Reevaluating NOLA on the Square
The Cajun-themed bar and restaurant has become a staple in Market Square; five years in, how is it faring?
photos by laura petrilla
The Market Square bar and restaurant NOLA on the Square has now outlived many acclaimed Pittsburgh restaurants and watched as its neighborhood has grown into a legitimate Downtown gathering place. More than three years ago, I reviewed it in this space, quite favorably.
I love Cajun food and all things related to New Orleans, even stuff that merely has Creole trappings. When NOLA opened its doors in doors in 2011 — reviewed then by our former food critic, Valentina — it was the only spot in town with an exclusive focus on Cajun and Creole food and drink, and thus a godsend to those of us who would accept a muffaletta and a sazerac at pretty much any hour of the day.
What’s more, I had made three trips to New Orleans in as many years and was actively considering a move to the Big Easy at the time. It was a particularly Creole-focused moment in my life, in other words.
With some distance and time, then, I decided to reevaluate NOLA on the Square through fresh eyes (and having long since decided that I will not, in fact, move down south). In the years since, NOLA closed for more than five months after a kitchen fire and has seen shifts in its menu and staff.
So: How’s it doing?
Well, the staples are still reliable. The irresistible, savory Gumbo Ya-Ya should start every meal. The Fried Green Tomatoes, while a little busier in terms of toppings and plating than you’re likely to find elsewhere, are satisfying and flavorful. There’s plenty of bottled Abita around (although, oddly, none on draft during my visit; the draft list was okay, with a decent number of locals represented, though I expected at least one offering from Louisiana) and you can get a pretty decent Sazerac.
Perhaps most importantly — both in terms of New Orleans authenticity and the bar’s overall atmosphere — live jazz and swing bands fill the joint with music every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night. No element, from crawfish to Mardi Gras masks, is more important in maintaining a Cajun aesthetic than having real, unpretentious music on a regular basis, and NOLA is to be praised for maintaining that tradition.
Because around the edges, the Cajun/Creole touches are beginning to fade.
I should clarify: Nothing that I or my dining partner tried on this trip, in terms of food or drink, was anything less than good. But I’m not sure much of it was in any way Cajun. (Or Creole; those are different terms for slightly semantic reasons, but neither of them apply here.) My entree was a pork tenderloin dish with robust chunks of meat, wild mushrooms, a squash/pumpkin puree and grilled apples. Tasty, different — not Cajun. Her entree was a stuffed red pepper served with couscous; she reported that it was quite good, but it’s not Cajun.
I drank a perfectly pleasing gin cocktail that had no discernible connection to the long and proud New Orleans drink tradition other than the fact that it was named “La Petite Fleur.” (It was unrelated to the rum cocktail of the same name.) We also had a round of seasonal, cider-based after-dinner drinks, which were warm and sweet, but patently northern. That’s the running theme on the current cocktail list; New Orleans names for drinks that largely have no other obvious connection.
The good news: They’ve improved their beignet recipe. So points there.
On the one hand, there’s something admirable about trying to expand focus and experiment with new flavors. On the other, there are a lot of bars and restaurants in Pittsburgh that are solely focused on being the best they can be. What NOLA on the Square can (and should) be is a reliable spot with great music and the city’s only true outpost for authentic Cajun food and drink — so I’m not sure why I’m sensing a trend away from those styles.
Sure, the seafood jambalaya and the shrimp and grits are still on the menu, but I’d much rather see experimentation (in both the food and the cocktails) that maintains NOLA’s corner of the market, such as incorporating Vietnamese flavors into traditional Cajun/Creole dishes (or vice-versa) as restaurants like MoPho and Red’s Chinese do in New Orleans, rather than try to expand outward.
This is still a good bar with some very good food. I just hope it remains my New Orleans getaway in the heart of Downtown, rather than slowly melting into something else.