December 28, 2008

Coffeshop review- Cafe Nola

So, it's officially winter and I'm continuing my cold-weather trend of finding places to hang out, read, write, drink tea, and eat. I've recently added a fourth favorite to my repertoire-- Cafe Nola, in Frederick, MD. Nola has its roots in the defunct Downtime Cafe, which was located across the street. You literally walked down about four steps into the tiny, cramped basement of one of the historic townhouses on Patrick St. The tea assortment was fairly small, but eclectic and good. And the sandwiches on the equally small food menu were terrific, which is saying something because I'm not a sandwich fan. Unkempt and artsy, punky and funky, Downtime felt cozy to me. I didn't go there often, but often enough that I was seriously bummed when the place closed.

Seems the owners had a new concept in mind. Before long, Cafe Nola opened on the other side of Patrick in what was once a lunch counter/diner and has since been hard to keep occupied. Word was that Nola was being billed as a "coffeehouse/bar/kitchen". Before even seeing the place, visions of wanna-be-hip yuppies began dancing in my head. Sure enough, the first time I walked in, the sofa in the corner had been taken over by a 30-ish guy with a laptop and a toddler who was lolling all over the coffee table and floor. Yet there was also a dude with a mohawk and a black trench coat at one of the front window tables. After being ignored at the front counter for several minutes, I finally ordered a Battling Bamboo tea to go and left with a less than stellar first impression.

Now, while Frederick has a generous handful of very good restaurants, those places are just that: somewhere to be seated and served, dine, pay, and go. Places where one can feel comfortable just hanging out with a book and a meal have been few and generally haven't lasted long. Downtime Cafe was one of those few.

So there I was, feeling unmoored and bereft of a nearby hangout. There's just not always time to drive as far as Shepherdstown or Baltimore so, somewhat grudgingly, I went back to Nola. The tea was still the same good assortment, but the meal was mediocre. A third visit was just as poor, but the funky espresso cup collection and the same punky staff as at Downtime caused the atmosphere to begin growing on me.

Finally, on my fourth visit, I discovered Nola nirvana: the Grilled Cheesy sandwich, consisting of provolone, tomato, pesto and, optionally, prosciutto, grilled on focaccia. The combination of greasy, gooey cheese and the place being empty enough for me to read and eat in peace finally clicked and I left feeling content.

I've since been back a few more times for that sandwich and have discovered that their chef also does some pretty fantastic things with pumpkins and a soup pot. I've begun exploring more of the tea menu, as well-- while Battling Bamboo is still the first choice when I'm under the weather, I've found that Gypsy Love makes for a smooth, mellow compliment to a meal. The last test was Sunday brunch, for which I headed up to Frederick today. Veggies in Bed (tomato, basil, mozzarella and asparagus grilled on open-faced focaccia) seriously gives the Grilled Cheesy a run for its money, though the thicker focaccia required a steak knife to cut into.

So I've gone from turning my nose up at Nola to being totally won over by the place. Moral of the story: Always be willing to revise your first impressions, especially where food is concerned.

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