By Zara Husaini
Market Square is quickly becoming a center for the new breed of Pittsburgh restaurants. Here, popular chain restaurants – which Pittsburghers seem to be eschewing more and more – mingle with unique new eateries. The recently opened Winghart’s has been drawing acclaim for their hearty, delicious burgers. However, as far as ambiance goes, Winghart’s doesn’t have a lot to offer.
Nola, on the other hand, relies just as heavily on the charm of its surroundings as it does on the quality of its fare. Inspired by the upbeat vibe and Cajun-spiced cuisine of New Orleans, Nola serves up authentic Creole dishes Monday-Saturday. Lunch options are available from 11 am – 3 pm, and the dinner menu runs from 5 pm – 11 pm. A bar menu provides options that can be ordered in the time between lunch and dinner, and items from this list are served until close as well.
Nola is arguably the most vibrant restaurant on the square, and its staff works very hard to establish a sense of place. The raucous bar environment, combined with the pervasive smell of flavorful New Orleans classics, transports its customers to the heart of Louisiana, where Cajun cooking runs the show in the same way that pierogies and kielbasa try to dominate Pittsburgh’s culinary climate (I think we’d all agree that this is hasn’t been the case in a long time.) As far as New Orleans culture goes, this type of cooking is positively iconic.
Nola tries very hard to recreate this vibe, where a passion for flavorful food, stiff drinks, and live music seem to triumph. On many levels, the attempt is successful. For starters, the space is gorgeous. Akron-based artist August Vernon is responsible for this – the bar area seems to be Nola’s selling point. Since the overall feel of a place like this should be fun, the bar area is your best bet if you’re looking for an overall experience, as opposed to just a delicious meal. The bar menu offers up some of Nola’s favorite dishes; the shrimp po’ boy sandwich (served on a baguette with slaw and spicy papaya ravigote – an oyster option is also available) and the Nola burger (classic preparation, made more interesting by the addition of pork shoulder) are just two of them. They represent a viable option for patrons who are more interested in soaking in the scene while downing a few cocktails.
Speaking of cocktails, the drink menu is extensive here. The beer menu covers all the basics, but more adventurous patrons may prefer Nola’s namesake drink, which combines bourbon, simple syrup, lemon juice, and absinthe. The “Obituary Cocktail” also packs a serious punch, this time mixing absinthe with Plymouth Gin and Dry Vermouth.
Conversely, Nola misses the mark in one important area: the food could be better. That’s not to say that you won’t enjoy a delicious meal here; it’s very likely that you will. However, the menu is not easily accessible for vegetarians or those who are watching their weight (but then again, what Creole restaurant is?) The Blackened Redfish, for example, was far too salty and greasy, and the same can be said for the battered shrimp basket. The French onion soup was excessively cheesy and pungent; the dishes could certainly benefit from a more delicate preparation.
As far as food goes, the bar options seem to be the best bet. Fried artichokes come with a complex Creole mustard ranch (a little bit goes a long way!) and more daring diners will love the fried alligator – after all, where else are you going to find that in Pittsburgh?
All in all, Nola seems to be a great option for Pittsburgh diners who just want to have fun. The French influence is palpable (Yves Carreau, the owner, grew up in Lyon), and on the whole, Nola does many things very well. Sure, the dishes aren’t consistently outstanding or as nuanced as they could be – but after a few absinthe-laced cocktails, that may not even matter.
NOLA On The Square
Zara Husaini is a Drexel grad and Pittsburgh native. She has written for Seventeen Magazine, Redbook Magazine, College Magazine, US weekly, College Candy, and Maniac Magazine. She also has a blog called Maybe You Should Blog About It.