For my first dinner at Nola since it reopened six weeks ago, I needed my wife and teenage daughter’s fine eyes for design and service. I don’t think I’m cool enough for Emeril’s experimental bistro.
It’s a long-running experiment. Nola was the second in Emeril’s now-extensive collection of restaurants around the country, but it was never reproduced anywhere else. It’s smaller, more casual and funkier than any of the chef’s other places.
It fits right into the French Quarter — and it doesn’t. The old three-story brick building needed structural strengthening to accommodate the wide-open spaces it now encloses. On the second floor, which is where the best tables are, you can look across a small atrium and the back of the glass elevator to the other half of the floor where other diners are doing the same thing.
Down below, the open kitchen bustles. A brick oven with enough fire within to illuminate the room is the centerpiece. It doesn’t function well as a food bar although people have been known to sit there and dine.
Not long after it opened, Nola evolved into a place where Emeril’s team refined new people and ideas. Many waiters, cooks and managers come through Nola and wind up in other provinces of the empire. Dishes that sound like a good idea go here to see if any unpredictable production or taste problems crop up.
Nola did have one thing in common with Emeril’s other places. In the days before the hurricane, waiters fielded questions about Emeril himself all night. Does he ever cook here? (Not often) What’s he really like? (Great guy.)
That line of talk is less heard these days. Like most restaurants in the French Quarter, Nola relies on locals who already know these answers. Frankly, there aren’t quite enough locals. Many New Orleanians are out of the habit of dining in the Quarter.
Nola is as good a reason as I can think of for reconnecting with the Vieux Carre dining scene. The cooking is exciting, the food is excellent and — like Emeril’s other restaurants — the service staff is as good as it gets.
To prove that point, I introduce you to Thaddaeus Prosper. He’s been at Nola for more than a few years. He’s a local guy, former football player in school and the kind of waiter who gets people talking at the table and afterward. He’s proud of his kitchen but he doesn’t sell hard. His friendliness stops just short of sitting down with you to continue telling the story he started before he was called to another table. Prosper is to Nola what Harry Tervalon was to the Camellia Grill.
The whole wait staff at Nola has a great attitude. They start by telling you about the Southeast Asian-style stuffed chicken wings created by Miss Hay, a Vietnamese cook who’s been at Nola almost since the beginning. Emeril liked her so much he let her add her own style of cooking to the menu even though Nola is otherwise exclusively a Louisiana-style restaurant. Those wings — one will do you pretty well, two will stuff you before the entrée — have a wild flavor redolent of savory herbs, finished with a little touch of sweetness from hoisin sauce. I loved them; my wife didn’t. (I brought her for her sense of style, not her palate.)
This evening’s $50, four-course tasting menu began with tuna tartar done better than I remember. Instead of chopping the tuna into a near-mush (as is usually done with this dish), the chef rendered it into small cubes about a centimeter on a side with a lemony aioli, a scattering of capers and a little pile of Louisiana caviar. All garnishes were spread around such that each forkful of the tuna took a different complement of other flavors and it stayed delicious to the last leaf of arugula.
The second course was an old Nola specialty I haven’t seen here in awhile. It’s grilled shrimp arrayed around angel hair pasta bordelaise (more or less) with a warm remoulade sauce. Sounds funny but remoulade sauce does work warm as well as cold. Good dish.
The entree special was a filet mignon stuffed with roasted garlic and set on a base of cubed potatoes and smoked mushrooms with small squares of bacon. This cholesterol bomb was heavy enough on the butter and bacon fat to make even one who doesn’t dwell on such things wince. But you couldn’t stop eating it. The hash below was so good I had polished it all off before realizing there was a lot of steak left.
Other dishes included shrimp scampi on focaccia squares (this needs more development), a pizza with too many fresh tomatoes and olives, a filet mignon with a portobello mushroom with blue cheese melted on top, garlic mashed potatoes and Emeril’s distinctive barbecue shrimp, which is made by making highly reduced stock from shrimp shells and heads and adding it to the butter-and-pepper sauce.
Like all Emeril restaurants, Nola does its own baking. The breads are fresh and a little too good (you eat more of them than you’d planned). The desserts are a bit less polished and tend to the extremely rich side.
The heat following the hurricane wiped out Nola’s entire wine collection. The 1,000 selections are down to about 100.
As is the case in most French Quarter restaurants, getting a table at Nola is much easier than doing so in a comparable (or less) restaurant Uptown or in Metairie. The place is far from dead but they’ll be very happy to see you there. Don’t ask for Emeril and they’ll know you’re local.
From City Business Magazine
Article by Tom Fitzmorris