Restaurant Review: Nori

New plant-based Japanese concept hits the spot

Spicy creamy ramen (Photo by John Anderson)

What does it mean for a restaurant to be innovative in 2023? With gels and foams? Surely not ... in this economy? These days, there are other ways to innovate in the dining industry, from automation to going zero waste.

Even today, in Austin, being a fully plant-based restaurant is innovative. Despite this city's progressive bona fides and population of plant-based eaters, there are shockingly few places where diners can enjoy a fully plant-based meal indoors, served on dishes, using actual forks and knives and napkins that don't come out of a dispenser.

In August 2022, Nori became the latest entrant into the not-at-all-crowded field of plant-based restaurants in Austin. Occupying the space that once housed a Five Guys on the North University stretch of Guadalupe, Nori tucks a modern, sophisticated concept between a vape shop and a Party Barn.

And the people are flocking. We sat at the bar for happy hour at 5:30 on a Tuesday evening because there was an hour-plus wait for a table. There, we watched our industrious bartender make drink after drink after drink as orders poured in from the ticket machine; several minutes passed before she could turn her attention to us and take our order. Because Nori offers discounted maki rolls and cocktails during happy hour, we chose to focus on those to get the most bang for our buck.

We chose margaritas and That Drink Over There, conceived and named by the bartender who served us. It's a gin-based drink with grapefruit juice, ginger, pear, and rosemary that promises a fruity and floral flavor profile but was just a bit too bitter to be truly pleasant. Both the margaritas and That Drink would benefit from a splash or two of simple syrup to make them more palatable.

We decided to kick things off with the veggie tempura appetizer. It was delicious, with crispy and flavorful batter, but we wished there had been more of everything. There were a couple of large pieces of bok choy and potato, one solitary red bell pepper ring, and two small pieces of sweet onion.

Shiitake roll (Photo by John Anderson)

We made quick work of the tempura but didn't have to wait too long for our rolls to start arriving. We selected four rolls (which was too many for three people, as the portions are generous): the volcano, hearts of palm, shiitake, and spider. The volcano was probably my favorite of the four. It's tempura-battered and fried, filled with spinach, avocado, and sweet potato. Folks with texture issues may find the soft-cooked sweet potato in the middle problematic, but I enjoyed it for its simplicity and general wholesomeness. The hearts of palm roll was nice and light, and tasted like a salad. Because hearts of palm have such a mild flavor on their own, the primary flavor was the tomato/spicy mayo/chili sauce combo on the top. Both of these rolls were topped with Cavi-art, a Danish seaweed-based alternative to fish roe. It's an interesting concept, but there wasn't enough of it to leave any sort of impression.

I had viscerally negative reactions to both of the mushroom-centric rolls. There was a strange bitterness to the shiitake roll that was utterly off-putting. Similarly, I ate one piece of the spider roll and pushed away the plate. The tempura-battered beech mushrooms tasted and felt woody and stale. That said, I have several vegetarian friends who absolutely adore the shiitake and spider rolls at Nori, which triggered a spirited discussion about our diametrically opposed reactions. We arrived at the conclusion that these rolls in particular meet a need that I, as an omnivore, don't need met. Their unqualified adoration of these rolls speaks volumes, so I'll leave it at that. I do appreciate that all of the rolls are creative and beautiful on their own terms.

We turned our attention to the rest of the menu on our next visit. The beet fries were fine, not too greasy, and tasted lightly of ginger. I was curious about the onigiri, a baseball-sized rice ball studded with shiitake mushrooms and topped with wispy potato crisps. It was very delicious, the salt and umami and varying textures dancing together beautifully, but I've got a raised eyebrow for that $8 price tag.

Our mains came out quite quickly, starting with the Japanese katsu curry, served with jasmine rice and a battered tofu cutlet. The curry was a little sweet-and-sour, but not unbalanced. There were chunks of carrot and daikon in the stew, and the cutlet was creamy and delicious. I ordered the spicy creamy ramen, which had a shiitake-based broth with a strong ginger flavor and lots of nori, but it was not particularly spicy. The steaklike shiitakes and blanched broccolini were delicious; in fact, I would have preferred a version of the dish without the baked tofu and with lots more mushrooms and broccolini. My friend chose yakisoba, which had a mild flavor and lots of veggies. If you have a picky eater in your party, this would be a good, unchallenging dish for them to try.

My spouse tried a margarita again, and again found it lacking sweetness. I'm not doing Dry January, but this time I opted for the yuzu mocktail, which was much more enjoyable than the cocktails, with a lovely balance of sweet citrus notes – pineapple, yuzu – and fizziness.

Lavender tea mocktail (Courtesy of Nori)

There are two desserts on the menu, and only one, the lava cake, was available on this visit. We were too full to try it, but I contemplated taking one home to share with my kids. That plan got the kibosh when I learned that the cake is made with almond flour, which is not indicated on the menu.

Which brings me to accessibility concerns: On my visits, I was seated at the bar and a bar-height table. I'm fortunate to be able to sit in taller chairs and get in and out of them with most of my dignity intact. There are regular-height tables, too, but I wonder whether wheelchair users or people with larger bodies would be able to navigate the space with ease, particularly the extremely small entry vestibule. Additionally, while the menu indicates which items are gluten-free, folks with tree nut allergies should inquire into hidden allergens in their dishes.

I enjoyed my visits to Nori, despite my personal aversion to a couple of the rolls. The service is friendly, if a little rushed, and the space is lovely (it's a far cry from the fast-casual Five Guys' blaring-white subway tile and tall stacks of peanut boxes and potato sacks). Based on the brisk business it's doing even on Tuesday nights, Nori is clearly meeting a need in Central Austin, and doing it in an imaginative and creative way.


3208 Guadalupe Ste. B, 512/520-5775
Tue.-Sun., 5-10pm; Mon., closed

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