Whenever anyone mentions New Orleans, the first thing I think about is the food. Oyster po' boys, crawfish etouffee and beignets; it's regional cuisine at its best--the kind of food that can't be duplicated elsewhere.
So when I heard that a New Orleans-inspired restaurant was opening in South Norwalk, I was dubious. Would this be some Disney-fied version of creole cooking with a menu featuring blackened everything and decor heavy with beads and masks?
"We basically wanted to have a fun, vibrant feel to the restaurant," said Kardos. "We chose New Orleans because the cuisine there lends itself to many different interpretations in cooking due to the fact that it's a melting pot of a city."
The restaurant is located on a prime piece of real estate, at the corner of Washington and Main streets. An exterior neon sign evokes the raw, gritty attitude of New Orleans. Exposed brick walls and cast-iron chandeliers give a nod to New Orleans without seeming gimmicky. Here's what I especially loved: the seats in the bar were actually comfortable. All too often, high bar stools don't make for a comfortable dining experience. Here, I could actually relax.
The menu is seafood-based and inspired by New Orleans cuisines, as well as the Eastern seaboard. "For the menu, I basically take staple items and techniques from New Orleans and put my own personal twist on them," said Kardos. "People like originality. I think people are tired of knowing what to expect when they go out to eat."
The menu is divided into greens, small plates, entrees and sandwiches. One of the starters, CPA Beer Braised Mussels, is a large bowl of plump mussels in a broth of beer, smoked ham and chipotle butter. They were smoky and robust, and were accompanied by thick slices of toasted bread that were perfect for soaking up the leftover juice.
Cornmeal-fried oysters were another hit. Fat, crispy oysters sat on a bed of fresh-off-the-cob corn, peppers and green tomato. It was like a southern version of farm-to-table dining.
Scallops, a menu item we're used to seeing in New England, were given a new twist when combined with celery root, strawberries, melon, honey, almonds and speck. And here's something that you don't see up North too often: shrimp and grits. Large, well-seasoned shrimp sat atop a mound of creamy, buttery grits with the added kick of pickled jalapeno. It's a good reminder that "American" cuisine is vastly different depending upon the region. We're not just a nation of steak and potatoes.
I was impressed with almost all of the dishes I tried, but one in particular stood out. Surprisingly, it was a side dish of fried Brussels sprouts. I really enjoy Brussels sprouts, especially when they're roasted and the outer leaves get that caramelly, crunchy texture to them. These, however, were heads above any other sprouts I've ever had. The crispy vegetables glistened with a glaze of maple and cider vinegar, and there were bits of bacon and pistachio nuts mixed in. I couldn't get enough of these. In fact, I took some home and ate them for lunch the next two days. I would happily go back, sit at the bar and order a dish of these along with a Connecticut Pale Ale.
Nola Oyster Bar
68 Washington St., Norwalk
203-957-3352 / www.nolact.com