Nola manager and head chef Brandon Trowbridge.
Brandon Trowbridge, manager of Nola, a recently opened New Orleans-style restaurant in Beijing's Ritan embassy district, knows that when you move halfway around the world "you have to change things, especially in a restaurant - so the recipes are a bit different".
Different is right. But in this case, different is also delicious. Nola, located on Xiushui Nanlu in a building that was formerly a shipping warehouse, offers a diverse menu that includes Trowbridge's own gourmet interpretations of Creole cuisine and Cajun favorites, combined with his insistence on incorporating local seasonal ingredients.
Not surprisingly, the 27-year-old Trowbridge, originally from Slidell, Louisiana, north of New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain, relies heavily on influences from home. From grits to fried oysters and bacon poboys to Boudin sausage balls, the authentic touch is everywhere on the menu.
"The barbeque shrimp is for sure my Dad's recipe," he said. "And the red beans and rice my Mom's."
As for the jambalaya, "well, that's my Mom's friend's recipe," he said with a smile. "I liked hers better, but couldn't tell my Mom, so I said, 'Mom, can you me send me some jambalaya recipes?' hoping she'd send her friend's, and she did."
After receiving a call from a headhunter for Hilton last year looking for a chef at their Beijing hotel, Trowbridge said he decided to come to China for the experience. When investors offered him the opportunity to open a new restaurant, the Louisiana native suggested a novelty for the city - New Orleans style.
He said the most difficult element of the cuisine to transfer has been the technique of making roux, a thickening agent made of flour and butter, and a hallmark of Creole cooking.
"Here, there's a tendency (among cooks) to fry it and cook it fast," he said. "So we burned a lot of flour in the beginning."
With an eye on seasonal ingredients, Trowbridge changes up Nola's menu monthly. Crawfish are currently out of season, so he is using smoked trout. Presentation, too, is modified with local tastes in mind. One example is the choice to serve catfish courtbouillon as a whole fish on a large platter Chinese-style rather than in individual fillets. The same applies to the jambalaya.
"Here we make an andouille jambalaya," Trowbridge explained. "We sear the sea bass and shrimp and place them on top, not mixed. Here, you can't stir the sea bass in. It has a really nice, flavorful skin, but one guy was really disappointed when we served it to him that way."
The absence of bananas foster on the menu is due to the expectation among connoisseurs that it must be made tableside. "We're not quite ready for that yet," he said. "Maybe a bananas foster French toast."
Practically everything on Nola's menu is made in-house, from the smoked andouille sausage to the Bloody Mary mix made from onions, olives, celery and fennel seed. Soon they will be making their own baguettes for poboys.
Trowbridge said the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine is that Cajun is the countrified version, with more wild and game meats served in big heaps from bowls, while Creole is a fancier, gentrified style.
Their lunch special of traditional Cajun items is a bargain at 45 yuan.
Following a first course choice of gumbo, salad or fruit plate, main dishes include classics such as chicken andouille sausage gumbo, shrimp Creole, red beans, and Chaurice sausage with rice, lamb, liver and onions. The set menu includes a drink - Qingdao beer, tea, coffee or soft drink - as part of a package sure to be a hit with the 9-to-5 crowd.
The decor is thoughtful, with a wrought-iron staircase rising to the second floor. All the wood used, from the beams to the chairs, came from old hutong.
The tables present tiny white vases filled with bouquets of baby daisies and soulful Southern tunes play overhead.
A giant willow tree outside the large front windows, along with shrubs and pedestrian traffic, grants diners the privilege of a quiet neighborhood feel.
And while not the French Quarter or St. Charles Avenue, Nola does transport your dining experience from downtown Beijing to someplace, well, easy.