Café Nola is a unique eatery tucked right inside the main entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Named after it’s prime downtown location on North Laura Street (NOrth LAura…get it?), Café Nola is usually only open for lunch during the week, which makes it a convenient and interesting spot to grab a bite to eat before heading back to the office. The menu includes somewhat upscale lunch options along with contemporary versions of classic Southern dishes, like Shrimp and Grits and Succotash. During the week, most of Café Nola’s diners are in business attire, stopping in for a bite to eat during lunch. What a lot of people don’t know is that Café Nola is also open for dinner on Thursday evenings. Thursday evenings also happen to be when MOCA offers free admission and gallery tours, thanks to their partnership with FIS and Fidelity National Financial. Pair that with some of the other Thursday evening happenings downtown (like the monthly Jaxson’s Night Market and The Elbow Social) and you’ve got a perfect spot to kickstart the weekend.
We were invited out to sample a few of Café Nola’s handcrafted cocktails and appetizers as they get ready for their Fall Cocktail Tasting in September. I love the atmosphere of Café Nola. The ambience and décor is a perfect fit for MOCA. It is bright, clean, and modern – much like the museum itself. Despite it’s ultra modern, sleek appearance, the bistro still feels warm and inviting.
The recently revamped cocktail menu at Café Nola includes a nice mix of classic standards as well as some original handcrafted concoctions. They offer a good variety of cocktails, all of which have very different flavor profiles. So depending on what you like to drink, odds are you will find something you like at Café Nola. Now, I will admit that I am not a cocktail expert (although I have played the part of mixologist from time to time at parties), so I will not be breaking down the cocktails in overly technical terms and analyzing every single aspect. But I can tell you what worked and what didn’t work based on my personal taste and I can give you a pretty good idea of what to expect when ordering one of Café Nola’s signature cocktails. Here is a run-down of the cocktails we tasted:
Army-Navy – Ford’s Gin, Giffard Orgeat, and lemon juice. This classic cocktail was delicious. The flavor was aromatic, floral, and a little bitter from the gin. There was a nice tartness from the lemon juice, balanced with a slight sweetness from the almond orgeat syrup. Orgeat syrup is a sweet syrup made with sugar and almond flavors. It added just a touch of sweetness and a smooth finish to this otherwise dry, citrusy cocktail. I have never been a big fan of gin (it’s a little too dry for my taste), but I really enjoyed this cocktail. The orgeat syrup cut through the dryness and gave it a smooth finish.
Hemmingway Daiquiri – Bacardi Rum, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, grapefruit juice, simple syrup, and garnished with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry. Usually spelled with just a single “m” after Ernest Hemingway, Café Nola has added their own spin on this popular cocktail…and also an extra “m” after our own Hemming Plaza (clever). This drink was refreshing and had a bright citrusy taste. There was a nice balance between the tartness of the grapefruit juice and the sweetness of the cherry liqueur and simple syrup. It was slightly sweeter than a typical Hemingway Daiquiri, but not overly sweet.
Smoky Mule – Montelobos Mezcal, Tequila El Destilador Reposado, Barritt’s Ginger Beer, and lime juice. This cocktail got mixed reviews from the other folks I was with. The mezcal gave it a deep smoky flavor that did not appeal to everyone. The ginger beer added a bit of spiciness, and the tequila was yummy and smooth. But the drink still had a very strong flavor and an overwhelming smoky aftertaste. I personally enjoyed it and thought it would pair really well with a nice juicy steak, or barbecue, or bacon. But really, what doesn’t pair well with barbecue and bacon?
Contemporary Fashioned – Old Forester Bourbon, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, Shrub & Co Blood Orange Shrub, orange juice, and topped with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry and an orange peel. This drink was a crowd favorite at the cocktail tasting. It is a twist on an Old Fashioned, which has a spicier, more herbal taste thanks to the addition of bitters. The Contemporary Fashioned on the other hand, had a more mellow taste to it because of its fruity ingredients, like the cherry liqueur and the blood orange shrub. A shrub, if you’re not familiar (and I was not), is a drinkable vinegar. Shrubs are made from vinegar, fruit, and cane sugar and make great mixers for use in cocktails. This blood orange shrub added a little tang as well as some bright citrus flavors. Call me crazy, but I don’t usually like Old Fashioneds. However I am definitely a fan of this new twist on that old standard.
Whilk & Miskey – Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Giffard Orgeat, and Milkis Korean Cream Soda. Milk and Whiskey is a punch-type drink made with bourbon, sugar, spices, and either milk or cream. Café Nola’s take on that is the Whilk & Miskey, which is not only delicious to drink but also difficult to say once you’re a couple drinks into a cocktail tasting. Replacing milk with a fizzy cream soda made for a fun, slightly bubbly, slightly sweet cocktail. It has a smooth flavor to it and is dangerously easy to drink.
