NOLA on the Square delivers a taste of the Big Easy
Gumbo, frogs legs, catfish ... 'Nawlins comes to Market Square
July 21, 2011 4:00 AM
The real thing, done well: Wood roasted quail (foreground) with frog legs
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
New Orleans: There are few American cities that so easily excite our expectations and emotions. Since 2005 New Orleans has been intertwined with images of the rising river, abandoned homes and shell-shocked residents. But nothing can touch the core of its identity, the city of Mardi Gras and Creole food, jazz music and cocktails.
Now, in Pittsburgh, restaurateur Yves Carreau and chef Andrew Hebson are hoping to capture some of that emotion, that appetite for revelry and indulgence, at a New Orleans-inspired restaurant in Market Square.
Drinks: More than a dozen beers on tap including New Orleans' favorite Abita, and our own East End Brewing Co.'s Big Hop, $3-$6; several dozen more bottled beers, $3-$11; house cocktail list of classics, $8-$10; 10 white wines and nine red wines by the glass, starting at $6; 17 whites by the bottle, six for $35 or less; 27 reds by the bottle, six for $42 or less; chicory coffee from Nicholas Coffee Co.
Inlaid jewels on a tile floor create a sparkling path from door to dining room, where colorful glass chandeliers cast a warm glow. Murals of New Orleans streets and decorative masks set the scene, if a bit pointedly. When the weather cooperates, doors open up the restaurant's facade and the crowd -- almost constant since the restaurant opened -- seems to spill out into the street, bringing a sense of vibrancy to the entire Downtown square.
There's much to be enjoyed at this restaurant, starting with a cocktail. Ignore those frozen drink machines and instead sip something carefully made to order, like a Sazarac, the official drink of New Orleans, a potent concoction of rye, Peychaud's and Angostura bitters, sugar and an absinthe rinse. Vieux Carre, another famous tipple named for the French Quarter, is strong and complex, while the Hurricane, a sweet fruit salad in a glass, maybe not the best pairing for the food, but will certainly have you dreaming of tropical isles.
The cocktails, of course, are just the opening act. The menu at NOLA on the Square leans heavily Creole, but encompasses a good range of influences, from po-boy shop and oyster bar offerings to more elegant creations that would be at home in many of the city's white tablecloth restaurants.
Soup is a good place to start, like the crawfish and sherry bisque, light and sweet. The gumbo is dark in color and flavor, with the distinctive, warming heat of file powder. The broth is thick (as it should be), but the bowl is thick with sliced okra, shredded chicken and rice. It's well executed and flavorful, if not quite like any gumbo one would expect to find in New Orleans. Gumbo, as well as other classic New Orleans dishes, is an unusually diverse dish, with as many interpretations as there are cooks. NOLA's version was distinctly impartial, belonging to no particular gumbo tribe.
Less divisive dishes showcase equally precise execution. Fried catfish and shrimp were crisply coated, never overcooked. The heaviness of beer-battered catfish goujonettes -- a fancy take on fish sticks -- was nicely balanced by lightly dressed butter lettuces, along with a zesty orange remoulade. Fried shrimp, meanwhile, were served with a sweet and hot pepper jelly and a tart, crunchy slaw, excellent foils for the crisp, mild batter and sweet, well-seasoned shrimp ($11).
The crisp, cool slaw played a similar role when paired with two barbecued pork shanks and a square of cornbread with a custard-like texture ($8).
A number of starters could be mistaken for entrees, except for the fact that entrees were even more amply portioned (portion inflation is as common in New Orleans as it is in Pittsburgh). Grilled catfish was served over smooth mashed potatoes, their sweet, mild flavors punched up by grilled sweet peppers and onions. A brown butter sauce was inflected with bright, citrus notes ($18).
The menu incorporates some of the diverse offerings of the Louisiana region, like frogs legs sauteed with local mushrooms in lemon and smoked bacon butter and garnished with a handful of miniature greens ($9). This splendid dish showcased the exquisitely tender meat that clung to each leg, too often overwhelmed by frying. The tart lemon neatly cut through the richness of the butter.
Blackened red fish is a challenging dish to execute properly. Here, the crust of spices was just thick enough to assert itself, while also providing a protective crust that broke apart to reveal a silky, moist, perfectly cooked fish ($22).
Shrimp and grits was robust and satisfying, with stone-ground grits from the acclaimed Anson Mills and a hearty saute of smoked bacon and the holy trinity of green pepper, celery and onion ($26).
Wood-roasted quail showcased a perfect pair of birds, a decadent portion of dark meat, kept extra moist by an oyster dressing. A nutty, wild rice pilaf and grilled asparagus amplified the woodsy flavors, while a drizzle of deliciously tart cranberry-pinot noire reduction transformed the plate into a miniature thanksgiving feast ($25).
There's nothing particularly New Orleans inspired about the scallops mac daddy, but it proved to be one of the better interpretations around of seafood mac and cheese. A cast iron skillet was filled with curly shells of pasta in a rich cheese sauce with a deliciously funky edge. A crisp bread crumb topping was farther adorned with nicely seared scallops, silky and sweet against each unctous bite of the casserole ($22).
A few French dishes round out the menu -- no surprise from Mr. Carreau, including french onion soup and steak frites. The latter was a strong version, the perfectly grilled hanger steak juicy and flavorful, a good match for thick soft fries, served with a sharp, mustard-scented remoulade ($22). The salad was a good notion, but the walnuts, goat cheese and potato chip topping were a touch heavy for the already ample plate.
There were a few other disappointments. Flatbreads were pale and insubstantial, undermining the flavor of the various toppings. A smoked pork chop was dry and overcooked with barely a hint of smoky flavor, and the wilted greens that should have accompanied it seemed to have wilted away to almost nothing. Lyonnaise potatoes, however, were delicious, like thick-cut potato chips, crisp but yielding.
Dessert didn't live up to the bulk of the menu. Cobbler promised a biscuit topping, but peaches were instead sprinkled with a crunchy shell, much closer to a crisp, and topped with a scoop of slightly chalky ice cream. The peaches themselves were lovely, cooked just enough to release their fragrance and their juices, with a touch of ginger spice. On two occasions, beignets were surprisingly heavy, and the accompaniment of brightly colored, vaguely tropical sorbets didn't make much sense.
Next time, I'll try the milk punch, a concoction of milk, bourbon and dark creme de cacao liqueur that sounds like the perfect finish ($8).
NOLA is a strong homage to a wonderful city. But if a restaurant can be both authentic and individual, then NOLA has more of the former than the latter. At times, that made it feel a little soulless.
But that's a criticism that restaurant critics have much more often than diners. Most of the time, people just want a delicious meal in a lovely setting, mediated by skillful professionals; to vacation for a few hours in a place more special than their own dinner tables.