Thursday, March 10, 2011

L O L A, Lola

"So you, like, eat out for a living? That is awesome! Where do I get a job like that?"

First off, no. This is not a living. It is a hobby. A hobby with a shady IRS loophole, but a hobby. And the problem with any hobby is that eventually it can take over your life. When this little venture started three years ago, neither Peter nor I thought a) it would last b) anyone would read c) some of you would actually enjoy reading what we wrote.

Writing about dining out is still a fun and creative experience, but lately the process of going out to eat has started to feel well, a little bit like work. Which to my ears is a horrific four letter word. The chore to dissect, remember, categorize, and rank every dish at every restaurant becomes overwhelming. That is if we can even find a place to eat.  Such a chore goes like this, "Let's go grab a bite to eat," Lindsay will ask.

"Ok, where to?"

"How about this place?"

"No, went there for lunch the other day."

"Ohhh, there is that other place"

"Yeah, but Peter has it queued up for next week."

"We haven't been to there in a while."

"Chef gave two weeks notice and I heard the place is on C.O.D. from suppliers, can't be a good sign."

Sometimes you just want a simple meal, with good food, nice conversation, and something cold and boozy to drink. Which is pretty much how we found ourselves enjoying a restorative meal in Lola's cramped and lively dining room last Friday night. 

Choosing Lola's is odd because Spanish cuisine scares the Carpaccio out of me. It is not that the food of Spain isn't glorious in its own right, it is that too often it is poorly imitated. Take, for instance, tapas. Tapas is the worst mistranslation of a foreign dining trend to infect America since fondue gave birth to swinger parties. Tapas is a snack in Spain, and it is a great idea. You go to a bar, grab a drink, and munch a savory bite of something delicious. They are inexpensive and designed to induce you to drink more. But, mostly tapas is not your meal. You go out to dinner after tapasing (note: made that word up).

What is tapas on the shores of Gentilly? It is a "small plate" costing anywhere from $8-12 a pop. They can't be shared though as advertised because the dish for your party of four only came with three dates stuffed with a thumbprint of blue cheese. Maybe the chef "studied a Ferran Adria book" and your ham comes with a liquid nitrogen powered pickle gun. Perhaps there is a tortilla which this cook has translatad as "dense omelet." Or maybe the chef is a minimalist who is focused on purity of Spanish flavors. For you there is a bowl of Marcona almonds (for $8), which translates as "Free at the bar up the street."

Delve into the entrees at most oxymoronic themed "Spanish Tapas" restaurants and you get either half-witted ideas or Franco inspired executions. Rabbit in the Style of La Mancha, or some other such cute moniker, brings you a stew of shriveled and dried rabbit adorned with olives and a can of tomato puree. Am I speaking in generalities? Unfortunately, only barely. Spanish food in America is too often a very poor forgery of a beautiful cuisine.

However the cooking at Lola's stands out for being the most authentically Spanish in New Orleans. It is bold, brash, and at times brilliant in its simplicity. For instance, a paella in New Orleans that didn't make me wish for jambalaya. Lola has three paellas to choose from, we chose meat. Plump pieces of chicken, moist from both their own juices and the broth, and rings of sausage poked out from the sepia hued landscape of short grain rice and vibrant green peas. The rice was firm, but yielded easily, and was fortified with the mellow flavor of saffron and more than a touch of garlic. Had the trademark soccarat been on the bottom layer of rice, this could have been the best rice dish in the city.

Before the exercise in paella, came a thin, sunset orange, garlic soup which competed with the feathery, garlic aioli for the bread's attention. There was a calamari steak, cooked until the white of the squid was just set and served alongside a fiery Romesco sauce.Both dishes had Lindsay and I constantly sharing a plate meant for one between two.

Each bite of food could have been quibbled over. Was there too much salt in the soup? Was the garlic in the aioli too astringent? But not that night. We just ate, sipped white sangria, and took it all in. "You know what," Lindsay asked as I paid the modest check, "that was a great meal."

Lola's -Birdie
3312 Esplanade Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70119-3132
(504) 488-6946


willifred said...

One of the front people at Cowbell used to work at Lola, think her name is Dianne. She was always so nice......also, my old neighbor, Denmon (long time chef at Cafe Degas) was the cook there for a while. I love this little place, but you have to pick and choose when you go.

Good Eater said...

What about Cafe Grenada on Carrolton and Barcelona Tapas in the Riverbend. They generally do tapas pretty well. The patatas bravas at both places are simple and fabulous.

kibbles said...

completely agreed on the "tapas" scam in the us -- it ain't tapas. for restaurant owners small plates are the best thing since sliced bread...very pricey per ounce.

as for Lola and paella in nola in general -- if there's no soccarat, it's just fancy rice. and why should rice with a few pieces of protein cost $15-20? soccarat is the best part of a real paella!

Anonymous said...

It's good to hear of a recent good experience at Lola. The last few times I went (in the last two years), the food was so awful (bland, cold), that I've had no interest in going back. Which made me very sad, since I'd always loved everything about the place.

Anonymous said...

I usually love Lola but the most recent meal I had there was SO salty it was almost inedible.