Since I am no expert on the cuisine of New Orleans, I went to Nola with three Texans who know their gumbo. We soon discovered, however, that there is much more to Nola than Louisiana’s famous state dish.
Nola, owned by American Rachel Moeller (better known for her cakes, served at Rachel’s in the Marais), is the name of the upstairs restaurant in her new place on the Canal Saint Martin, called Two Stories. Downstairs is the lunch spot Po Boy Café.
The restaurant has been handsomely, classily and cozily done up in dark-brown paneling and furnishings, with red banquettes, tiled floors and overhead ceiling fans. An Audubon print of a Louisiana heron graces one wall, and a few books and knickknacks on shelves add a homey touch.
The bilingual servers were just as friendly as their American counterparts, but without the annoying habits of the latter: “My name is XX, and I’ll be your server tonight,” and constant conversation-interrupting visits to the table to ask, “How y’all doing? Can I get you anything else?”
The real hit at this stage of the dinner was the rosemary-and-honey-infused butter served with little round buns. The starters were also well-received, especially the salad of beets, pear and crab, and the potato gnocchi with cockles and spinach.
I loved the deep autumnal flavors of my squash soup with ceps but didn’t think the cube of oxtail in deep-fried batter floating in it added anything to the already rich dish.
One of my Texan friends had the gumbo and pronounced it delicious. This is a stew that is wide open to interpretation. The Nola version included a whole quail stuffed with jasmine rice and served in a sauce with Cajun pork sausage, okra and a dark roux.
We sampled all three of the desserts on offer: the “Nola snowball”, a deconstructed apple pie (great concept but not that exciting to eat); the “Arnold Palmer,” a lemon cake with black-tea sorbet (nice contrast); and the Mississippi mud pie, a luscious interpretation of an over-the-top American chocolate dessert.
Credit for these sophisticated versions of down-home dishes goes to chef Ryan Pearson, a native of New Orleans and alumnus of the restaurant Batard in New York.