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Big Easy Charm

by B.A. Nilsson on February 23, 2011

cafe nola
Recognized—at last! I maintain an impressive anonymity at this job, despite frequent in-print descriptions of my size and usual dining companions, not to mention a scattering of likenesses in the webosphere. But, compared to many other markets, Capital Region restaurateurs don’t worry as much about reviews. They don’t post photos in kitchens; they require no need for pseudonymous credit cards.

So it was with a mixture of pleasure and regret that I saw many eyes turn towards me at Café NOLA a few nights ago, sudden surprise in their eyes followed by a sense of wonder. And even as I began to allow myself to bask, I realized that their focus was on a spot somewhat above and to the side of my left shoulder. I turned to look.
Perched, or I should say newly landed on the service counter, across which all of the restaurant’s finished dishes are passed, was a strange amalgam of flying saucer and hero sandwich. It was large—about 12 inches in diameter, and half of that high if you measure to the top of the toothpick securing each of the sandwich’s quarters.

This is the muffuletta, a sandwich that may exemplify New Orleans better than any other single item. It’s a true melting-pot item, for starters, one that literally came together at the French Quarter’s Central Grocery early in the 1900s, named for the style of Sicilian loaf used for the sandwich or for one of its original customers.

In any event, there was a substantial Italian population in the French Quarter, and a group of them would lunch regularly at the grocery, ordering sliced meats and cheese and a loaf of bread and eating it all separately. Store owner Salvatore Lupo showed that the elements could be combined, and a sandwich was born that is still sold by Central Grocery—and all across New Orleans, and wherever the signature bread can be obtained.

So it’s only natural that Café NOLA should feature the dish, which layers cappicola, pepperoni, salami and provolone over an olive salad on this king-sized loaf.

The restaurant is a labor of love for Chef Kevin Brown and his wife Robin, who opened the place last July in a handsome brick building on Schenectady’s Union Street, just east of the Stockade area.

Brown, a Johnson & Wales graduate, worked in downstate restaurants before putting in a bunch of years here at GE; after Kevin retired, the couple went into a Cajun-themed catering business and parlayed the success of that into their restaurant.

On a chilly evening with snow packed tight against the parking spaces, it was very welcoming, especially as the music we saw in mime as we approached burst onto us as we entered, the work of a quartet called the Jazz Connection that gave us a nice succession of standards as we dined.

We took a table on the downstairs level, but you’ll find seating in a smaller room above that looks over the front-window musicians’ corner. Being so near the service counter, we saw several toothsome-looking dishes go by, making the choice even more difficult.

Like good Cajun flavors, the menu is concentrated. Sure, there are mozzarella sticks ($7) and chicken tenders ($6) as starters, but I couldn’t even see ordering the Cajun chicken wings ($7) with fried oysters on the menu ($9). It’s a preparation available at the same price with crawfish, but I’d heard that oysters are particularly plump right about now, and that’s what I discovered within the cornmeal-enhanced batter that came to the table alongside a tangy remoulade. This is dive-in-with-your-fingers fare, and I oiled those digits well.
My wife says her cup of crawfish gumbo ($4) was just about one of the best she’s had thanks to its balance of flavors—there’s okra and sausage in there as well—which is built on a roux that has to be right, and in this case, the flour-butter mix was cooked to a good dark complexity.

Salads include a $3.50 mix of greens and veggies and two $8.50 varieties of chicken salad, one blackened, one with pecans.
Battered and deep-fried alligator is another starter option ($10.50), but my daughter decided to wrestle with the creature in its entrée form, as an étouffée ($14). You can get the classic with crawfish, of course, and other variations offer catfish or chicken as the dominant meat. The alligator meat is presented as a single cutlet, blackened but hardly overwhelmed by those spices, served over giblets-enhanced dirty rice and with a delicious sauce.

New Orleans’ most famous son, Louis Armstrong, signed his letters “Red Beans and Ricely Yours” and tried never to go a day without his favorite dish. At Café NOLA, it’s an $11 entrée with a magic about its combination helped by the andouille sausage within and a nice panoply of seasonings. Nothing terribly spicy here, but hot sauces are offered if you need to venture deeper into capsaicin land.

A page of sandwiches offers po’ boys, where alligator, shrimp or oysters are the feature ($9), a roast beef sandwich called the French Quarter, with Swiss cheese and grilled onions ($8.50), a variety of blackened-meat sandwiches ($7.50) and a burger made from beef ($7) or a portobello mushroom cap ($7.50).

And, of course, this is where the muffuletta lurks. The full-sized monster is $14, and I couldn’t even make it through one of the four wedges, which are available for $6 apiece.

We lingered to listen to the music and enjoy the friendly ambiance. We had to pass on dessert, which meant missing pralines with vanilla ice cream ($4.50), NOLA’s own chocolate pecan pie ($4.50), and the one I’m going to go back to try, the super-donut known as a beignet ($4.50).

The Browns have staked out a good spot with the kind of food and service that should keep people coming back. I plan to be among them.

CAFÉ NOLA
617 Union St., Schenectady, 375-8628, cafenolany.com.  Serving Sun-Wed 11-9, Thu-Sat 11-11. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Cajun and beyond
Entrée price range: $6 (wedge of muffuletta) to $14 (a variety of étouffée)
Ambiance: French Quarter-esque