Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Offensively Bad "New Orleans" Cuisine at Nanola Restaurant in Malta

A few weeks ago I thought I had a brilliant idea for an Eat This article: feature a classic New Orleans dish from the new Nanola restaurant and bar in Malta on Fat Tuesday.  My upcoming piece was to be posted on March 4, the start of Mardi Gras, the perfect day to publish such an article.  I'd been wanting to get out to try out Nanola and figured this was as good an excuse as any.

There were several options that appealed to us, any of which would have been fine to focus on for an Eat This piece.  We ordered the alligator bites as an appetizer, I had the jambalaya for my entree, while K got an oyster po' boy.  And there was the promise of beignets for dessert.

But just as I wrote about a couple weeks ago with my visit to The Capital, my hopes of eating something worth writing about were dashed.  While the failure at The Capital was rooted in brutally bad execution, the issues at Nanola run even deeper.  Not only were the dishes we ordered at Nanola executed poorly, but they were also failures conceptually.  Just wait until you see the picture of my "jambalaya" for proof.

It was so bad, I have to say, that when it came time to think about dessert, we passed on those beignets.  Here--with another first-hand report from K--are the reasons why we came to that decision.

Nanola's odd name is a combination of "nanotech," since the Malta area is known for housing that industry, and "Nola," an abbreviation for New Orleans.  Opened late in the fall of 2013, Nanola has connections to the old Bayou Cafe in Albany (that space now houses The Hollow, which I actually do like).  After my visit to Nanola, I heard some bad things about the Bayou; I only wish I'd known those before this experience.

I don't have any personal connection to New Orleans' creole and cajun cuisine; I've never even been to Louisiana.  I've always had a fondness for the flavors and styles of many of the dishes associated with New Orleans, though.  It didn't hurt my optimism that Nanola also has a pretty good beer list, so I started my meal off by ordering a pint of Ballast Point Sculpin.  This is one of the best IPAs you can find, a perfect representation of the San Diego style.

That was a good start, but alas, it was all downhill from there.  While studying the menus, we also took in the atmosphere.  There was some good--an old tuba hanging from the ceiling, light fixtures meant to evoke the French Quarter, and windows on an interior wall with printed scenes featuring New Orleans revelry behind them.  K immediately noticed that those printed images were highly pixelated, probably pulled off the Internet and blown up, the kind of shoddy work we'd soon find applied to our food.

With this image in our minds, we decided to forego the oysters (the thinking was: if a restaurant takes this little care with these images right across from most of the dining tables, then would they take good care with their oysters?) and instead get the alligator bites.  These deep fried pieces of alligator meat were listed as "market price," which turned out to be $10.

I don't know much about the cost of alligator meat, but this felt a little high after trying the appetizer.  There were 14 of these "minuscule" bites, to use K's description, and the ratio of breading to meat was definitely slanted to the side of the breading.  If you want to hear about the breading, head down to K's description of her po' boy; the oysters in there were fried in the same unpleasant style.

Mysterious meat

Meanwhile, the meat.  This alligator meat--of which there wasn't much--was fine, tender enough, but tasted like pork chop meat.  In fact, K is convinced that it actually was pork, not alligator.  Not that we don't like pork, but it's not what we were expecting.  With no seasoning, not even salt, that left the dipping sauce--which tasted like me to a sriracha aioli--as the sole provider of flavor.  It was fine, but you still need seasoning on the product, and the greasy breading was overpowering.

Not a good start.  K was already feeling disappointed, and then her oyster po' boy arrived.  I swear, I saw some real sadness in her eyes when she saw it.  Let's let her explain why:


My mother taught me to never say food is disgusting. She said that if I was ever served something I found strange or offensive, I should simply say, “That was interesting.” And so I suppose I should say that Nanola’s oyster po’ boy was . . . interesting. 

First, there was a pickle speared on top of the sandwich. I have no idea why the chef thought this was a good idea, and I certainly don’t want pickle juice on my bread. The bread was a long ciabatta roll that was dry and difficult to bite through instead of the crusty, fluffy French bread or soft hoagie roll that I’d expected. Then there was coleslaw on my sandwich, which is a serious transgression in and of itself. I despise coleslaw in general, and I especially hate it as a sandwich topping because it seeps its juice onto everything beneath it. Maybe coleslaw can be an okay element on top of cold cuts that won’t soak up the juices, but on top of breaded, fried oysters, it just served to make the breading soggy.  

And the oysters were, shall we say, interesting. First, they were really small, and I wondered if they might be canned oysters that had been dunked in a batter and fried, but then one of the oysters was nearly raw, and canned oysters are generally cooked through and slightly chewy. There were four oysters on the sandwich, which is a stingy serving, especially for a sandwich that costs $12.

