The yellow sign, its flashing lights and the words “EAT IN . . . OUT” do not really prepare you for Norah’s Place.
It’s an Argentine restaurant. It’s an Italian restaurant. It’s a Bolivian restaurant. It’s a dress-up, live-music nightclub, with a cover charge after 9 p.m. On Monday and Thursday nights, it’s a dance studio--specializing in the tango.
Finally, Norah’s Place is probably the quinoa capital of Southern California. Quinoa (KEEN-wah), in case you haven’t heard, is the latest magic grain on the health food circuit, promising to be everything amaranth wasn’t. (You missed the amaranth era? Sorry.)
Quinoa is the seed of a variety of the common weed, goosefoot, which was one of the mainstays of the ancient Inca diet. So many nutrients are apparently packed into each little seed that they could, well, practically explode.
However, Norah’s Place is nothing like a health food restaurant. The Argentine component alone means that the menu is heavily laden with meat--particularly beef. A dish like parillada might give a quinoa enthusiast the karmic jitters for a week: big grilled pieces of either beef or chicken plus a semi-aged pork sausage, a great big blood sausage, some grilled sweetbreads and a braided length of milk tripe. And all quite good, though the pleasantly chewy texture of the grilled tripe may not be enough to persuade people who don’t like tripe.
There are two very good table sauces for meat: llaqua , a hot yellow chili sauce, and chimichurri , a thick paste of ground thyme and vinegar, flavored with garlic and red pepper. The third sauce that appears on the table, though, is not for meat. It’s a mixture of tomato, onion and hearts of palm for putting on your salad after the oil and vinegar.
As a self-respecting Argentine restaurant, Norah’s naturally serves a number of Italian dishes. There’s a list of pastas, nothing very exotic to look at it but in the Argentine-Italian tradition positively loaded with garlic. A huge plate of rigatoni con broccoli in cream sauce will protect the average person from vampires for at least two days.
The Italian influence goes further than that, though. Even the breaded steaks known as milanesas , found in most Latin restaurants, have a particularly Italian coloring here. The one called napolitana is a paper-thin sheet of breaded ham, topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella.
As at most Argentine-Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, the Argentine dish matambre , a mixture of vegetables rolled up in a steak and roasted, is quite Italianized. It’s made with veal breast instead of flank steak, and in fact it’s virtually the Genoese dish cima . That it’s served as an appetizer shows how much it has been altered; the real Argentine matambre is a far from delicate dish, as its name, “hunger-killer,” indicates.
The Bolivian dishes occupy a short section of the menu, but include the best of Norah’s appetizers: a little flat pie ( empanada ) with a spicy filling like Mexican chorizo, and an egg-shaped pie called saltena , filled with stewed beef and onions. Some of the Bolivian entrees might be hard to distinguish from the Argentine grilled meats, and others, such as lomo saltado , could pass for the Creole cooking of just about any Latin American country. It’s beef sauteed with onions and tomatoes (well, some cheese is melted on top of it).
The steak called lapping is another matter. On one level it’s just a steak, although a marinated one. But to encourage the marinade, and possibly to speed up cooking as well, the meat is deeply scored in a crisscross pattern. It comes to the table looking like hedgehog, or perhaps a sort of lumpy waffle-iron made of meat. It’s very good, and of course part of the cutting has already been done for you.
And now it’s quinoa time. I can’t tell whether the primary motivation for featuring quinoa on this menu is nutrition-consciousness or pride in heritage (the wine list is certainly heritage-proud, listing dozens of Argentine wines). In any case, a serious attempt is being made to star quinoa in some dishes.
This is an uphill battle because grains can rarely sustain a starring role, and the rich filling and the molasses sauce are barely enough to make the quinoa cake a decent dessert, interesting though its texture is. For dessert I’d prefer the panqueques , simple crepes with a caramel filling, unless I was really in the mood for megavitamins and mega-proteins.
Recommended dishes: empanada , $1.50; sopa de quinoa , $2; napolitana , $8.95; lapping , $8.50; panqueques , $2.
Norah’s Place, 5667 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood , (818) 980-6900. Open 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, Carte Blanche and Diners Club accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $21 to $42.