By Nancy McKeon
THE ONLY REASON a woman would happily specify, in one of the first pages of her memoir, that she was born in 1943 is that otherwise readers who have actually seen her might not believe that the dewy-fresh Nora Pouillon was a World War II baby in Europe.
Looking easily 20 years younger than her age, Pouillon hosted a small group of media people for a typical Restaurant Nora lunch March 19. By typical I mean the food was delicious, light and, as befits the first certified-organic restaurant in the U.S., all natural.
As I decided on the main-course offering of a multigrain risotto, Pouillon looked over at me and cautioned, “My risotto is not like regular risotto. I don’t use any butter or cream in it. It has lots of vegetables.”
I stood my ground–as did Little Bird Anne–and was rewarded with a creamy mix of rice and carrots and mushrooms as rich as any Milanese version of the usually-calorie-dense dish.
To Pouillon’s right, a radiant Diane Rehm, the radio-talk-show host, chowed down on the black-glazed-cod main course, declaring it divine (as did Little Bird Mary). She also, I was thrilled to observe, finished every morsel of the dessert, a cake made with chocolate and bread crumbs and almonds that Pouillon’s grandmother used to make in the alpine retreat where Pouillon and her siblings were sent from war-torn Vienna, where Pouillon was born.
Restaurant Nora, on the corner of Florida Avenue and R Street NW, opened in 1979 and has always attracted media and political types–the late Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, President Jimmy Carter, the Obamas. So it wasn’t surprising that Pouillon’s guests this day included, in addition to Rehm, Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Frances Sellers from The Washington Post, Jeff Brown from PBS NewsHour, former USA Today (and now AARP) book critic Deirdre Donahue and food writers David Hagedorn (Foodie DC) and Jordan Wright (Whisk and Quill).
The attraction has always been Nora herself and her insistence on sourcing food from farmers, not “suppliers.” In tracing her beginnings from a young wife married to a French news correspondent in Washington and just learning to cook (and being horrified by what was sold in American supermarkets), to catering parties, to taking the leap and opening her own place, Pouillon recounted some of the odd problems she faced as she carved her own path. (For instance, she expanded to the now-defunct City Cafe in order to have enough call for all the meat she had on hand by buying whole sides of animals direct from organic farmers, again to avoid meat that would otherwise be filled with hormones and would arrive already cut up and wrapped in plastic.)
If the American quilts that hang throughout the restaurant hark back to the organic movement’s Birkenstock-and-hippie days, the longevity of Restaurant Nora speaks to the movement’s, well, movement into the American mainstream. As for Pouillon, she told me about her book a few months ago and said that, even though she had published a cookbook, she had never thought anyone would be interested in her life and life’s work. It was a literary agent who approached her. Happily, that agent, Deborah Grosvenor, was on hand at lunch to watch her memoirist take flight.