Exploring Esplanade

Each year at Jazz Fest I’m reminded again of the beauty of Faubourg St. John. The logistical park-n-walk demands of the Fest allow me to view the neighborhood at a snail’s pace, rather than through a car window, and the experience is always rewarding. So this year after the Fest I took some time to visit restaurants, old, new and transplanted, along Esplanade Avenue, when the neighborhood was in full bloom.

Café Degas is a perennial favorite for dates, lunches and brunches. It pairs especially well with a summer afternoon and a trip to City Park. Though the tree that once grew up through the dining room is long gone, the restaurant retains its tropical atmosphere, especially on breezy nights when it’s open to the elements.

The Onion Soup is a go-to favorite, served in crockery and blanketed in a layer of bubbling Swiss cheese browned in a pass through the broiler. Another soup of Mirliton and Crabmeat in a light cream broth was very good, silky and sweet with a bit of spice in the back to give it some structure. 

The Cheese Board, available in two sizes, makes for good sharing, though here the traditional French sequence is upended in a concession to American preferences. The cheese selection varies, but on a recent visit it included two blues (one mild and the other pungent with a rosemary-encrusted rind), a Camembert and an English cheddar. All cheeses were served at the proper temperature and were complemented with a selection of fruit including blueberries, red grapes, strawberries and candied dates. A basket of crusty bread augmented the accompanying toast rounds.
For entrées, Hanger Steak with frites gets rounded out with a robust garlic bordelaise. A Salad Niçoise featuring green beans, sections of hardboiled egg, red onion, potato and pungent white anchovy filets, comes built around a large serving of seared yellowfin tuna. Light options such as the Quiche Degas, served with a small salad, are offered alongside other French classics such as Blanquette De Veau.

Desserts include a nice Crème Brulee and (on occasion) Floating Island – a wonderful old-school dessert of meringue perched atop a shallow bowl filled with crème anglaise.

Lola’s, a Spanish/Andalusian destination, always draws a crowd. Come early to get a seat, or else bring your own beer and wine to enjoy while waiting in line out front. Fresh crops of locally produced art rotate through the décor. On a recent visit it was provided by Simon on lower Magazine Street, easily identifiable by his candy-cane striping on the borders of the frames.

Part of the feel of Lola’s is the way so many dishes come to the table sizzling in tiny cast iron skillets. (That, and the pervasive and intoxicating aroma of garlic.) The Garlic Shrimp appetizer is one of my favorites. Nothing complicated – just shrimp, red peppers, lots of garlic, more garlic and olive oil. The pepper adds bite and the garlic adds depth. The little bread rolls that come to the table (with whipped garlic butter) are perfect for mopping up the leftover sauce. The Grilled Calamari is also good. Cut into thin strips, it’s tender and the spicy sauce that comes with it has a lot of punch.

One thing I like about Lola’s is its up-front nature: the primary components of the dishes don’t get buried under a bunch of add-ons. For the garlic shrimp, you get garlic shrimp. And with the Caldereta, an Andalusian lamb stew, you get a skillet full of chunks of tender lamb. While it’s cooked in a brew of wine, peppers, spices, carrots and onion, the meat takes all this in and what you end up with is a whole lot of lamb flavored by all these components rather than the components burying the chunks of lamb. For mouths seared by copious amounts of garlic and pepper, Lola’s offers a balm in the form of Ajoblanco, a visually striking almond soup thickened with bread and served chilled.

For desserts, try the Almond Nougat ice cream or, better yet, get the combination, which offers a serving of each of their three after dinner treats: Flan, Almond Nougat and Chuflan. Lola’s does have a liquor license now and offers wine and beer along with tasty sangria, but guests are still welcome to bring their own alcohol. There is a corkage fee if $5 per bottle of wine and 50 cents per beer. Note that it remains a cash-only destination (personal checks are accepted as well).

This stretch of Esplanade is rounded out by newcomer Nonna Mia Café and Pizzeria, whose menu is far more comprehensive than the name would lead you to believe. Along with the pizza, diners will find a large selection of pastas, salads, calzones and Panini sandwiches.

Start with the Bruschetta Bella Napoli, thick slices of toasted bread topped with chunks of tomato, basil leaves and Parmesan cheese, and drizzled with olive oil. A few dollars more will get you some thinly sliced prosciutto on top. For salads, the traditional Caprese makes for an attractive presentation with alternating slices of fresh mozzarella and tomato and basil leaves drizzled with balsamic and extra virgin olive oil. Among the pizza selections is a nice Tuscan, topped with pancetta, sun-dried tomatoes, Feta and garlic sauce.

Desserts include Italian staples such as tiramisu and cannolli, and their gelato comes from Angelo Brocato’s. Servings are large and easy to share, and by-and-large a good value. Outdoor seating on the patio is a plus as well.

The latest iteration of the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Santa Fe takes over the space formerly occupied by La Vita. Fans of the (very) old location on Frenchmen Street will find the new space far more casual, and the menu simplified as well. Perhaps oversimplified. In a city that has seen its number of quality Latino restaurants boom post-Katrina, Santa Fe comes a little late to the party. However, the popular margaritas use the same recipe as the original location. As I visited it fairly early on the heels of its reopening, here’s to hoping it is just going through its shakedown period and that it finds its footing on Esplanade Avenue.

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