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Monday, March 19, 2012

Cafe Nola

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Frederick, Maryland

The Setup

To wrap up a solid weekend in Frederick, Official Friends of DCWD Chill, Rajistan, Sam of Capital Cooking, and her boyfriend Shawn joined me and Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas for brunch at Cafe Nola, marking Part Four of our series in Maryland.

The Vibe

Sometimes when restaurants try to do too much, they struggle to do anything at all. Cafe Nola somehow manages to be an exception to this rule. Part coffeehouse, part restaurant, part bar, and part music venue, the space is divided as such: a row of high perches in the window next to the java and espresso section of the bar; a small eight seat bar behind that; the central dining area with a few two-seat and four-seat booths sandwiching two-tops in combination; and a set of stairs that one figures leads to the live music.

All the same, it seems to finesse all of its myriad identities into one: someplace cool to hang out. Take for instance the bar, an impressive line-up of beers and housemade concoctions in spigoted jars; below them, a chalkboard surface listing the names of the brews above them. Sometimes it's hard to quantify just why a place is cool; in Cafe Nola's case, there is just something extraordinarily awesome about the rainbow of innovative liquor blends that are soaking behind the bartender, refracting the light shining in from the large windows in the middle of the day.

The Food

Almost immediately upon entering the restaurant, Chill was struck by the omnipresence of mashed potatoes, which we found out was one of three options with almost every entree along with garlic potatoes or fruit. "They're giving me mashed potatoes for breakfast?" We definitely need to eat here.

To start, we ordered a round of drinks. Eschewing my normal Irish coffee, I ordered a bloody mary, partially because our DD Texas wanted one sip to compare it with the one she had sipped the morning before at Volt. It's unlikely the one at Volt had basil peppercorn infused vodka, but this one did, adding a little bit of mellowness to an otherwise sharp drink. Though in its defense, it wasn't nearly as piquant as Sam's version, which featured a jalapeno and garlic infused vodka that livened up the palate with each sip.

All the same, the winners were far and away Texas and Shawn. Texas, playing the DD and therefore perusing the coffee and tea menu, decided to lay up with a rose infused black tea latte. I like lattes just fine, but this one should have been illegal. Layers upon layers of flavor with an amazing depth from the milk, it was the best part about coffees without any of the bitterness; just sweet warm notes. Shawn, on the other hand, ordered a chai mixed with fig bourbon, one of the house made infusions. One of the main draws to Cafe Nola was Shawn's tasting of a honey whiskey the day before, a drink he was trying to share with all of us; when that ran out just shortly before we arrived, the restaurant owner suggested we try the bourbon/chai mix instead... and oh, what a great suggestion it was. As always, the chai provided a warm spicy base to the sweet fruit hints of the fig peeking out ever so often, all topped with the quick punch of bourbon. This is a drink I wish I could have forever and always.

As for our actual meal, most of us ordered a variation on eggs (it being brunch and all). Texas had huevos rancheros, presented in two taco bowls: one filled with eggs, and the other a mix of diced tomatoes, avocado, cheese, and sour cream. This dish was one ingredient away from being very good; my enjoyment of this dish is probably tied to its meatlessness, which is to say that the addition of a meat - or frankly even black beans - would have added so much to it. All the same, the dish was fine.
My dish was the Anything But Ordinary: steak, a poached egg, and arugula on an english muffin topped with parmesan cheese. I don't know about the "anything but ordinary" part (it seemed like a pretty normal sandwich), but all I can say about the dish is that most dangerous and least descriptive of adjectives: fine. Which is to say that it did the job, but there were enough things that made it... well, ordinary for brunch. The steak was a little too cooked-through and a weird cut (some flattened undercut instead of the flank I was expecting), and the cheese seemed like overkill. Thank god the mashed potatoes were good though.

Our two other couple friends each split dishes, though their one overlap was the french toast with strawberries and a berry puree. This was probably the best dish of the meal, with all of the sweetness and fond memories that french toast entails. There was nothing crazy about it, but at least it was solidly done.

Part two of Chill and Rajistan's dish was the portabella benedict: roasted caps stuffed with spinach and mozzarella, topped with two poached eggs and hollandaise. This was at least the most interesting dish of the bunch, though it didn't necessarily meet the wild expectations I had placed on it based on its description. The key was the hollandaise, the only way to add big flavor in an dish otherwise composed of plain or starchy tastes. Still, the hollandaise was a bit acidy, if not overall plain, lacking any creaminess or heat or anything that might distinguish it otherwise.

For Sam and Shawn, their second dish was a smoked salmon and goat cheese omelet, which turned out to be pretty good itself. At least I'm guessing it was; they gobbled it up before I could get a bite in edgewise.

The Verdict

When it comes to drinks, second to none. When they keep things traditional, they are good. When they go outside the box, it becomes okay. Still, I'd go back time and time again for that fig bourbon.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Hipster Hangout
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
: Patrick Street is a lovely strip with antique shops and plenty of mod furniture stores. A walk up and down after brunch is in order.

Cafe Nola on Urbanspoon

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