Restaurant of the Week: Cafe NOLA @ MOCA
Café NOLA has plenty going for it before the customer even walks through the door. It is located on Hemming Plaza, one of the more beautiful portions of downtown. It is also tucked into the Museum of Contemporary Art which is an airy and beautiful space that is both modern and comfortable.
The café itself is decorated in bright creams and greens which soothe while still being interesting and modern. The high open ceiling and large windows give loft and spaciousness in an intimate space. It is billed as an upscale bistro and it does not disappoint. The open kitchen is beautiful and immaculate. I’m a big fan of open kitchens; they allow diners to see the place where their food was born. The kitchen was calm and controlled while still appearing relaxed. It is a vision in stainless steel but does not appear cold – only modern and effective.
The resident chef is Chef Kathy Collins. She graduated from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago then spent some time as a personal chef and sous chef at Pastiche in Avondale before settling at Café NOLA. Her preference for local and seasonal ingredients is impressive without being “precious” as some activist chefs unfortunately tend to appear.
I visited during the “Eat Up Downtown” promotion, which offered a $25 prix fixe menu. I was greeted by a friendly server named Chris who immediately made me feel welcome and at ease. It can be intimidating to eat alone in any restaurant, but Chris made me feel as if I was being welcomed home. As I was seated, I was given a sweet soft roll with peach compound butter. The roll was everything I hope for in a southern bread roll. It was perfectly textured and satisfying. The butter was sweet but not overly fruity.
My first course was Vodka Gazpacho (regular menu price $5 -$7). It was served very cold, which nicely balanced the spicy tastes. It had several plump and flavorful shrimp and plenty of large chunks of ripe tomatoes. The Stoli vodka was not overpowering; it simply enhanced and balanced the spice of the soup. A dollop of avocado crema gave a tasty respite from the spice as well. It was a perfect starter for a summer evening – clean, cool and refreshing.
The second course was Shrimp and Grits (regular dinner menu price $22). This is the one dish that I had heard about from people I know who have been there. It consists of several large, plump Mayport shrimp, cooked and seasoned properly to give that satisfying “snap” that comes with great shrimp. It is accompanied by two smoked cheddar grit cakes and a white wine mushroom sauce. The grit cakes were very reminiscent of polenta, with a firm and thick texture.
Forget what you’ve seen on the Food Channel – this version of Shrimp and Grits has nothing to do with tiny shrimp floating in a bowl of runny grits. This was a full-plate meal requiring a knife and a fork. The white wine mushroom sauce was everything that Cream of Mushroom soup is not. I believe that properly seasoned Creole food does not injure the inside of your mouth; rather it slowly creeps upon you, warming you from the inside. Café NOLA achieves this very effectively. A tomato crostini accompanied the dish. It was crunchy and lent an acidic note that was very pleasing.
I opted for the suggested red blend wine which would accompany my main course ($6 per glass). I was a bit surprised, having not yet seen the dish when I ordered, that a red was suggested. However, the Shrimp and Grits is not a frou-frou light seafood dish. The mushrooms and mushroom sauce alone called for a bold wine and I was very pleased that I chose to take the suggestion.
The dessert course was Bananas Foster Cheesecake (regular menu price $6). I opted for coffee at an extra ($2) charge. As I stirred in my cream and sugar (I was about to eat a piece of cheesecake the size of my hand, why not go all out?) I could smell the toasted Georgia pecans and caramel sauce wafting up from the plate. The cheesecake texture was magnificent. The caramel sauce was completely infused with the banana flavor. The caramel was warm and the cake was still pleasingly cool. The sauce and nut combination took me right back to being a six-year-old eating at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. I did miss the tableside fireworks, but the experience was a great ending to an amazing meal.
The service was seamless. I was given time to enjoy each course without feeling rushed, but my server, Chris, had excellent timing. I would finish a course, take a look out the window, absorb my experience, then I would look up and he would be there ready with the next course. He was friendly and charming while being completely professional.
The presentation of each dish was exactly what you would expect from a location celebrating the visual arts. Great care had been taken, not only with the flavors offered, but with the visual experience as well.
Good food satisfies your body. Great food satisfies your soul. The meal I had at Café NOLA tasted amazing, but the true payoff of the experience was partaking of true comfort food which called up emotions. You need not have ever stepped foot in New Orleans to appreciate the warmth and love which obviously go into the food served at Café NOLA. I give it my highest recommendation.
Cafe NOLA is located inside the Museum of Contemporary Art at 333 Laura Street.