NOLA Oyster Bar
68 Washington St., Norwalk, (203) 957-3352, nolact.com
Let's get one thing straight. NOLA Oyster Bar is not New Orleans and it's not trying to be. NOLA is in SoNo, on the corner of Washington and Main, with views through its big plate glass windows of the train trestle overhead, cars on the busy streets, and people, shops and restaurants. NOLA's food is, most consciously, a northeastern interpretation of Creole cooking. The seafood is from around here. And the menu is crafted through the imagination of executive chef Dan Kardos.
Kardos was with Bill Taibe back in his Napa days, worked at Taibe's Le Farm, and left to be the opening executive chef of the much lauded Harvest Supper. After opening @Bar Rosso in Stamford, he went back to work for Taibe as a sous chef at The Whelk. NOLA, which opened in February, is the newest in the Southport Brewing Company family of restaurants. SBC is known for brews and bar food. Kardos's bold New American cooking breaks that mold. At NOLA, Kardos has complete creative license.
The dish that immediately got everyone talking was Kardos's lobster and waffles. Butter-poached lobster on crispy-edged cornbread waffles with a rich, lobster-sherry-butter sauce, topped with griddled scallions and scattered with queso fresco.
It's funny when fried Brussels sprouts cause a sensation. Especially when they are so charred they look almost black. The bitter crucifer's petals are fried with hickory-smoked bacon, and dressed with maple syrup, sweet-sour cider vinaigrette and pistachios. What does this dish have to do with New Orleans? Nothing, but it's good.
Shrimp and grits is a classic Southern dish. Kardos sticks close to the original. They're loose and risotto-like in creaminess (he cooks them with milk), which gives way to the bite of the large-grind hominy. The highly seasoned plump shrimp have a high-heat sear that's a Kardos signature.
A quirky dish that brings together New Orleans cooking with Chinese is blackened shrimp and pork fried rice. "It's just good," Kardos says. "It started as something we made for a family meal and then it just evolved," he says. The fried rice holds a comforting blend of pork, scallions, sprouts, and soft, scrambled egg, flavored with soy-sesame sauce. The shrimp have that Kardos sear. It's comfort food for people who love flavor.
The spontaneous creativity is what Kardos loves most about his job. "All day, every day, something happens. It's constant trouble-shooting and creativity," he says. "You have to change, and that's how chefs learn and evolve. It's part of the process."
The chopped salad changes every day, depending on what's available. One night last week it had corn, tomato, fava, wax beans and pale beets, sprinkled with queso fresco. There was a delicacy about the finely chopped salad. It was fresh, crunchy, sweet, salty and starchy all at once.
The chilled seafood tower, a dramatic, luxurious dish for a group, features local Blue Point oysters, which Norm Bloom has branded as Copps Island, and SoNo little neck clams on the half-shell, steamed shrimp and King Crab legs. Kardos's touch is the crudo, raw hamachi, seared and sliced raw, dressed in soy-jalapeño sauce.
My fellow diners flipped for the cornmeal fried oysters served over corn, peppers, green tomatoes and smoked pork shoulder, with jalapeño-spiked mayo. I enjoyed the beer-braised mussels in luscious spicy, buttery, smoky ham-infused broth.
With a background at Napa, Le Farm, The Whelk and Harvest Supper, Kardos has a reputation as a farm-to-table chef. But he says that farm-to-table is "not a huge part of my mission" at NOLA. "Nobody is getting everything locally," he says. But it's summer now and as he starts listing the stuff he got in today from Urban Oaks — white cucumbers, mixed heirloom tomatoes, plums and peaches, and the eggs he gets from a farm in Connecticut, and the andouille "made by a local guy," and the seafood from "just down the street" (N.Bloom & Son), you get the sense that it's just a natural part of a chef wanting the freshest food he can get. NOLA's burger is made with Saugatuck Craft Butchery's beef, on a local brioche bun, with Vermont cheddar, hickory smoked bacon, fried onions and pepper mayo.
Crawfish boil has appeared on the menu as a special, but don't expect it. Remember, this is Kardos's Northeast homage to New Orleans cross-cultural cuisine. Crawfish risotto, on the small plate menu, is light and loose, and mildly seasoned. One evening the special was "Kentucky-fried" quail strewn with rounds of jalapeño and house-pickled onions.
The biggest complaint I've heard about NOLA is the service — friendly and well-intentioned, but sometimes inexperienced. A friend reports that she arrived at 10 p.m. one night and put in a big order for dinner, but the waitress came back to say, apologetically, that she was new and hadn't realized the kitchen was closed. "But I'm starving," my friend said. She and her friend had already ordered wine. The waitress and staff took care of them — rustling up a big bowl of Brussels sprouts and a plate of fries. Those Brussels sprouts "seemed like the funniest bar food ever," she said. And they were the first ones she'd ever liked.