Amazin’ Cajun at Cafe NOLADecember 20, 2010
Looking for authentic New Orleans cuisine? Look no further than…Schenectady, NY. Yes, Schenectady. Café NOLA (“New Orleans, Louisiana” for those not familiar with the acronym) opened last July, and owner/chef Kevin Brown has created a little Mardis Gras of his own in the Electric City, serving up a short but sweet menu of traditional Cajun cooking.
Colorful balloons, ornaments and beads are draped around the cozy restaurant, with an alligator statue greeting patrons as they enter. Our small group was all alone just after noon on a Sunday, but a few more people had trickled in by the time we left. Café NOLA has a fairly impressive wine list for a Cajun eatery, along with some great Louisiana (and other) beers. We opted for the fresh-squeezed lemonade, which we verified was just that, as we watched our server squeeze the lemons herself.
Along with mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders and fried oysters, there are a couple of intriguing appetizers on the menu – the crawfish nachos and the alligator bites. We tried the alligator, and we were not disappointed. The cornmeal batter was very thin, allowing for a great crunch but letting the meat be the star of the dish. If you’ve never had alligator, it really tastes like chicken – but unlike other alligator I’d had where the meat can get chewy, Chef Brown cooked it just right. It was served with an amazing remoulade made with vinegar, mayo, mustard and Cajun herbs and spices.
Traditional Cajun menu items at Café NOLA include crawfish gumbo; red beans and rice; Etouffee with catfish, alligator or chicken; the Muffaletta sandwich made with Italian meats and an olive salad; and Po’ Boy sandwiches.
Our young diner went with the chicken tenders, which were about as good as you can get. For entrees we tried the French Quarter (a French Dip sandwich) and the shrimp Po’ Boy. The French Quarter was delicious – the lean roast beef was well seasoned and tender, topped with nicely grilled onions and a thin slice of Swiss cheese, accompanied by tasty au jus. The shrimp sandwich was also terrific. The shrimp were fried just like the alligator bites, topped with sautéed onions and Etouffee. For those unfamiliar, Etouffee is basically gravy made from just butter or oil and flour, and seasoned with Cajun spices. This really made the Po’ Boy a spectacular success – it was also served with the same remoulade as the alligator bites, and all together the sandwich was a messy pile of deliciousness. With each bite a small glop fell onto the paper-lined basket, which I eagerly scooped up with my fork.
Some people assume that Cajun food equals spicy food, but this is a misconception. Of course there are some dishes that are spicier than others, but in general Cajun food is full of flavor, not heat. There are plenty of Tabasco bottles on Café NOLA’s tables, which I applied generously to the alligator bites and the Po’ Boy, and that only enhanced the food’s taste – but it was all great without the hot sauce as well.
The sandwiches came with a side of NOLA slaw, which was a wonderful surprise. A very untraditional coleslaw, it is made with bits of pineapple, orange and cranberries mixed with cabbage, and coated in a very light mayo-based dressing. It was a little sweet and matched perfectly with the savory and heavier sandwiches.
We also ordered some French fries, which were fresh cut, thick slabs of potato, served unsalted with the skins on. They were quite good. Other sides include dirty rice and hushpuppies.
The one disappointment of our meal was dessert, which we were going to omit until we saw that they had beignets (little morsels of fried dough). Unfortunately these beignets were overcooked – they were far more crunchy than soft and chewy, and the raspberry, caramel and chocolate sauces that were served alongside could not save the dish. Perhaps this was just a bad batch; but next time we’ll try their chocolate pecan pie.
Just about everything except the main dishes are under $10 at Café NOLA, and the portions are generous. We will definitely return to try some more of their authentic New Orleans flavor. If you’re cravin’ Cajun, Café NOLA is worth a try.
The Mouse House Kitchen gives Café NOLA 4 out of 5 stars!