Tucked right inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Café Nola is a delightful modern bistro situated next to the Main Library and across the street from Hemming Plaza.
Executive Chef Kathy Collins takes great pride in sourcing fresh ingredients — even using herbs grown on the building's rooftop garden.
Café Nola, outfitted in clean white and green hues, boasts an open kitchen and a modern interior with extra high ceilings and natural light. I suggest snagging a seat by the windows facing Hemming Plaza.
On a recent dinner visit during the One Spark festival, we started with sweet potato nachos, which proved to be a unique twist on traditional nachos. The base was a generous heap of thinly cut, crispy sweet potato chips topped with a creamy and rich bleu cheese sauce, sliced scallions, salty applewood-smoked bacon and sweet and tangy balsamic reduction. I stopped short of licking the plate.
The spring lobster gnocchi was lighter than I would have imagined, but still filling. The homemade potato gnocchi were soft and delicate, paired with crisp sautéed haricot verts and halved grape tomatoes, steamed Maine lobster pieces swimming peacefully together in a corn jus — a perfect spring dish.
The varied menu includes popular entrées such as a mac 'n' cheese with black truffle shavings, goat cheese, wild mushrooms and roasted chicken — served in a cast-iron pan. Another favorite, shrimp and grits, features plump shrimp in a creamy white wine and mushroom sauce with applewood bacon atop firm smoked cheddar grit cakes. It's served with a sun-dried tomato crostini, but I'm always too full to indulge.
For lighter fare, try one of the flavorful salads. There's a Caesar with a black truffle butter-basted local fried egg (say that three times fast); a Cobb with fresh steamed Maine lobster, asparagus and blueberries; and a warm calamari and artichoke salad with roasted pepper vinaigrette over fresh baby spinach.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Café Nola is the plate of complimentary yeast rolls (though they seem to be more of a muffin consistency). These slightly sweet, warm carbs arrive at your table accompanied by a side of flavored fruit butter. Butter flavors change daily, and my first question upon sitting down is always, "What's today's flavor?" My three favorites are pear, grapefruit and orange-banana.
Bring your veg-loving company for the jerk wrap with Artie's tempeh (out of Gainesville) and cilantro rice and a vegetarian BBQ roll with smoked Artie's tempeh, creamy pimento cheese and a boiled peanut slaw on a toasted pretzel bun. There's also a spicy black bean burger with homemade pepper jelly, creamy melted brie and peppery arugula on a toasted ciabatta roll.
Those of you with a sweet tooth must ask about the daily dessert selection. The best after-dinner offering I've experienced was the warm sticky fig pudding. Toffee and fresh fig slices were a match made in heaven.
Café Nola is only open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner only on Thursdays and every first Wednesday of the month for Art Walk. Parking is available on the street or in one of several nearby garages. Dress is casual, though Café Nola would make a nice date night or special occasion destination.