Thursday, October 29, 2009

Let this po' boy be

Not long ago I was reading in one of the expat mags about a new opening down in the Embassy district, a New Orleans-themed bar-restaurant called Nola. Since the demolition of the old Big Easy at the south gate of Chaoyang Park 3 or 4 years ago, I have been feeling the lack of such a place.

The write-up seemed vaguely promising, and made much of the place's brick-built bar (supposedly one of only two in Beijing.... but that, of course, is bollocks!). The photos had a cosy ambience about them. And I'm a sucker for all things New Orleans.

Well, the other day I was headed into that part of town to meet up with some friends at a place where I don't much rate the food; so, I thought I'd drop in on Nola for an early evening bite, and to scope it out.

Hm - where to begin? The disappointments came thick and fast. The vaunted brick bar is not really a bar at all. Although there are a few stools there, it's obviously intended solely as a serving counter, and the staff get visibly anxious if you even walk up to it to place an order or ask for a menu. It's too high to stand at (something of an emerging vice in recent Beijing openings). It doesn't have any draught beer. And it's horribly overlit. A complete waste of what might have been a feature attraction.

The whole place, in fact, is horribly overlit, and desperately bare. Perhaps they're going to elaborate the interior decor once they've been going a while, but at the moment it's just pale, featureless walls and bright lights. Every bar (and restaurant) I've been in in New Orleans has had low lighting, lots of wood, and a clutter of characterful junk. This place just isn't setting up the vibe.

And, as I said, no draught beer. A small bottle of Stella is quite reasonably priced, though, so I went for that. An over-officious waiter swiped it from it my table before I'd quite finished emptying it - very briskly, very surreptitiously, without asking me. Another black mark.

And the food? Oh, my god. Nola really seems to be positioning itself purely as a restaurant. It has absolutely nothing to offer as a bar; and it's just not in a bar neighbourhood - no walk-by trade at all. The menu, however, is fairly short, and mostly devoted to rather snacky things. A restaurant that's even half-arsed about being a restaurant.

I decided to try their po' boy (short for 'poor boy': the Louisiana interpretation of a long-loaf sandwich - a rather odd name, I always thought, for such a big sandwich, but the Cajun Dictionary assures me that it was originally a cheap lunch for working men). I went for the beef & horseradish variety, which came - as do they all - with a choice of sides. I opted for the 'slaw. Ho hum. The French bread was good. That's about all I can say. The beef (as, unfortunately, we have to expect nearly all the time in Beijing) was dry and tasteless. And the horseradish (in fact, I think, horseradish mayonnaise rather than proper horseradish sauce - maybe I just didn't read the menu carefully enough?) was so bland and so sparingly applied as to be negligible. And there was no salad to speak of, either. The biggest let-down, though, was the size of the thing. The menu offered half- and full-size versions, so I opted for the half, assuming that the (80 kuai!) full-size one was intended only for broad-girthed Texans with mighty appetites or amorous young couples looking to share a single meal. After all, a po'boy in New Orleans is usually a big slab of food; and 80 kuai is a lot of money. But no - the "half-size" po'boy at Nola is two fairly dinky hunks, only about 3 or 4 bites big each. On that basis, the full-size one is probably going to be rather smaller than a Subway sandwich (the 6" one!!) - which is far superior, and less than half the price.

And the coleslaw? It came irrelevantly garnished with a few pieces of chopped pecan, and was dressed in something that tasted to me more like stale vanilla ice-cream than any kind of mayonnaise known to man. The only saving grace was that it came in such a small portion it was easily ignored.

Unfortunately, I failed to ignore it quite thoroughly enough. I love coleslaw so much that, despite the vile first impression, I unconsciously wolfed down a couple more forkfulls. And 6 or 7 hours later I was going down with one of the most violent episodes of food poisoning I have yet suffered in Beijing.

But you know what, guys - I forgive you. Food poisoning can strike anywhere in Beijing. I can't prove it was you (although I'm pretty damned sure it was). And, if you're making your own mayo from fresh eggs, then salmonella is always going to be a risk.

I don't hate the place only with the bitterness of an abused intestine. No, I hate it for the stinginess of its portions. I hate it for its stupid prices. I hate it for its lack of effort or common sense in attempting to create any sort of atmosphere. I hate it for its sheer bloody pointlessness.

Nola? No thanks.

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