by Ruth Schechter
Nola, one of the hippest new eateries in the restaurant theme park of downtown Palo Alto, is made up of a warren of little rooms full of pleasant visual surprises. There's a maroon crushed-velvet sofa against one wall, a larger-than-life swordfish hanging overhead, a kitschy beaded lamp in a secluded corner, a leopard-covered divan behind a door. The eye-popping mustard, purple and turquoise walls are decorated with masks, Day of the Dead paraphernalia and artifacts that just smack of Voodoo Country, including several terrific folk paintings that the owners snapped up on a shopping trek to New Orleans.
The heart of the restaurant is the rustic, open-to-the-sky patio, which is framed by second-story balconies, plenty of lush greenery, and the aforementioned little rooms. It's a perfect arrangement for acquiring a little change of scenery while you check out the clientele, and it keeps the hubbub of activity to a tolerable roar.
To add to the entertaining din, live bands perform from one of the balconies. Sundays it's a steel drum combo. Tuesdays it's a jazz trio. Other nights, reggae and funk bands are sporadically booked as the whim strikes.
Nola (it stands for New Orleans, LA) has been dishing out an interesting mix of Cajun, Creole, Caribbean and Southwestern fare to crowded wrought-iron tables since it opened in early June. Instead of presenting the spicy standards that are traditionally associated with New Orleans menus, such as etouffee, jambalaya and gumbo, Nola serves an eclectic and creative cross-section of dishes that certainly qualify as "fusion" cuisine.
Starters include Jamaican jerk chicken skewers with grilled pineapple and tomatillo salsa ($6), Dungeness crab cake with creole slaw and mango salsa ($7) and yes, a daily variation on gumbo ($5). The prawns in roasted shrimp and cayenne pepper sauce ($7.50) is a dish not to be missed. Four large prawns are served sizzling in a little cast-iron skillet, drizzled with a sauce that's fiery hot and layered with flavors and that just begs to be sopped up with bread. Next time I go, I'm going to request just a big bowl of that sauce with a loaf of bread.
We also tried the baby spinach, orange and jicama salad with fried oysters and remoulade ($6), a winning combination of tart and cool flavors and textures. Its four plump oysters were lightly breaded and cooked to succulent perfection.
Main courses include a pasta dish, chicken and paella but lean toward seafood, including seared ahi tuna, fresh fish tostada, sauteed Gulf prawns and grilled salmon. Our grilled adobo marinated pork chop ($11.75) came slathered in a tangy barbecue sauce and was served with the house polenta, an unusual variation that is slightly reminiscent of creamed corn, as well as spiced apple chutney and spiced green beans. The generously portioned meat was moist and nicely set off with a nicely restrained hand in the spice department.
The grilled teriyaki marinated skirt steak ($14) was served on a heaping bed of garlicky mashed potatoes and topped with slightly sodden onion strings. Extremely tender, the steak was delicately coated with a sweet, gingery glaze from the marinade. The dish was another winner.
Nola carries a full selection of wines and several interesting beers, although they could do with some more selections on tap. Specialty drinks include several variations of the Margarita, and the hurricane, a New Orleans staple. Be warned, however: Drinks are humongous, potent and go down way too easily.
Service, although friendly and well-meaning, left much to be desired. On our first visit, after an extended wait for our food, both our appetizer and salads arrived at the same time, at which point we had to ask yet again for the bottle of wine we had ordered initially. Our water glasses were refilled only after repeated requests, and we waited so long for our plates to be cleared that we skipped dessert and coffee in frustration. A second visit showed improvement, but this is an area that needs to be addressed. A fun, casual ambience should not be brought down by too-casual service.
Nola fills a unique niche in Palo Alto's saturated restaurant market. It's got a breezy charm and serves an interesting cuisine made by a kitchen that appears to enjoy dabbling without losing touch with the inherent quality of the ingredients. With some fine-tuning, Nola should become one of the city's more colorful staples.
Nola, 535 Ramona St., Palo Alto, 328-2722
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m. and Sunday 5:30-9 p.m.
Atmosphere: Funky, relaxed and visually entertaining; indoor-outdoor patio setting
Highlights: Spicy, creative mix of Cajun, Creole, Caribbean and Southwest cuisines; refreshing specialty cocktails
About the owners: Greg St. Claire and Tim Fabatz also own Mistral in Redwood Shores and A Tavola in San Carlos. Fabatz, who trained at the California Culinary Institute and in the south of France, designed the menu, while St. Claire developed the decor and general "feel" of the establishment. "People always think of Cajun food when they think of New Orleans," says St. Claire, "but it's much more than that. The city is very international and the food includes Creole, Caribbean, even Italian influences. We took that international element and applied it to fresh, local ingredients." The menu is undergoing slight modifications, and the dining area is scheduled to be enlarged this fall.
Credit cards: yes
Full bar: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
High chairs: yes
Outdoor seating: yes
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