I’m a huge fan of dinner parties. Intimate gatherings around a cozy table, with good food, good conversation, and good friends. Feeling even more at ease as the night wears on, as if I could just curl up on the couch and rest my eyes as a postprandial treat. However, I’m not always up for hosting and all that it entails – the prep time, the cleanup, the stressing over the menu. Which is why I am thrilled that Liza Puglia’s NOLA Buenos Aires has swept in to save the day – or night – for anyone who can sympathize with me.
Originally from New Orleans (hence NOLA), Liza has been in Buenos Aires for nearly two years – via New York after Hurricane Katrina sent her packing north – and has definitely added some spice – both figuratively and literally – to life around here. From working as a private chef and caterer to hosting her famous Mexican Pop-Up nights at Tout le Monde in Palermo, Liza has been committed to bringing bold new flavors to the BA food scene.
NOLA Buenos Aires is the most recent incarnation of Liza’s love for food and feeding people. Set in a beautiful house on the edges of Palermo Soho – with its incredible high ceilings and exposed brick that I envy so greatly – the restaurant currently only has room for eight lucky diners, which definitely adds to the dinner party ambiance.
The four-course menu changes monthly and focuses on a blend of creole and Mexican flavors, though at the heart of every dish is a new approach to tried and true classics with a little twist of their own. Think earthy, smoky chili sauces with braised meats or plates that let the fresh vegetables and seafood really shine through. I was very excited to sit down at the table last Friday night; my panza is still thanking me.
Our first course was a crab, shrimp and okra (!!) gumbo, served with fresh baguettes and a bit of herbed butter. My mom is from Baltimore, so I start salivating at the sight of a crab leg – I knew things were off to a good start when it was placed in front of me. The gumbo was complex and filling without being overdone or too heavy. The crab leg – though a little messy since I am used to eating crabs over newspaper on my back patio – was a very nice touch.
Next up was a traditional Mexican sope, which is kind of like a tortilla but a little smaller and thicker. On top was a fresh ceviche with mango, jalapeño and some avocado. Very light and bright – a bit of a contrast from the courses that preceded and followed it – and the rosé we drank with this course was a perfect accompaniment. I always crave real Mexican food here, so knowing that Liza is an ally on that front always makes life a little bit better.
Our third course was like a big bear hug – braised pork served with a smoky chili ancho sauce over creamy polenta. A rather simple dish in theory, but the sauce had all these crazy layers of spice and flavor and the pork was cooked perfectly – falling apart to the point that using a knife would have been a crime. It was a substantial dish, but didn’t leave me feeling ready for food coma.
Last but not least was dessert. Liza had previously been serving up pecan pies, but when she confirmed our reservation had said to expect something new this time around. Luckily her burst of inspiration worked out in my favor – she served her take on “Dirt Cake” (aka my most favorite dessert of my childhood, perhaps all time). Homemade chocolate mousse whirled in with some homemade whipped cream – all served with a nice topping of crushed Oreo cookies and with a charming little kumquat on the side. I would have liked to have eaten about 9 more of these, por favor.
The wine pairings were great – not to mention that the pours are anyting but stingy. With the nice low lighting and New Orleans jazz & funk playing in the background, we really all started to feel at home. Once dinner ended Liza came out to join us, grinning from ear to ear and ready to chat with her guests. Mixing in a few Spanish phrases here and there (I can still hear her saying “Claroooo!!” every now and then), she just exudes a joy and comfort when she’s got her apron on and is talking about food and the good life.
Things started to wind down when it grew late and moves were being made, people ready to get their Friday nights started. Like I said before, you feel like you’re at a friend’s house – or even your own. Waiting for a cab outside, I felt a wave of contentment and nostalgia as the jazz melodies began to fade away and I drove off.
NOLA Buenos Aires
Friday and Saturday nights, from 9pm
Palermo Soho – Reservations only
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AR$250/person, includes wine pairings