdin’s Eatery chain, Boustany has since turned his attention to this largely undiscovered gem—a passion project that aims to appeal to natives in need of a taste of home and newcomers looking to inject a little adventure into their gustatory travels.
The seemingly modest, suburban eatery also serves two distinct masters: those who shuffle into the booth-lined main dining room and favor the relative peace and quiet of subdued family meals, as well as lounge-bound revelers who flock to the sleek and sexy side room for prolonged drags of flavored smoke, a nibble of exotic eats and perhaps a glimpse of undulating flesh on evenings when scantily clad belly dancers wind their way through the clapping, leering crowd.
The restaurant, which quietly crept onto the scene in late 2009, doesn’t appear to want to set the world on fire. Then again, it doesn’t really have to.
The novelty of the cuisine, we would wager, is enough of a draw for those who have grown weary of the fast-food circuit that cropped up along with the destination shopping complex that’s been the mainstay of this commuter community for going on a decade.
The main dining room is often perfumed by the lingering scent of foreign delicacies but appears perfectly non-confrontational, interweaving just a smidge of Lebanese art and Middle Eastern curio amid the standard table tents, local event announcements and otherwise mundane notices that otherwise blight suburban shop windows.
As noted earlier, the seats are regularly claimed not by famished Lebanese nationals or even unseasonably tan expatriates from the Mediterranean coast but by lily white nuclear families and groups of graying couples.
Granted, Gainesville is probably predominantly retirees, but we were still rather shocked to discover: 1) so many ethnic cuisine-loving, older Westerners lending their support to a newish establishment, and 2) the frequency with which said regulars returned to the fledgling operation (we spotted at least one repeat customer, if not more, during half our trips out to Nora). The nocturnal and cliquey nature of those attempting to shrink into the darkest corners of the adjoining hookah lounge made it harder to troll for familiar faces. But confidence is high; a substantive poll of the assembled lounge lizards would help trim the median age of the average Nora fan by at least a decade or two.
Home-spun hand pies made mouths happy no matter what hour we tried them. Open-faced pastries featuring tangy, crumbled feta baked to a golden brown atop rows of juicy, zesty diced tomatoes were all-around favorites. Half moons filled with cinnamon-spiked ground beef and sautéed onion ran a close second, while nutty tricornered offerings stuffed with lemon-soaked greens (highly acidic), crunchy pine nuts and earthy sumac struck a chord with vegetarians.
Protein-topped hummus proved to be the best of all possible pita-topping worlds. The garlicky spread arrives smothered with either thinly sliced steak, seasoned chicken, or both, along with sliced almonds and a rainbow of pickled vegetables (my favorite part of the multi-sensory experience). Beef and chicken were both good, but we would probably come down more in the poultry camp, while the pickled cucumbers and turnips were awesomely sour yet still pertinently crisp.
Chicken soujouk obliged us to burn through a whole basket of pitas, the mixture of finely ground chicken, minced tomatoes, onions and spices proving too irresistible to pass up.
Stewed lamb wants not for terrific company, revealing hearty slices of mouthwateringly tender lamb—rendered so thanks to the artfully carved ring of prophylactic fat left surrounding each magical morsel—nestled into dreamy bed of steamed rice, seasoned ground beef, minty yogurt sauce (brightened each mouthful) and shaved almonds.
A funky flatbread promises lamb, sirloin and pine nuts, only to deliver the same cinnamon-spiked ground beef spooned into various other dishes. But I still devoured every last bite, if only because I needed something to scoop up every last drop of the intensely spicy house hot sauce fashioned from pureed hot peppers and native spices.
Lamb kebabs were, sadly, rather hit-or-miss, yielding cubes of seasoned lamb that ranged from juicy and savory to dry and bland, or were just improperly deployed. Case in point: a kebab sandwich sabotaged nearly every one of the incorporated ingredients; the surrounding pita was too tightly wound and over grilled, effectively robbing the wrapper of much-needed elasticity and compressing all the underlying ingredients. The lamb was woefully dry, the hummus merely OK, and the pickled vegetables much less demonstrative than they had proven to be when left to their own delicious devices.
For all our explorations, the beverage carte remained wildly undiscovered country. The master wine list boasts over a dozen Lebanese producers specializing in everything from classic chardonnays and sparkling blanc du blancs to inky syrahs and tannic cabernet sauvignons.
Prefer something a little lighter? Wrap your lips around over a half-dozen fresh fruit smoothies (strawberry, chocolate-banana, mango+, guava+, Hawaiian) or any of the slew of freshly squeezed beverages (orange, carrot, apple, carrot-celery, orange-apple).
Nora Taste of Lebanon
14674 Lee Highway, Gainesville; 703-753-0233; www.norarestaurant.com
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Average entree: under $12 ($).