At NOLA -- an acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana -- there are no floats, and within its storefront in the newly squeaky-clean Market Square, any debauchery beyond slightly excessive cocktail consumption is unlikely. But if you could send only one of your senses to the Big Easy, it'd be your taste buds, and NOLA has the ticket. Skirting the fine-dining mainstream of contemporary American cuisine, NOLA launches instead a boldly refined take on straight-up, traditional New Orleans food.
A sibling of Sonoma Grille and Seviche, both Cultural District culinary landmarks, NOLA extends the style and substance of its predecessors to the former culinary wasteland of Market Square. The result is everything the Market Square revisionists hoped it would be: colorful, sociable and vibrant.
It's not just the atmosphere that strikes the right note; it's the food. The menu is practically an invitation to kick back and relax, even though NOLA has dialed it up a notch with the addition of a few such decidedly non-Cajun ingredients as lemongrass and Gruyere cheese. NOLA's is not a kitchen that strives to be original for originality's sake, nor one that condescends to the cuisine it serves with cleverness.
Cheesy griddle grits with a chunky tomato sauce and green beans, for example, is not exactly a classic Louisiana recipe, but uses classic ingredients to create something that tastes like the best of bayou cooking. In this gloriously successful dish, the tomatoes enliven the soft yet firm grits as camembert melts creamily into the sauce, enriching it with tangy substance. The thin haricots verts were few enough not to turn the dish into cream-of-vegetable soup, yet sufficient to add a little crispness and freshness.
Creole tartiflette -- essentially potatoes au gratin -- eschewed that sort of subtle balancing, but was no worse for it. Thick slices of potato were coated in more creamy camembert, here combined with mustard sauce, while pieces of bacon -- heftier than crumbled or diced, yet still smaller than bite-sized -- contributed savor and crunch. The flavor of the bacon, browned to crispness, played off the mild brininess of artichoke hearts. Like the grits, this was a dish substantial enough to be a main course but also very satisfying as a shared side dish. The only flaw was that the potatoes tended toward being underdone; they were not raw, but firmer than they were tender.
A starter of catfish goujonettes consisted of wonderfully light and tender strips of fish accompanied by spicy papaya ravigote. We are not sure if papaya is a traditional Creole ingredient or not, but in NOLA's ravigote, it served effectively and deliciously to add sweetness rather than any pronounced fruity character. Frog legs were a decadent treat, moister, richer and more tender than dark-meat chicken. Best of all was the subtle yet flavorful accompaniment of lemon and smoked-bacon butter, where the savoriness of the bacon's salty smoke added depth to the light, fragrant citrus.
Oyster stew, one of four tantalizing soups on offer, featured a marvelous, creamy broth in which the brininess of oyster liquor blended with sweet, rich cream for a supple, velvety texture. The soup contained more mussels than oysters, but they were plump and delicious, so it was hard to mind.
We also relished our pissaladiere, or pizza in the style of southern France, with Gruyere, caramelized onions and tasso ham. The crust was chewy and hearty with glorious char at the edges, the plenteous sautéed onions were sweetly tender, and the Gruyere offered its own distinctive nutty flavor, more intense than that of traditional Italian "background" cheeses such as mozzarella or provolone. We also liked the unabashedly salty, firm character of the tasso ham, but the large chunks into which it had been cut were often overwhelming; either smaller dices or thinner slices would have better maintained the pissaladiere's overall flavor balance.
After all these supremely satisfying dishes, we tucked into our jambalaya only to taste disappointment. NOLA's version of this Creole classic was deeply flawed. Like the tartiflette, it was prepared in a wood-fired casserole, and the shrimp and sea scallops didn't come through their fiery ordeal unscathed: Grilling can add wonderful depth to these shellfish, but in the context of a crock full of rice, sausage and tomatoes, they became woefully overdone, tough and dried-out. That alone might have been forgiven, but the andouille sausage was too salty and spicy, while the inexplicable presence of tough slices of lemongrass stalk was distracting without adding much.
The moral, perhaps, is that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And overall, aside from an unnecessary attempt to remake one classic New Orleans dish, there is very little we would try to fix about NOLA. This energetic and confident restaurant offers neither fine dining nor painstakingly authentic Louisiana cuisine, but something even more important -- and appealing: By extending the art of sophisticated social dining from the Cultural District to the heart of Downtown, NOLA invites Market Square to the party.
NOLA on the Square
24 Market Square, Downtown. 412-471-9100. www.nolaonthesquare.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 3-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $6-11, entrees $17-26
Liquor: Full bar