These days in Melbourne's endlessly creative coffee scene, it seems as if there’s a new venue opening every week. Melbournians are spoiled for choice, and it sometimes becomes difficult to keep up–or even distinguish between–each new venture. How does one possibly capture the city's attention in a market so firmly saturated? For NORA, a new cafe in Carlton, they've opened touting creative South-East Asian influenced breakfasts alongside unique sweet tarts and high quality coffee. It's a combination that's hard to ignore.
Located on sunny Elgin St in the inner-north suburb of Carlton (one of Melbourne's top coffee districts), NORA has found a home just around the corner from the bustling Lygon street strip, bringing something a bit different to the old Italian-heavy dynamic of the neighbourhood. The space is a beautifully light and open space, with the glass windows at the front allowing a view onto the delicately laid-out display at the front of the café.
NORA originally began as a small wholesale operation founded by Jean Thamthanakorn and Sari (Tong) Rojanametin in 2014, making and selling their tarts to the likes of Assembly, Everyday Coffee, and Brother Baba Budan, with a goal of eventually opening their own space. The shop's tarts are immediately recognizable, with a distinctively black charcoal infused pastry shell filled with inventive and delicious combinations, the likes of which most recently got the attention of the inimitable Yotam Ottolenghi on a visit to Melbourne.
Chatting to Tong and Jean, it’s apparent that the concept of NORA formed very organically for them, with Tong having a background in art and advertising photography before starting into the coffee industry, and Jean previously working in accountancy and tax while baking at home to satisfy the couple’s sweet tooth.
In the well-saturated breakfast land that is Melbourne city, smashed avocado and poached eggs are plentiful. With deep roots in South East Asia, these two entrepreneurs set out to introduce something new to the café scene in Melbourne, utilizing their culinary and cultural history, and combining it with western techniques and the Melbourne market. As Tong Rojanmetin explained to me, “We want to offer things that involve the use of your senses and interaction rather than just something simple on a plate or in a cup. The core philosophy of our place is to introduce something out of the ordinary, taking inspiration from our roots, from the great masters, and redefine it with our own touch.”
With menu items like Dear Mitchell (pillowy custard-like eggs, housemade chili dressing, salted shrimp & thai greens) and Churning of The Sea of Milk (delicately smoked trout, nashi pear, succulents, flying fish roe, beets & coconut ricotta), there’s no chance that Tong & Jean could be accused of being unoriginal. The food is unique and challenging on a number of levels, served with sides of Yorkshire pudding and raw, lightly dressed cabbage.
Their coffee service has its own character as well, with creations like the Saigon (pandan infused ice coffee) and a delightful sparkling cold brew. More conventional coffee offerings include an espresso program anchored around a La Marzocco 3 Group Linea espresso machine paired with a Nuova Simonelli Mythos grinder, featuring Small Batch Coffee's Candyman blend. A rotating roster of filter coffees appear on the cafe's Fetco batch brew menu, including Melbourne locals like Small Batch and Seven Seeds; future plans call for the addition of Sydney roasters like Reuben Hills and Mecca Espresso.
Batch brew is still on relatively new grounds here in Melbourne, but on a recent trip to the United States, Tong & Jean found that the approachable & everyday nature of filter coffee culture that they found there really resonated with them. The duo have consequently set up NORA’s coffee service with the goal of highlighting simple filter coffee in the espresso-heavy neighbourhood of Carlton.
“Our main philosophy is to make good coffee more approachable in every way,” Thamthanakorn told me. “It’s the idea of going against the ‘holy grail’ coffee culture in Melbourne, where specialty cafes are held so high up that sometimes it’s hard to connect to people who don’t work in the hospitality industry or to people who are not hardcore coffee fans.”
There's an interesting set of dynamics happening at NORA, where the concept-driven menu can come across as quite challenging both culturally and gastronomically, while their coffee service sets out to be as approachable and simple as possible. It makes sense in a way: in a town like Melbourne that is so overwhelmed with boutique roasters and concept cafes, the world of ‘specialty’ coffee can be an alienating one to the average customer, while the avocado-on-toast saturated food offering across town can tend to be a little predictable.
With this, NORA is attempting to defy the status quo on a number of different levels – providing challenging food beside relatively straightforward coffee, all bundled up in a beautiful space with super friendly service. What's that old saying about an enigma wrapped in a riddle? This is like that, but highly delicious.