SECOND HELPINGS

Whatever Nola Wants: Looks like it's time to delete permanently the lukewarm review of Nola's Cocina Mexicana that's been molding in my computer system. The casually upscale Mexican restaurant has been doing less than stupendous business since it opened last year in glitzy Biltmore Fashion Park's restaurant row, between high-profile Hops! Bistro and Brewery and RoxSand, and across from Steamers and Sam's Cafe.

A couple of low-intensity, high-priced meals at Nola's convinced me that Valley restaurantgoers were showing remarkably good judgment by staying away. I put the review on hold, though, when I heard rumors that Nola's was getting ready to fold up its tent. Then, a few weeks ago, white knight Paul Fleming came riding to the rescue.

Fleming, one of the Valley's most successful restaurant entrepreneurs, operates the Valley's two formidable Ruth's Chris Steak Houses, and the topnotch Z'Tejas Grill. He also runs P.F. Chang's China Bistro, an Americanized, knife-and-fork chop suey parlor that appeals to trendoids with more money than taste.

Fleming now has an ownership interest and operational control of Nola's. He's scrapping the old menu and busy formulating a new one, emphasizing Mexican barbecue specialties and made-from-scratch traditional favorites. The new prices certainly sound right, especially for this high-rent location: Entrees will be under $10. (Let's see if that holds.) I'll be interested to see what comes out of the revamped kitchen. Will the new Nola's serve inventive, vigorously flavored fare, like I find at Z'Tejas? Or will we get cutesy, gringo-ized dishes aimed at the P.F. Chang's crowd? We'll know soon.

Zagat to Me: The folks behind the Zagat Restaurant Guides have been busy calculating the average cost of a restaurant meal in 23 American cities. By their reckoning, Phoenix ranks 17th, with an average cost of $17.58, including tax, tip and one drink. I can only conclude that the Valley correspondents whose numbers Zagat crunched did a lot of dining at places that have drive-through lanes and employees who say things like, "Do you want fries with that?" That's because, figuring tax at 7 percent, a tip at 15 percent and a drink at $3, an average Valley meal would compute to about $12. That will work at cheap ethnic joints and some mom-and-pop parlors, but not too many other full-service operations. Check out the rankings and average meal costs for some of the other cities on the list: 1. New York: $29.38; 2. Miami: $25; 6. Los Angeles: $22.95; 12. Chicago: $20.97; 14. Seattle: $18.62; 20. Denver: $17.06; 21. Salt Lake City: $16.28; 23. Houston: $13.67.

Back to the Drawing Board: Last year, the editors at Food Arts magazine asked prominent chefs to own up to their worst menu flops. Among the losers: cornmeal fried quail salad. Said the bewildered chef, "Everybody hated it. I sold three at lunch and two came right back." Another dish the public refused to warm up to: fresh woodcock with sauce made from its entrails. The chef was shocked at the lack of interest in his wild game. "It was really fresh--it still had the shot in it." My favorite flop? Sea urchin submarine sandwich. The chastened chef could only conclude: "I guess raw sea urchin can be rather intimidating."--Howard Seftel

 
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