Bar Exam: NOLA on the Square
From Abita beer and gumbo to Hurricanes and Sazeracs, NOLA does New Orleans justice.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
For the past three years, I’ve been perched above Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter on New Year’s Eve. My girlfriend and I decided to make the Big Easy our first trip together in 2010, and as soon as we landed, we were already planning to return.
Our love affair with the city is not a unique experience. Something about the music, the bars, the culture, the people, the history and the food — dear lord, the food — makes New Orleans the year-in, year-out destination of choice for plenty of yankees. That instant affinity (and, uh, the food) has helped to spread Creole culture throughout the country; just about every city worth mentioning has a handful of bars and restaurants that bring a bit of the Crescent City to town.
And Pittsburgh … well, Pittsburgh has struggled with the concept, to be honest. It should be an easy connection; both Pittsburgh and New Orleans have proud drinking cultures, obsessive football fans and a blind devotion to Heinz ketchup. But for some reason, plenty of well-intentioned Cajun and Creole restaurants have faltered in the Steel City. (And, by the way, simply blackening a sandwich/fish/chicken and hitting it with a splash of Tabasco does not give a restaurant the authority to call a dish “Cajun”.)
I’m hopeful about the soon-to-open Rue Bourbon Bar, Grill and Chill out in Baldwin Township. And there are couple of spots on the South Side — the Smiling Moose and Carson Street Deli, most notably — that know a thing or two about how to put a po’ boy together.
In moments of weakness, I’ve even been known to resort to the Popeye’s in Oakland.
But for the past two years, I’ve relied on one go-to spot for a legitimate New Orleans experience. Since NOLA on the Square opened its doors in mid-2011, I’ve been comforted by the knowledge that Abita beer, gumbo, a muffaletta and even beignets are only a few minutes away.
Our own Valentina reviewed NOLA soon after it opened, pointing out the excellent red beans and rice, blackened red fish and fried artichokes. From a nightlife perspective, NOLA has plenty to offer as well. In addition to a great beer list — usually including four options from Abita, New Orleans’ signature brewery — and a nice wine selection, NOLA boasts the best traditional Big Easy cocktails in the city.
Now, those who’ve spent too much time drinking on Bourbon Street fall into one of two camps: those who will tell you about Hurricanes and those who will tell you about Sazeracs. Hurricanes are rum-loaded punch-style knockouts that will undoubtedly spur some flashbacks to your college days. The Sazerac is a traditional drink in the Manhattan family. NOLA on the Square does both justice, offering a flavorful Hurricane where rum and Galliano share space with a quartet of fruit juices and a Sazerac that follows the original 1937 recipe (which, be warned, does include Absinthe). The St. Charles and Pimm’s Punch aren’t bad choices, either.
Of course, there’s nothing authentic about a Creole joint without music — and NOLA on the Square is well aware of this. Live jazz is on tap every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Keep an eye on NOLA’s Facebook page for updates, but regulars include John Gresh’s Gris Gris, Billy Price, the Benny Benack Trio and Dr. Zoot. NOLA also offers occasional tasting dinners and an awesome Sunday brunch.
It’s a great bar and restaurant on its own merits, and a lifeline for those of us with frequent pangs of Bourbon Street nostalgia. NOLA is a natural fit in the new Market Square, perhaps the best part of downtown to pass the time with a drink in hand until everyone’s ready for dinner. Speaking of which, I’ve made myself hungry. I’ll be back in, oh, six hours.