The po’ boy was bulked up with anemic tomatoes, big pieces of romaine, and the aforementioned coleslaw. The oysters were just a minor part of the sandwich, whereas in a good oyster po’ boy the oysters should be the star. When I order a po’ boy, I want a generous serving of oysters, good soft or crusty bread, a tasty remoulade, and maybe some lettuce for coolness and crispness. Traditionally, the oysters in a po’ boy are fried in a cornmeal batter, but in this case the batter was greasy, puffy, and tasteless with no cornmeal. When I plucked an oyster off the sandwich and tried it on its own, the predominant flavor of the batter was grease (with a slight hint of coleslaw drippings). 

Oh, and there was no sauce of any kind on the sandwich. I guess the coleslaw was supposed to just drip its mayo slime onto the oysters, but, as I’ve already mentioned, this just created sogginess with no boost in flavor. Sorry, Mom, but this sandwich was disgusting. 


So there was that.  And then there was my jambalaya.  I shouldn't have even ordered it, considering the cost--$14 plus a two-dollar addition for shrimp--felt too high.  But I did order it, and I received this:

Not unattractive plating.  Except that is not what jambalaya is supposed to look like.  A quick Google image search reveals just how wrong Nanola's version is.  I can see the thinking behind the scenes at Nanola right now.  "Let's make this 'fancy' so we can charge more for it.  Put some white rice down in the middle.  Who wants that messy looking stuff anyway?"

Point #1: If you don't know what jambalaya is--or, for that matter, if you don't know how to make a po' boy properly--then you probably shouldn't open a New Orleans-themed restaurant.  Honestly, I find the failings of The Capital pale in contrast to these at Nanola; these are such fundamental mistakes, blatant examples of ignorance of the cuisine, that I think it's an insult the customers who patronize this establishment.  At least at The Capital they were trying some interesting, different things.

You don't have to have even visited New Orleans to know what jambalaya should look--let alone taste--like.  Turn on the Food Network.  Hell, read the recipe right on the Food Network page if you're a chef and have never made it before.  Instead, I get the sense that the owners of Nanola figure that if enough patrons come to drink alcohol and listen to live music, diners there won't care what the food is like.

In effect, they're telling all of us diners in the Capital Region that we're too ignorant, too uncultured, to know any better.  (Or they don't have a clue, which is just crazy to think about.)  Of course, if we're willing to just come on right back after a bad experience, maybe they're right.  I just want diners out here to be tougher, more honest with themselves and with restaurants.  Somebody has to hold restaurateurs to some standards.  We already know it's not going to come from any of the mainstream media in the area.  That's why I write pieces like this, after all.  Not to be a jerk, but to hopefully help push others to care a little more.

Left: Jambalaya. Right: Not jambalaya

Anyway, Point #2: Even if you're going to stray from tradition, you can still make something taste good.  Nanola couldn't pull that off, either, with this jambalaya.  The chunks of chicken were bland, the shrimp was cooked okay but not really integrated into the dish, the andouille sausage was fine (tough to screw that up if you're not making it yourself), and the vegetables were minimal--just a handful of green bell pepper pieces scattered about.

The major issue was the sauce.  This was a tomato sauce, probably just canned tomato puree, and it was really one-note.  Or two-note, I guess.  There was the tomato, somewhat harsh and bitter tasting, and there was heat, seemingly from cayenne powder.  It was no more complex than that, which is disappointing when considering the herb blend that typically goes into jambalaya.  At this point, I think it's clear why we gave up on the idea of ordering beignets.  

Finally--though I should say this isn't my biggest concern, just a minor peeve--I got the bill (on an iPad, so it wasn't as if they were expecting people to pay by bills and coins) and found that it had been rounded up by nine cents to the nearest quarter.  This isn't entirely unusual, for this area or elsewhere, but it's still off-putting to see this "rounding adjustment" on the bill, particularly when it's not about A) trying to get lines to move more quickly, like in the Chipotle case, or B) trying to eliminate change.  With prices like those listed above, it's not as if people are often going to be paying with cash at Nanola.

Of course, unless there are serious changes made in the quality of food at Nanola, I don't think people should--or will--be paying for much food there going forward, no matter what the method of payment.  And if the business can't stay afloat on the back of its alcohol offerings, then I hope the owners make the most of the extra change they collected from customers.


  1. Wow.

    My idea for that sorry excuse for jambalaya is that it's easier to steam rice and plop reheated stew and shrimp around it than to create a complex, layered, integrated rice dish that everyone would expect. Plus, you can hold that stew for a long time; proper jambalaya probably doesn't have that kind of shelf life.

    It reeks of either laziness and/or ignorance, and those prices are high for that kind of service.

    1. Yeah, I was really perplexed by everything here. Ignorance or laziness is the real question. Oh and calling that a stew might be too generous; the flavors really weren't melded as you'd expect from something that had cooked for a while. Actually, I don't know that there were many flavors, other than tomato and cayenne.