Dreamsicle – Three Olives Vanilla Vodka, Milkis Korean Cream Soda, Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub, and orange juice. The Dreamsicle was almost like a dessert cocktail, reminiscent of the orange cream popsicles I used to eat as a kid. It was sweet and had a powerful vanilla taste to it, thanks to the vanilla vodka. The Milkis Korean Cream Soda made another appearance in this cocktail, which was nice. But the drink was just a little too sweet and cloying for my taste. I had hoped to taste a bit more of the habanero shrub, but the spice and heat was too subtle and all I really tasted was vanilla and sugar. I wanted to like this cocktail, but I don’t really like overly sweet drinks, so I was not a fan.
Corn & Oil – Zaya Rum, John Taylor’s Velvet Falernum Liqueur, lime juice, and Angostura aromatic bitters. Falernum is a sweet syrupy liqueur with flavors of ginger, cloves, and other spices. It is used often in tropical-type drinks. In this drink, the falernum added to the dark, caramel flavors of the rum and the herbal taste of the bitters made for a rich, spicy cocktail. I love the deep flavors of dark rum, so this was one of my favorites.
Peach Hobbler – Koval Single Barrel Rye, Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur, peach juice, and fresh mint. This drink was like summertime in a glass. The whiskey had a dark, slightly spicy flavor, which was complimented by the sweet peach juice. The ancho chile liqueur added just a hint of heat. Topped off with mint leaves and served in a mason jar, this drink is the boozy equivalent of sitting on your front porch swing in the sweltering summer heat drinking a refreshing glass of sweet iced tea. It was heavenly.
In addition to all of these yummy (and very potent) cocktails, we also tried a few fall appetizers that will make an appearance at Café Nola’s Fall Cocktail Tasting in September. We started with Asian Chex Mix, a perfectly crunchy snack that I could literally eat by the bag at home on my couch watching Netflix. Really. Can I buy this by the bag? There were lots of different shapes and textures, and a great balance of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors. For some reason, the red pieces were especially tasty. If you find yourself at Café Nola with a dish of the Asian Chex Mix sitting in front of you, go for the red pieces…trust me on this. This snack mix was a more refined take on your typical Asian snack mix, and made for a fun and tasty appetizer.
Next up was a delicious Korean-smoked Brisket Lettuce Wrap. The meat itself was tender and juicy and had a great sweet soy glaze. Along with the brisket was a yummy Asian slaw, scallions, and sesame seeds. Wrapped up in the lettuce, all the different components made for a perfect bite, although a little messy given the juiciness of the meat and the liquid from slaw. The flavors of the smoky Asian glaze worked really nicely with the tangy slaw.
The last appetizer we tried was an Autumn Harvest Grilled Corn Salad. This one was my favorite and it really did evoke a sense of fall. The couscous made a nice base for the other ingredients – nuts, greens, sweet potatoes, and grilled corn. And the salad was then topped off with crispy sweet potato chips. All the different textures and flavors worked together really well and made it an comforting and filling appetizer.
It was great having the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the fall tasting menu. There are some exciting, unique, and most importantly delicious items that are worth checking out. But really Café Nola’s regular lunch menu is just as exciting. They offer a wide range of choices – from finger-food type munchies like sweet potato nachos, to sandwiches and salads, to more knife-and-fork entrees like filet mignon, quiche, and vegan paella (yum!). Lunch prices are just as varied, ranging from around $7 for appetizers up to around $23 for the aforementioned filet mignon. Dinner prices are slightly higher across the board. An especially popular choice at either meal is the daily flatbread. Flatbread toppings change on a daily basis to reflect whatever fresh ingredients are available (or whatever type of mood Executive Chef Kathy Collins might happen to be in). Another favorite is the complimentary bread paired with flavored butter, which also varies from day to day. I have also been told that the Shrimp and Grits are life-changing, but I have yet to try them myself. I am a huge fan of shrimp and grits and have tasted my fair share over the years, so I am looking forward to revisiting Café Nola and giving theirs a try.
Whether you come for lunch, Thursday night dinner, or one of their other special brunch or tasting events, do yourself a favor and head downtown to check out Café Nola. It is such a unique and interesting spot, perfect for a quick bite to eat at lunch, doing a little people watching, exposing yourself to a little modern art, or kicking off your weekend a day early. Or all of the above!
Note: From time to time we’re invited out to try a restaurant. This meal is usually comped, as this one was. We’re under no obligation to write a positive review or any review at all when we’re invited out to try a place. Every review you see on our site will be an honest review of the place whether or not the restaurant provided us with the meal at their cost.
For this review we welcome a member of our own JRR family: Rhonda Kovar is a former call center manager turned stay-at-home mom. She grew up in the heart of North Carolina and moved to Florida after getting hitched in 2002. She is a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University and a lover of all things crafty, musical, or edible. Rhonda loves finding new and delicious ways to turn her two tiny picky eaters into future foodies. You can follow her on Instagram.
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