Cafe Reviews

Mexed Results

Nola's Cocina Mexicana, Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 957-8393. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9p.m.

Does anyone really believe there's such a thingas complete objectivity? I know judges andscientists are supposed to be perfectly impartial. Food critics, too. But aren't our views colored by the expectations we bring to every encounter?

Blind dates always seem homely because guys expect a Cindy Crawford look-alike to open the door. If your boss doesn't fire you for making a mistake, you might be gulled into believing that deep down he really has a heart. And when you tackle your taxes and discover you're entitled to a small refund, you may even have warm, benevolent thoughts about the IRS.

My latest experience at a couple of Mexican restaurants was undoubtedly colored by the set of expectations I carried to them. Nola's, in the tony Biltmore Fashion Park, has recently been operating under the direction of Paul Fleming, who runs two of this town's better restaurants, Ruth's Chris Steak House and Z''Tejas Grill.

Both the location and management suggested an evening of interesting fare, smoothly served in a chic, comfortable setting. On the other hand, I expected nothing but the usual combo-plate suspects from Andale, a new south-of-the-border place that's taken over a defunct Tony Roma's on East Camelback Road.

I've tried to analyze my disappointment in Nola's. That's because, even at the time, I thought most of the food was very good. I still think so now. But I've concluded that Nola's is not a very good restaurant.

The setting is part of the problem. First, the look. I can handle the reproduction of a peeling Mayan fresco at the far end of the room, even if it does clash with the abstract paintings on the side walls. But what on Earth are those bizarre, ladderlike tubes which balance on stacked-stone pilings or hang ominously from the ceiling? This is high-tech design without purpose. I asked the waiter about them. He rolled his eyes and said, "Weird."

Of course, you could always avert your eyes and gaze at your dining companions or your plate. However, unless you wear earmuffs, it's much harder to avoid the television over the bar or the relentlessly blaring rock music--both formidable impediments to digestion and conversation.

The service is also out of whack. We get another table's dishes. We don't get fresh cutlery with every course. Entrees are up before we've finished the appetizers. Busboys hover and snatch plates the moment we stick a fork into the last bite. This feed-'em-and-move-'em-out staff either has been trained at the "Evelyn Wood Speed-Serving Institute" or is on amphetamines. You'll spend less time here over a three-course meal than you will getting fitted for eyeglasses at LensCrafters.

While the setting and service are underwhelming, the food isn't: Many of Nola's dishes sport genuine Mexican flair.

The appetizers are particularly outstanding. Good thing, too, because Nola's doesn't believe in free chips. It doesn't believe in decent margaritas, either. Thetop-shelf version--1800, Cointreau and lime juice--was so watery it couldn't give a newborn a buzz. Save your five bucks.

Tamale sope con pato is the best of the starters, a mix of roast duck, black beans and cheese stuffed into a baked tamale crust. Although this lily doesn't need additional gilding, a zesty red chile garlic sauce furnishes a wonderful boost.

The robust chile relleno is eggy enough to be an omelet, but it has real bite. It's moistened with a smooth green chile sauce that hits the whole scale of flavor notes.

Green corn tamale fans won't find anything wrong with Nola's model; it's not too sweet and has just the right texture. You can even gnaw on ribs--four meaty specimens aided by a tart barbecue sauce juiced up by a chile kick.

The main-dish menu is divided into two sections. One is Platos Mexicanos featuring familiar dishes like tacos, burros and flautas. But who comes to Biltmore Fashion Park for tacos, burros and flautas? We opted instead for the "Especialidades," figuring these were where the chef would be more likely to shine.

Well, sometimes he does--and sometimes he doesn't. The ahi tuna, the most expensive entree at $13.95, is flawless, a gorgeous piece of medium-rare fish crusted with pumpkin seeds and laced with a dazzlingly fruity cascabel chile sauce. It's a beautiful melding of flavors. Too bad the accompanying rice and squash weren't equally vigorous.

Almost as good are the enchiladas lined with shrimp and papaya. The menu description sounds great: "fresh blue corn tortillas with seared shrimp and papaya with cumin black bean and tomatillo sauces." There's a beguiling contrast between the sweet papaya and tart sauces. However, the kitchen apparently doles out the shrimp with tweezers. I found just a few shards in my two enchiladas, barely enough to fill a thimble.

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Howard Seftel