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Ragin' Cajun

restaurant
Christopher Gardner

Bayou Bric-a-Brac: Nola's decor mixes Big Easy style
with polyglot Bay Area attitude.

Palo Alto's Nola whips up torrid fusion cuisine ranging from New Orleans to Trinidad to the American Southwest

By Christina Waters

WHEN ARCHITECT Birge Clark cut a Spanish Revival swath through Palo Alto in the 1920s, the results gave an unusually harmonic resonance to downtown ambiance. Happily, there's still lots of that delicious Spanish tile, terra cotta and adobe shapeliness left to enjoy, and some of the choicest moments of Clark's design heyday now wrap around Nola, a festive eatery eclectically devoted to a fusion of Cajun, Creole, Caribbean and Southwest flavors.

The former home of Pearl's Oyster Bar, Nola starts out as a multi-colored bar and lounge area, before sliding into a slinky mini-saloon with burgundy velvet couches and finally spilling into a courtyard with alfresco seating, enwrapped by mezzanine vantage points. The whole thing feels a whole lot like New Orleans with polyglot Bay Area attitude. Wrought iron tables and chairs fill the Spanish-tiled atrium, from which cozy side dining rooms spin off like petals on a flower. The mood is fanciful and relaxed, enhanced by fetishistic artwork in unsubtle primary hues.

Actually, "playful and unsubtle" could be the twin motifs of the house, where barbecue and Jamaican jerk dishes jump-start meals that march on toward gumbos, grilled seafoods, jambalayas, adobos and a raft of warm sensuous Southern-style desserts. In short, edible sensurround.

Being unable to eat every appetizer on the menu, we decided on the highly diner-friendly sampler of three house power salads: the Summer Field Greens, the Southern Caesar (sounds like Marlon Brando in that sultry military academy movie) and the Napa Cabbage variation ($8.50). To that we added an order of Jamaican jerk chicken skewers ($6), and since the magnificent two-mile-high Sangria ($4.75) was kicking in, we added a main dish of paella (which turned out to be a sensational jambalaya; $12.50) and a statuesque grilled fresh snapper tostada ($9) that looked like a Jeff Koons-goes-to-Zihua.

For reasons known only to my analyst, I'd ordered a glass of Lindemann's Merlot 1994 ($5.50), and while it was fine with all the food to come, it lacked the celebratory attitude that Nola seems to cry out for. Next time I'll attach myself to one of those wicked house cocktails that stress rums, fresh fruits and tequila (not necessarily all at once). As Scarlett O'Hara taught us--"tomorrow is another day."

The salad sampler, served with two small side dishes, was bountiful in the extreme. One slab of this shimmering green troika involved shredded Napa cabbage, all moist and wilted with lots of bacon, mushrooms, zippy red wine vinaigrette and some creamy blue cheese for extra decadence. It was all I could do to calm down and stop romancing this dish. Moving on, as was my companion Rebecca--just back from Moorea and famished for local greens--I sampled a fetching toss of baby (and I mean baby) field greens, with sunflower seeds, golden raisins and a creamy citrus vinaigrette that was dee-vine. The third installment involved a mild-mannered Caesar salad with cayenne-encrusted croutons. Another destination appetizer has arisen on the South Bay landscape!

Meanwhile, over on a plate the hue of ripe watermelon, three very large skewers of jerked, spiced and expertly grilled chicken lay atop a mound of green chile and grilled pineapple slaw. How do you say incredible in the Caribbean? Incroyable will have to do. Let me say that again--a slaw of purple cabbage, grilled pineapple cubes and tomatillo salsa with shreds of spicy green chiles.

Main dishes arrived on more oversized, intensely hued dinnerware. The luscious jambalaya exuded all kinds of sexy Creole sensations: andouille (which could have been hotter), sensuous moist chicken, lots of plump rock shrimp, lavish ribbons of yellow, red and green bell pepper, earthy mussels in their gleaming black shells. All of these items and their sauté sauces mingled with ultra-ripe tomatoes, and those juices ended up saturating a bed of rice so good, so comforting, that we almost lost control and didn't eat our chocolate cafe au lait pots de crème. Almost.

The enormous grilled snapper taco--involving layers of corn tortilla, black beans, peppers, cheddar and jack cheeses, salsa fresca and a creamy avocado topping--was spectacular, freshly made and nothing if not muy grande. However, the jambalaya was in that rarefied category of foods that Demand Full Attention. And I'll confess that we would not allow the bayou delicacy to be removed, even when our dessert ($3.50) arrived. Oh, we ate that too. But then only a craven Yankee could resist what amounted to a celestial chocolate pudding laced with espresso, served with a giant spoonful of whipped cream and a fresh mint leaf.

Clearly, someone's in the kitchen with Nola.


Nola

Address: 535 Ramona St., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/328-2722
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Fri., 11:30am­2:30pm; dinner Mon.­Thu., 5:30­10pm Fri.­Sat., 5:30­11pm; Sun., 5:30­9pm
Cuisine: Multicultural Southern-style specialties
Ambiance: Colorful, relaxed
Service: Very helpful, attentive
Price: Lunch entrees $7­$12; dinner $9.50­$14


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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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