NOLA: Emeril Lagasse's Freewheeling Ode To Classic New Orleans Cuisine

Emeril Lagasse has been the most recognizable face of New Orleans cuisine for more than two decades, and his restaurants, peppered throughout New Orleans (and the country at large), are largely seen as the standard-bearers for classic Cajun and Creole cuisine with a modern slant. His fine-dining chops are on full display at restaurants including Emeril's Delmonico and his flagship Emeril's, but if you want to get a real sense of his more fun, casual, and freewheeling culinary side, then head to NOLA, going strong in the French Quarter since 1992.

The colorful, boisterous, multi-level restaurant is helmed by chef Philip Buccieri, who runs the show from a large open kitchen. A renovation last year removed the white tablecloths, enlarged the bar, and transformed the menu into a succession of snacks, small plates, pizzas from a large wood-burning oven, pastas, and entrees. On a recent visit at the invitation of the restaurant, Buccieri brought out some of the restaurant's signature menu items, and each one was bold, full of flavor, and completely New Orleans, but with plenty of global influence as well.

Our meal started with the restaurant's signature dish: Mama's Stuffed Chicken Wings, a duo of whole chicken wings that had been deboned and stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, mushrooms, onions, celery, and fish sauce before being baked, fried, and served with a hoisin-based dipping sauce. A nod to New Orleans' large Vietnamese population, this dish was a crispy, flavor-bomb fusion of Cajun and Vietnamese flavors, and a great way to start the meal.

Next came Smoked Crab Cheesecake Boulettes, creamy crab croquettes with a small claw poking out and serving as a cheeky handle.

Up next, Emeril's signature barbecue shrimp, served at just about all of his restaurants, here served with jumbo Grand Isle shrimp, a rich butter-based sauce, and sourdough toast for mopping. I've had this dish several times at several of Emeril's restaurants, and this iteration was just about perfect.

Next came a halved artichoke that had been filled with creamy whole wheat spaghetti tossed with pecorino and tasso ham; it was a curious combination, but all together it made for a very tasty forkful.

Next up, a pizza from the wood-burning oven, a pecorino-topped pie loaded with braised greens and topped with pickled peppers. The pizza had a great crust, and all the elements came together into a delicious (if messy) slice.

Next, a perfectly-cooked piece of Gulf fish that had been roasted on a cedar plank and topped with grated horseradish and citrus butter and served with tomato salad; adding the fresh horseradish before cooking the fish was a smart move, crisping up and lightly caramelizing it.

And there was more to come: A round of crispy shredded pork shoulder was kicked into flavor overdrive by the addition of pecan country gravy and pepper jelly, and a sky-high popover rounded out the dish nicely.

And finally, we were treated to the dish that we saw leaving the kitchen more than any other: a buttermilk-fried chicken thigh with bourbon mashed sweet potatoes. It was supremely crispy and loaded with Creole flavor, easily one of the best fried chicken dishes in town.

And at long last, dessert: cool and creamy coconut semifreddo with mango sorbet and lemongrass; and a mini Drunken Monkey ice cream cake, absolutely decadent, on a bed of cashew butter and topped with bananas.

NOLA is a fun restaurant with something for everyone, whether it's a group of friends getting together for some drinks and bar bites or a celebratory birthday meal. It's a French Quarter mainstay with more than 25 years under its belt, and we wouldn't be surprised if it sticks around for 25 more.

The meal that is the subject of this review was provided at no cost to the writer.