  2. Oh. My. Gawd.. that is ... disgusting. I have a friend in Baton Rouge... I can't wait to share this post with him.

    1. Ha! That's a reaction I'd like to see.

    2. Having never been to louisana, as you readily admitted, and using pictures you found in the internet as comparison, your opinion is obviously HIGHLY qualified.

    3. Larry,

      I felt comfortable admitting to having never been to Louisiana because jambalaya and oyster po' boys are dishes that you can find--done well--all over the place.

      And honestly, whether Nanola's jambalaya is traditional or not is mostly irrelevant; I'm always game for new interpretations of classic dishes, so long as they taste good. The problem here is that neither the jambalaya or the po' boy were any good.

    4. I'm afraid I'm with Larry here. The irony was missed when you guys made assumptions about the quality of the food because the menu had photos "probably pulled off the Internet" (as if it is supposed to correlate), then proceeded to make a point by comparing the plate that was served to... photos you pulled off the Internet. This post jumped the shark and the jambalaya altogether at that moment...

    5. Sebastien,

      For one, Larry is an investor/owner of the place, so of course he's going to have a biased and childish comeback instead of actually trying to see how things can be improved at Nanola.

      Secondly, the pictures "pulled off the internet" comment was regarding the background of the interior windows, as seen in the photo at the top of the post.

      If you want to believe this is good jambalaya (I've since heard from others who were similarly disappointed in it), be my guest. But I'd also like it--if you actually try or have tried it and like it--to please explain what it is that's actually good about this version of jambalaya.

    6. My friend in Baton Rouge has a protected twitter account.. and he's too much of a gentleman to say what he really thought.. basically it was... "Oh My.... no".

    7. When I looked at the Jambalaya picture, for a minute there I actually forgot what Jambalaya is. I had to google search it to confirm what my brain was telling me.
      Sebastien, I am also a person who loves to try out new things and new versions. However, when you mention a prominent dish like this, without mentioning say "Deconstructed Jambalaya", it is first of all bound to disappoint a customer who has built up expectations about the food he/she is going to consume. And secondly, if I understand correctly, it wasn't true to the original dish in taste either..

      So if it doesn't look like Jambalaya, and doesn't taste like Jambalaya, well, it is not a Jambalaya! So, please don't call it that!

  3. I don't find at all that "jambalaya and oyster po' boys are dishes that you can find - done well - all over the place." If you want the real thing, burn a few frequent-flyer miles and go down to New Orleans or Lafayette or even Gulfport or Biloxi, Mississippi and have in their native environment. There are a few places in NYC that do passable versions, but there's nothing like the real thing. It's like Mexican food in the Capital Region... a pastiche. When I go to visit my mother in Sacramento, I load up on Cal-Mex and Vietnamese and other things that aren't done well in Albany. When I come back, I eat things that are done well - good sausages from Rolf's Pork Store, fish fry from Bob and Ron's, hot dogs from Famous Lunch, and the like. I always believe that it's best to eat the best things that are natural to where you are. Cajun/Creole cuisine is simply not one of those things in upstate New York.

    1. I won't argue that there are dishes that are almost always better in their "home territory," so to speak, and you're certainly right about Cal-Mex and Vietnamese in Northern California.

      That said, with the po' boy here for example, we were left thinking of one we had just a couple years ago in Charleston, SC, which was loaded with plump oysters, served on really nice bread, and complemented by a good remoulade. No matter that Charleston's quite a ways from the gulf; that place put some care into their po' boy and it showed.

      And take a casual place like Philly Bar & Grill in Latham, one quite similar in a lot of ways to Nanola. I don't think most of their food is all that, but with their Philly cheesesteaks--something they talk about proudly--they do a good job, they get Amoroso's rolls, and it does make a difference compared to so many other places outside of Philadelphia that offer up inauthentic and not-so-good versions of the cheesesteak.

  4. So that's K writing, about the po' boy, then back to Jeff for the jambalaya? K, it makes me sad to hear you talk about cole slaw that way. Check out a few of my preps and maybe you'll like it better. Cole slaw is the staff of life and it cures cancer, too! (Really.)

    1. Yes, she's very anti-cole slaw. I mean, I generally don't love it either, but I'm usually willing to try it (although most served at restaurants isn't particularly good, in my opinion, and after trying her po' boy, I was right with her on it not belonging on top of those four little oysters). We will check out your versions, though--it's always good to get more cabbage in one's diet!

  5. I tried the muffultta , it tasted nothing like the real thing .. very disapointing

  6. I cannot believe this backlash you get from people. Qualified or not, all it takes is two eyes and few brain cells to know they fucked up! And judging by your description, looks like it tasted like shit too!

    1. Thanks for the support, Greg. And I've enjoyed what you've posted on your blog recently, too!