Emeril Lagasse's French Quarter mainstay NOLA unveiled some major changes last fall on the cusp of its 25th anniversary.
The restaurant was closed for two months for a renovation that included both a complete makeover of the physical space and the menu. The restaurant now features an expansive bar space downstairs with exposed brick walls and bright neon accents. The lighting on the ground floor is glaring, but the upstairs dining space overlooking the restaurant still carries a hint of the prior design's upscale ambience and feels more elegant.
Chef de cuisine Philip Buccieri consulted with Emeril's Director of Development David Slater on the menu, much of which seems similar to the global approach taken by its sister restaurant, Meril, which has had considerable success since opening in September 2016. The dishes at NOLA aren't as internationally diverse, and the updates reflect the myriad culinary influences that have left their marks on New Orleans' cuisine.
Light and refreshing miso cobia bundles draw inspiration as much from the local Vietnamese community as from Gulf waters. Small hunks of fish come wrapped in lettuce leaf cups, topped with kataifi (shredded, crispy phyllo strands) and drizzled with gingery dressing. Crispy, bronzed links of alligator sausage are folded into fluffy steamed bao and topped with sweet hoisin glaze, kimchi and cilantro — a snack-sized Cajun banh mi.
There are a few of the celebrity chef's classics and holdovers from the previous menu, including decadent barbecue shrimp, stuffed and fried chicken wings and a massive grilled pork chop.
NOLA's previous approach felt more serious, and the current take seems like a loosening of the tie. It's more contemporary and less buttoned-up. Smoked crab cheesecake boulettes are a whimsical take on a Gulf seafood classic that are given playful nudges of color and flavor. The golden-fried nuggets are attached to the claw and ooze cheese. A bright green onion coulis and smattering of cherry tomatoes provide a zesty counter to the richer elements on the plate.
For a neighborhood prone to festivities and imbibing, this lighter-spirited approach fits the scene. The restaurant's social atmosphere is driven by a shared and small-plate concept, including plenty of pizzas from a wood-burning oven. The crusty pies come flecked with char marks, and there's an earthy roasted mushroom version with a creamy Alfredo base and crisp, nutty heaps of arugula and cracklings.
Regional flavors and ingredients figure prominently. Spicy hot frog legs speak to diners with a distinct Nashville twang. Blisteringly hot and crunchy deep-fried legs are served on buttery Texas toast points topped with sweet bread-and-butter pickles and are served with garlicky yogurt. Thinly shaved slices of aged Benton's country ham sit on a slick of gingery melon preserves served with a buttery biscuit flecked with Sichuan peppercorns and a thick and salty red-eye gravy. The assembly is odd, but the flavor profiles match up well.
For dessert, a soft and milky white chocolate pudding is served with macerated strawberries for a sweet and tart contrast. White chocolate crumbles provide a bit of crunch and an extra dimension of flavor.
After 25 years, a few changes have brought a more casual and contemporary spirit to the table at NOLA.