Perched above a previously underutilised, quietly beautiful stretch of Darling Harbour, NOLA Smokehouse and Bar is a new addition to the Streets of Barangaroo's tower restaurants. The style tips its hat to one of America's most revered and distinctive cities with hanging basket ferns, wicker chairs and gorgeous wrought iron detailing around the bar.
The menu wears the New Orleans influence lightly though — think more along the lines of smoked meats and Sazeracs rather than bowls of gumbo and po' boys. Service is knowledgeable and friendly, giving what could easily be a stuffy upmarket venue a taste of laidback Southern hospitality.
The menu covers loose groupings of starters and share plates and is particularly strong on seafood; go for a half-dozen oThis Baranf Pacific oysters with a sharp shallot vinaigrette and/or a thick chipotle bloody mary sauce ($25) straight off the bat. A tuna sashimi dish ($24) offers just a hint of Southern spice with its Creole seasoning, and comes strewn with lightly salty caviar-like sea grapes.
Mains revolve around the smoking room, and a good way to sample a range of their handiwork — not to mention eat your way into an agreeable food coma — is with the Pit Master's Picks ($43 per person), which includes lamb, pork sausage, brisket and chicken. The velvety-soft brisket pairs nicely with a dollop of chimichurri sauce while the blackened, tea-brined chicken (also available separately for $48) is particularly mouth-watering, full-flavoured and smoked to a soft texture.
One of the salad options, the chargrilled cos ($22), goes way beyond being an afterthought for non-carnivores, bringing crunch and plenty of colour with coils of neat green zucchini ribbons, vivid purple radicchio leaves and the dusky orange zucchini flowers.
Another big part of NOLA is the drinks list. Cocktails run from well-balanced originals like a bourbon, blueberry and lemon concoction called the Berry Blues to classics like the evergreen Vieux Carré — named after the city's famed Old Quarter — and the Sazerac, one of the great gifts New Orleans has given to the world (all $18-20). The back bar also holds an admirably encyclopaedic collection of American whiskies, with plans to expand the range to well over 500 US varieties. All the big names are represented here, but try one of their lesser-known varieties, or something different, like a super smoky Octomore.
The dessert list includes some New Orleans specialities like pecan pie and molasses jelly. Bananas Foster would have been a nice addition, but its absence is soothed by the decadent likes of a cookies and cream dish with ice cream, honeycomb, fresh berries and bourbon caramel ($13). Besides, when the last rays of sun are disappearing over the harbour and a breeze is filtering in through the airy room, you'll hardly be complaining.
UPDATE MONDAY, AUGUST 7: To celebrate National S'mores Day (not really a 'national day', but just go with it) on Thursday, 10 August, NOLA Smokehouse and Bar doing a little take on the campfire favourite. Executive chef Richard Duff is whipping up a version with toasted raspberry marshmallow, Valrhona dark chocolate jelly and campfire caramel ice cream. It's available for lunch and dinner on Thursday, with a glass of Ridgeside Icewine Vidal for $20.