On this recent visit to Nola, I was eating gator that had been made into sausage, then infused into dumplings ($8) along with crawfish and shrimp. The dense but snappy shiitake mushroom-ginger sauce overwhelmed both shellfish and dumpling, though. A lighter sauce would have better showcased both seafood and reptile.
Nola, just in case you haven't solved the cypher, is an acronym for New Orleans, LA. The Palo Alto restaurant occupies a notable Pedro de Lemos Spanish Colonial Revival building on the historic Ramona Street corridor. Nola has a lovely recessed arched entrance, interior open-air courtyard, hand-painted ceramic tiles, fireplaces and wrought-iron railings and grills.
Nola features two stories with nine intimate dining areas, and boasts a large collection of Southern folk art. It's a fun space with all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. Best of all, the bar is in a self-contained room, and while there is sports playing on TV screens around the restaurant, no TVs are obtrusive.
Opened in 1996 by Greg St. Claire, Nola is part of his Avenir Restaurant Group. St. Claire sponsors a range of charitable events through Nola and has been particularly generous to the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto.
On one visit to Nola, I started with the chicken andouille gumbo ($5 cup, $8 bowl). It was a hefty affair. The gumbo was poured over a heap of white rice, tableside. The concoction of sausage, chicken and okra didn't have enough spiciness to register much on the flav-o-meter, though. Like many dishes I ate at Nola, it was tame.
The four black & blue ahi tacos ($11), though, were excellent. The wasabi-avocado cream sauce added serious punch to the two-bite tacos. The tuna was first-rate, barely seared and laid over jicama slaw, with pickled ginger and serrano chili rings. It was one of the more successful plates at Nola.
However, the crispy Cajun calamari ($9) wasn't crispy at all. It suffered the same fate as all the fried foods: a too-salty batter that was elastic, not crunchy, to the bite. The addition of blue lake beans, okra and artichoke hearts helped. Both the red creole remoulade and the Meyer lemon aioli sauces were tasty.
The "make no bones about it" fried chicken ($17) featured two large pieces of buttermilk-dipped, boneless, free-range chicken. The limp skin made me wonder if the chicken had been fried at all; it had the texture of oven-baked. The country gravy and mashed scallion potatoes would have been even better had the chicken been crusty. The collard greens were almost gray in color, overcooked, sweet and unappealing.
Like the gumbo, the "spicy" jambalaya ($18) lacked intensity. The waiter asked if I wanted it extra spicy. I did, but there was not a hint of fieriness to the stew. I was disappointed because the menu made the point of "spicy jambalaya" and reiterated with "finished with a spicy sauce."
There is a difference between heat and spice. The bottled hot sauces on the table did not equate with cooking with spices — food is masked rather than imbued.
The pulled-pork barbeque sandwich ($12) with smoky house-made barbeque sauce was served on a soft roll. The sandwich had too much pickled red onion, which overshadowed just about everything. The pork was tender but the barbeque sauce failed to distinguish itself. Fried jalapeno rings added a dash of piquancy.
The Big Easy fried shrimp po-boy ($12) featured "flash fried" shrimp, again not very crispy, with tomato, bell peppers, the same smoky house barbeque sauce and a Cajun version of remoulade sauce with choice of fries, slaw or greens. Frankly, I thought the best part of this oversized sandwich was the soft roll that housed it. Had the shrimp been crisp it could have changed the world.
And then there was the jambalaya ($18). The Nola version of jambalaya was made with roasted tomatoes, garlic, the holy trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery), andouille sausage, tasso ham (a Cajun peppery ham) chicken and shrimp — and, gasp, salmon.
Jambalaya can't be almost anything, not traditional New Orleans jambalaya. I've never seen salmon in jambalaya. Yes, of course you can, but you shouldn't. Here, the salmon was off-putting: wrong color, wrong texture, wrong flavor. The best part of this jambalaya was the sausage.
Desserts continued in "the almost, but not quite" vein. Bread pudding ($7) was a spongy brick of oozing butter and sugar — it was perfectly Southern in that way. The maple-brandy sauce and creme anglaise only added calories.
The Southern pecan pie ($7) was just sweet enough, with nutty, chewy, delicious flavors. Alas, there was almost no crust and the dish was more pecan crumble than pecan pie. What crust there was was mushy.
The New Orleans-style beignets ($7) would never be described as dainty little things. They were five rectangular donuts, about an inch thick, dusted with cinnamon-sugar and served with three dipping sauces. Of the sauces, only the chocolate-caramel fudge didn't make my teeth shiver. One can only imagine sugary gut-bomb donuts dipped in syrupy maple-brandy or the saccharine raspberry sauce settling atop Nola's signature 24-ounce hurricane cocktail ($8.75).
Nola features a lengthy menu of cocktails, martinis and specialty drinks. That 24-ounce hurricane is also available in a fishbowl-sized 60-ounce ($20) that has four rums, pineapple, brown sugar and a special "bug juice" mix that would leave one thinking "Mardi Gras," if one could think at all after drinking it.
The less-successful wine list is one of those something-for-everyone menus that has reasonable prices but little depth.
Nola is a pretty place, but like so many area theme restaurants, it serves dumbed-down food. The menu reads well and the food looks good, but there are no guts to the dishes, nothing that makes the experience authentic. The food can best be summed up as: no guts, no glory.
535 Ramona St.
Lunch: Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun. 5:30-9:30 p.m.