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At the Table: Cafe NOLA brings Cajun flavors of New Orleans to town

Sunday, August 8, 2010
By Irv Dean
Gazette Reporter

A fanciful alligator greets guests with a basket of beads at Café NOLA on Union Street in Schenectady. (BEVERLY M. ELANDER/FOR THE SUNDAY GAZETTE)

SCHENECTADY — Like chocoholics at a Godiva shop, we lingered longingly over the menu at Café NOLA before announcing our intent: One of everything, please.

Well, we were a little more restrained than that, but the temptation was there as we fantasized about Oysters Bienville and Catfish Étouffée, red beans and rice spiced with andouille sausage and insidiously addictive hush puppies, little gritty corn fritters with bits of bite from jalapenos and a remoulade on the side for dipping.

Authentic New Orleans Cajun cuisine has landed in Schenectady, and after a recent visit to Café NOLA, I'm hopeful that it will quickly win over the hearts and stomachs of local diners for the simple reason that I'm selfish and want to be able to go there again ... and again.

Café NOLA — the acronym is for New Orleans, La. — is the brainchild of chef Kevin Brown, who is running the attractively appointed restaurant at 617 Union St. with wife Robin and other members of his family. The Browns also operate Albany Cajun Catering, a company they purchased after he left General Electric Co. and set out on a new career path.

Café NOLA

WHERE: 617 Union St., Schenectady. 357-8628,  cafenolany.com

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

OTHER INFO: Handicapped accessible. All major credit cards accepted.

There is seating outside for those so inclined and also ample room for patrons on two floors inside. Those who choose a table on the first floor can watch the food preparations in the kitchen, which is open to view.

The decor is pure New Orleans with an alligator here and there, little statues of musicians, masks on the walls and background music evocative of Mardi Gras, as are the beads that customers are presented upon leaving (and they don't have to exhibit any anatomy in exchange).

The menu, while not extensive, offers a good cross-section of Cajun food — dishes like dirty rice, alligator meat in gumbos and étouffées, which you can wash down with classic Southern sweet tea. (Café NOLA is expecting to have its license to serve beer and wine soon.)

DAILY SPECIALS

The appetizer specials du jour were crabcakes ($6.95) and Oysters Bienville ($10.95), the latter a classic dish named for Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, sieur de Bienville and founder of the city of New Orleans. We ordered both.

The crabcake, on a bed of shredded crispy veggies, was one of the best I've eaten in a long time, full of succulent crab meat with just enough binder to make it a cake, and the remoulade sauce served on the side was a worthy accompaniment.

The oysters, a half-dozen, were served on the half shell and baked with a lovely Bienville dressing, a thick béchamel sauce laced with garlic, onions, Tabasco sauce and some bread crumbs for texture. We love oysters, and this particular presentation is delightful. Let's just say they didn't linger long on the plate.

Our entrees came with soup; I chose the special, a tangy-sweet roasted red pepper and tomato, and dinner date Beverly opted for the gumbo, singing its praises later even though okra is not anywhere near the top of the list of her favorite foods.

Our entree choices were classic Cajun — Crawfish Jambalaya ($13.95) for me, and Catfish Étouffée ($13.95) for Beverly.

The jambalaya was a savory combination of crawfish tail meat and andouille sausage with fresh herbs, spices and rice. Perched in the middle of the dish was a whole crawfish still in its red shell, a pretty ornamentation that I quickly deconstructed and devoured. There was plenty more crawfish meat in the dish, a generous quantity, in fact, along with spicy andouille which gave it a pleasing bite. I didn't quite finish it, but came close.

Beverly's étouffée featured a dark brown roux with a mound of dirty rice on top, all of it surmounted by fillets of blackened catfish. Having eaten crawfish gumbo, Oysters Bienville and other spicier dishes as a prelude, she said the étouffée, while good, could have had more kick.

MISCONCEPTIONS

Chef Brown notes on his catering website that there are unfortunate misconceptions about Cajun food. Some people think that Cajun food is too hot for them, he said, "to which I always reply, ‘Well, someone screwed it up then!’"

Louisiana cooking doesn't have to be hot and spicy to be Cajun, he says. "The true art of Cajun cooking is the unique blend of herbs and spices that serves to enhance the flavor of vegetables, seafood, meat, poultry and wild game as well as a cook who knows how to blend the ingredients together."

I would add that if you do want to adjust your food for a little more fire, you'll find a bottle of hot sauce on your table.

We couldn't leave without sampling some of Café NOLA's desserts — a gooey, chocolately bread pudding and a chocolate pecan pie ($4.50), each topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a mint sprig. With our coffee and espresso, we also sampled their beignets, little triangular pillows of sweet dough dusted with confectioner's sugar and served with a little chocolate ganache, a little caramel sauce and a tart raspberry sauce for dipping. I'd be hard-pressed to select a favorite among NOLA's desserts, but the beignets were memorable.

Among the other traditional entrees at NOLA is Red Beans and Rice ($10.99), which is andouille sausage, tomatoes, fresh herbs and spices slowly simmered and served over dirty rice.

Café NOLA is open for lunch, and you can choose among lighter fare like Chicken Pecan Salad ($8.50), which consists of diced chicken breast blended with toasted pecans, herbs and spices and served over mixed field greens with house dressing or a Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad ($8.50) which features boneless breast of chicken coated with Cajun spices, pan blackened and served over Romaine lettuce with a creamy Caesar dressing.

If you're hungry, order the Muffaletta, a New Orleans-style sub of cappicola ham, Genoa salami, pepperoni, Provolone cheese and olive salad layered on 12-inch artisan bread ($13.95 for a whole sandwich or $5.95 for a wedge).

Our tab for dinner — including appetizers, soups and entrees, sweet tea, coffee and dessert — came to $89.84, with tax and tip. Unless you're also tempted to order one of everything, you'll likely spend less than that.

NAPKIN NOTES

NOLA has added Sunday brunch to its repertoire, starting at 11 a.m. Think creamy cheesey grits and Cajun-style omelets with andouille for starters.