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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Lola's

While Spanish cuisine may not be the first kind of food you associate with New Orleans, a quick look at the city’s history will remind you that the Crescent City was a Spanish colony in the latter third of the Eighteenth Century, the period of time when our Founding Fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence and inventing the United States.

Very few signs of the city’s Spanish heritage remain today, those most commonly sighted by visitors being the panels of tile found on many French Quarter buildings identifying streets by their Spanish names.

New Orleans is, of course, one of America’s true “melting pot” cities in terms of both its people and cuisine(s). The city’s signature dish, gumbo, is a flavorful hybrid of locally grown ingredients and the cooking traditions of France, Spain, Africa, the West Indies and Native America, with dashes of German, Sicilian and England tossed in to liven the mix.

Despite Spain’s influence on the city, there are surprisingly few Spanish restaurants; in fact, a recent (2010) ZAGAT guide listed only five. The oldest of these, Lola’s, opened in June of 1994, has grown into the kind of local favorite that a lot of natives would just as soon not see in dining guides.

Lola’s is very small, seating approximately forty in tight quarters on a pleasant stretch of Esplanade Ridge between the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Fair Grounds horse track and Bayou St. John. Next to a neighborhood grocery market and within easy waking distances of three other good, locally owned restaurants, Lola’s is the embodiment of a place that belongs in a tree-lined residential neighborhood.

Some people think just that getting in is half the fun.

Lola’s posted opening hour is 5:30 PM for the dinner-only bistro, but this is New Orleans, cher, where time is flexible and punctuality is optional, so don’t be alarmed if the door isn’t opened right on the minute.

Several guidebooks recommend arriving fifteen to twenty minutes before Lola’s opens, because the place doesn’t take reservations and lines form quickly. But they move quickly, too. Just the same, regulars know to bring a bottle of wine, sign up at the kiosk next to the front door and enjoy the revolving, spontaneous party on the concrete apron in front of the set back restaurant, particularly during cooler months.

Inside, Lola’s bustles. What minimal décor there is consists of brightly colored, local folk art. The tables and chairs are close together and constantly being reconfigured to accommodate the sizes of entering groups. Quarters can be so tight that at times, you’ll feel as if you’re sitting at the next table, at least until a member of the wait staff wedges his or her way between you with a raised tray in a newly makeshift aisle. Service personnel are casual and remarkably friendly, particularly considering how rushed they can be.

The semi-open kitchen is in the back of the house, and it’s more of a work than show kitchen. Mounted to the wall above the pass through are pans showing the size of paellas, the restaurant’s mainstay. While the menu states that paella is available for one, two or four, the pans’ sizes suggest they’re referring to appetites worthy of lumberjacks coming off a hunger strike.

Despite a surprisingly long and varied menu, paella is the centerpiece of a visit to Lola’s. The vibrant blend of colorful vegetables, meats and seafood cooked with rice and served family style makes this classic “peasant dish” a vivid centerpiece at table. Available in four varieties (seafood, meat, vegetable or any combination thereof) and served in the traditional two-handled pan for which the dish is named, the paellas are redolent with layer upon layer of fresh flavors and spices.

Some self-styled connoisseurs have claimed a shortage of saffron in the dish, but considering that LaMancha saffron carries a price in excess of $300 an ounce (just a paltry $4,800 a pound), a little skimping on a dish costing around ten dollars a serving is an economic reality and a more than understandable sin.

If someone wants to be a purist and really split hairs, it could be pointed out that three time-honored Spanish traditions are violated with Lola’s paella: first, paella is traditionally served at midday and never after sundown; secondly, it is customarily prepared by men instead of women and, thirdly, it is traditionally eaten with fingers out of the pan itself. I have little doubt at some point during Lola’s years in business, very civilized and cultured people have literally dug into their paella without benefit of manmade implements much to the horror of their neighboring and less knowledgeable diners.

In addition to paellas, Lola’s substitutes pasta for short-grained rice to make fideuas, and fills out her long entrée list with garlic chicken, lamb chops with Gorgonzola, seasonal seafood dishes and more.

It has become a tradition for Mrs. McH and me to split seafood paella for one after loading up on Lola’s appetizers. Particular favorites include mushrooms sautéed and sizzling with garlic, and a calamari appetizer, consisting of a sautéed squid cutlet that has been matchstick sliced and served with what our waitress told us was a yellow pepper puree. The portion sizes of appetizers are generous, and their richness can make them deceptively filling, yet they are economical to the point that it can be tempting to order a passel of them and then wonder where to put the paella once it arrives at the table.

Everything is cooked to order at Lola’s, which means a wait between ordering and the arrival of the appetizers. This generally short time lag is filled by the arrival of warm rolls with a garlicky whipped butter that borders on the divine. It should be noted that each extra roll beyond your initial one carries a fifty-cent price, but it’s my guess that the surcharge is not levied out of chintziness on the restaurant’s part, but rather to discourage unsuspecting customers from filling up before appetizers and the main event.

Along those lines, it is necessary for me to admit a lack of personal knowledge whether or not dessert is served at Lola’s. Without a menu in front of me as I write this, the only thing for me to confess is a vague memory of a waitress asking if I wanted dessert (a flan, I believe) and my reply being the signal groan of the chronically overfed.

The menu is filled out with a selection of beers and a modest wine list, but one of the many joys of Lola’s is the presence of homemade sangria, the fruity sweetness of which is delightfully refreshing as an offset to vibrant spiciness of the cuisine itself. There is a small corkage fee for those who wish to brownbag a favorite wine of their own.

Considering the amount of food and the fact that it’s all cooked to order, one would think dinner at Lola’s would be a protracted Bacchanalia, but the kitchen cooks fast and the wait staff hustles, so what seems like a leisurely dinner rarely lasts much longer than an hour.

It’s been more than two centuries since the Spanish flag flew over New Orleans, and in that time, Iberian culinary traditions have quietly blended into the city’s own. With the presence of Lola’s on Esplanade, it’s immensely satisfying to see those once lost traditions return to the forefront.

Lola’s is located at 3312 Esplanade Avenue
(between North Broad and North Carrolton),
and opens for dinner at 5:30 PM daily.
No reservations are accepted and payment is by cash only. The telephone number is (504) 488-6946.

1 comment:

  1. Mouth-watering! I've encountered "Indian time" with Cherokees in Oklahoma, and "Island time" in Jamaica, but never "New Orleans time." You are filling up my next trip down to NOLA before I even get the ticket!