3312 Esplanade Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana
Sometimes it's a curse: I live in a city, San Antonio, that is home to a fantastic array of exquisite food, and I am at home in a city, my native New Orleans, that is the Navel of the Culinary Universe. It's no wonder I'm a reluctant, yet willing, part of the obesity epidemic that's currently all the rage on 24-hour news channels that really need to fill the time. (You may have noticed that the Missing Or Murdered Pretty White Girl Channel, f/k/a Headline News, never mentions fat people unless they're suspected of committing the Murder of the Season.)
Other times, it's a blessing.
Tonight I felt the urge to treat myself to something really special, and Lola's seemed likely to feed that need. Oh, did it! Located in a funky part of the funky Mid-City district, this restaurant was a sort of uber-funky mix of Paris in the 1920s, San Francisco in the 1960s, Mexico City in the 1980s and New Orleans in the ... well, just New Orleans; no need to narrow it down further. It's not a large place; the dining room is the front part of a converted shotgun house; the kitchen is beyond. One neighbour is a 90-year-old Italian supermarket, the other is a private residence.
We were seated immediately, and immediately took up the waiter's suggestion of house-made white Sangria, a sweetish concoction of wine and chunked fruit. It had a slightly fizzy quality to it, and we liked it enough to go through two bottles before dinner arrived. We had one order of paella, which takes about half an hour to prepare, so to fill the time we asked for an order of garlic shrimp. That arrived bubbling hot in a small iron pan, enough shrimp to keep the four of us busy, and enough garlic to keep away all the vampires in New Orleans for the rest of our visit. Not wanting to let a drop go to waste, we asked for another round of the excellent hot bread served here, which comes with a garlic aioli spread. (We thought it was garlic butter, but the waiter explained that it is a vegan concoction.)
In time our main meals arrived. First there was the seafood paella, teeming with mussels, shrimp, fish and other seafoods mixed in a plate of saffron arborio rice and vegetables, seasoned with red pepper. I had the seafood fideua, the same dish made with capellini instead of rice. It was both beautiful and delicious, definitely worth the wait: enough seafood so that there's some in every little forkful, the pasta just slightly al dente, the bright yellow of saffron, served with the mussels standing on end around a garnish of red pepper and parsley.
We also had a dish of spinach linguine with chicken in a pesto sauce. It, too, was brightly flavoured, with artichoke quarters, tomato and olives in a pesto sauce over perfect pasta. The monochromatic look of the dish seemed less interesting to me than the other plates, but that didn't detract at all from the flavour.
Finally, we had a dish called pisto, a panoply of vegetables stuffed into a portabella mushroom. The black beans and rice that came with it were unadorned and uninteresting, but the rest of the dish was a fabulous, and fabulously complex, mix of tastes and textures. I always appreciate it when a chef takes things I don't much care for — in this case, eggplant and squash — mixes them with things I do like, and makes them enjoyable. This Castilian dish was certainly that.
I had looked forward to trying one of the house's desserts, but after all this food I just wasn't able. That, I guess, is just one more reason to try this place again. Maybe next time I'm in New Orleans.