On a side street between Main and Walnut (in the former Please space), Nolia Kitchen brings a delicious taste of New Orleans to Cincinnati. We have several Cajun and New Orleans–themed joints where one can load up on barbecued shrimp and andouille sausage. But none of those places capture the true diversity of New Orleans dining. Nolia does it so well, it serves as an irrefutable reminder of why New Orleans is one of the world’s top food cities. Chef/Owner Jeffery Harris, a New Orleans native, prepares the cuisine of his beloved city with sophistication and flair. Before opening Nolia, Harris operated Jimmie Lou’s, an Oakley Kitchen Food Hall stall serving up more casual Cajun/Creole dishes, but opening a higher-end eatery was always his endgame. With Nolia, he has fulfilled his goal.
The decor of the small-but-comfortable restaurant evokes New Orleans without dropping you face-first into the middle of Bourbon Street. No Mardi Gras beads or alligator heads adorn the walls here, though the exposed brick, flowered wallpaper, and hanging plants transport diners to a cozier, quieter corner of the French Quarter. The main draws here, perhaps like New Orleans itself, are flavor and creativity.
Overlooking it all from a black-and-white photo on the wall is Jimmie Lou, Harris’ great-grandmother (and namesake of his former Oakley Kitchen venture). She’s the one who first taught Harris how to cook. When he was 4 years old, she pulled a step stool up to the stove and showed him how to make his favorite dish—scrambled eggs. Flash forward to 2000, when he got his professional start at famed New Orleans chef/TV star Emeril Lagasse’s namesake restaurant. He learned teamwork and kitchen management at Emeril’s, working his way up from line cook to sous chef. Then Hurricane Katrina hit.
Harris landed here, working stints at Orchids, Salazar, and Mita’s, as well as Covington’s Blinkers Tavern and the now-closed Commonwealth Bistro. He eventually decided to venture out on his own and share his beloved Southern food—as eaten in New Orleans—with the city he now calls home. And with stunning results; Nolia was named a James Beard Award finalist for “Best New Restaurant” on March 29.
The menu changes seasonally, with almost a complete overhaul each time. No dish is untouchable. This is because Harris wants to continuously push himself creatively. Harris’s drive also means that he’s not content to stick to the handful of classic dishes, like gumbo and jambalaya, that have become so synonymous with New Orleans cooking. He draws on all the influences that have contributed to the cuisine of that great city—from West African to French to Japanese to Haitian. The latter influence is responsible for one of my favorite vegetarian dishes: the jackfruit Griot. Griot, one of Haiti’s most beloved dishes, consists of citrus-marinated pork shoulder, cut into cubes and fried to a golden brown. Flawlessly fried jackfruit is the perfect stand-in for the traditional pork, especially when eaten with a dash of Nolia’s tongue-tingling house-made hot sauce.
If classic New Orleans dishes do show up on the menu, they’re likely to get delightfully unexpected touches. Take the duck and oyster gumbo (this surprising protein combination is apparently popular in gumbos at more refined New Orleans restaurants). Harris deconstructs the typical stew, building on a base of popcorn rice, instead of the more typical long grain, and a decadent duck fat roux. It’s served with sliced okra, further reflecting the dish’s African influences. The result is the most unique gumbo this Midwesterner has ever had.
Some of the dishes here are just pure Southern comfort food, like the cornbread, which is served in a hot skillet. Pancake-soft with a slightly gritty texture, it eats like something straight out of a Southern hearth. Equally comforting are the beef grillades, a lesser-known New Orleans staple. Two tender, juicy medallions of braised chuck are served over creamy grits with fragrant peppers and onions. Harris describes the dish as a “hug from Grandma,” and I couldn’t agree more. A side dish of sweet and acidic cider greens served with caramelized onions adds some zing to the meal.
Desserts at Nolia are not to be missed. A creative assortment of ice cream and pastries are made in house under the direction of Sous Chef Korry Wolf. These are hearty desserts to round out what is sure to be a hearty meal. The fig-spiced ice cream (flavors are constantly rotating) tastes like Christmas in a bowl and the moist sweet potato cake—served with a purple flower on top (because why shouldn’t sweet potato cake be beautiful?) and a side of rocky road ice cream—gives off a coffee cake flavor with a hint of sweet potato.
Nolia brings fine dining flavors without fine dining prices; most entrées are in the $20 to $30 range. Harris deliberately eschews the overly precious plating and preparation associated with fine dining, as he disdains the “robotic nature” that such preparation so often entails. His open kitchen is a lively one as he banters with staff and customers, mans the stove, and plates dishes.
Nolia is exquisitely prepared food served in a funky, laid-back atmosphere. Each of these colorful, flavorful dishes is prepared with the expertise that comes from a lifetime spent in kitchens, going back to those afternoons with his great-grandma.
Nolia Kitchen, 1405 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 384-3597