That's how I described it to co-workers. Two of my best friends fly into New Orleans the Monday before Mardi Gras with the understanding that we will make a forced march through some of the bigger name restaurants in town.
Our first stop was Monday night at a place called NOLA in the French Quarter. It is a testament to how distracting this town truly is to say that I've walked past this establishment many times without quite thinking about what was inside. NOLA is one of Emeril's places, love him or hate him, there wasn't much controversey inside the restaurant.
Walking in, I was given pause with the layout of the place, being that the restaurant goes vertical instead of expanding horizontally. The bar is to your left and dining is to your right, and above you, and above you. The central elevator dominates the scene, and is the visual centerpiece for the place. As the hostess walks you to the elevator doors (our table was on the second floor) you pass the open expediter station with that slightly open view of the kitchen behind them. Newer upscale restaurants usually do this to advertise the product and give you a hint of knowing what is going on behind the line. We didn't linger long enough for me to judge the utility of this layout, however.
Once seated, we were able to take in the atmosphere of the place at our leisure. What NOLA offers is upscale and trendy atmosphere, and all the colors and decor of the place are fimly rooted in a more modern aproach to design. Warm colors on the walls, black an white photography, the industrial-chic elevator continued to dominate the view, and seperate the dining areas. Though such decor could really exist in any city with the population to support such a place, you could hear New Orleans in the patois of other patrons, and you could see it in the beads around necks, the feathered hats and Saints jerseys.
But the thing that really struck me was the service. My goodness, how like a hillbilly I must have looked to be experiencing the small touches that define fine dining while paying attention for the first time. The section captain and our servers knew our names, the replacement of white napkins for black ones because all of us were wearing dark clothing, the names of the sous chefs on the menu - those little things I am not used to or have missed in the past while paying closer attention to the food.
My two friends, who had grown up in Atlanta and who are more experienced at the fine dining angle than their oblivious Low Country companion, patiently explained to me the hows and the whys, only giggling slightly because they thought I knew these sorts of things already.
The food was not a dissappointment. That evening's entrees included the shrimp and grits, the roasted duck and the pork porterhouse. All three were strong meals. I've noticed one thing down here, when they say they're bringing you the pork porterhouse, they are bringing you an absolute slab of swine. It was served on sweet potatoes, and the sweet potatoes they serve in New Orleans are something else entirely from anything I've had in the Eastern Time Zone. The duck had an exceptional seared crust around a delicate meat inside.
But the star of this meal was something the Lady ordered: on the menu it is listed as the "Roasted Garlic-Reggiano Parmesean Bisque with Basil Pesto," we called it a first course and it left me wishing I had ordered that rather than the Gumbo of the Day, and I love Gumbo of the Day. This dish absolutely knocked the ball out of the park, and was the undisputed winner of the 'first courses' we ecountered, and would hold that title all week.
I also want to go back to the service at NOLA, these guys were good. I know good service, and how things are done when servers care about the work they do, the diners under their charge and the presentation of the meal they bring to the table, and the big guys working our section that night were professionals in every sense of the word. Rarely have I heard of cats that good, sometimes I've worked with them, but it was nice to have attentive folks like that taking care of us on Lundi Gras.