Amid the array of hummus, falafel and shakshuka in Israeli cuisine, I sometimes, more often than I prefer to admit, find myself craving hash browns and biscuits from home. Talya Rasner’s all-American bakery and cafe, NOLA, has only been open for four months but has already acquired a delicious reputation for good ol’ Southern comfort food, and I might just move in.
Talya moved to Israel 25 years ago, when she was eight. While she studied industrial design, she always enjoyed baking, but had never done so professionally. NOLA began as a project with friends, making recipes from home for two years. She missed her mother’s and grandmother’s, both born in New Orleans, home-cooked meals, and felt that bakeries in Tel Aviv were too European-influenced. Her grandmother’s cooking was so influential in her life that Talya thought of naming the restaurant after her, but NOLA was meant to be in the end. It’s her “personal America.”
When she met Harriet Sternstein, now NOLA’s head baker, everything fell into place. They began baking together, changing certain recipes, conjuring up new ones, and the NOLA’s character was born. Talya said if she were to partner with an Israeli baker, they would argue too much about what an American bakery should entail. With Harriet, she said, the vision was clear to both of them.
“I couldn’t imagine doing this with another baker,” Talya said.
NOLA isn’t just Southern cooking, though. Talya’s upbringing takes credit for the po-boy and biscuits and bacon, while Harriet brings bagels and pumpkin cheesecake. Harriet was born in New York, went to culinary school in Seattle and owned her own business in Paris for 20 years before making Aliyah. So the strong female duo offers a little bit of everything from everywhere.
Although you can get a bagel or a veggie sandwich, the Southern comfort is what draws people to NOLA. Before you even order, the pastel green- and yellow-painted wood chairs and tables, birds of America wallpaper, black and white floor tiles and shelves with mason jars and oversized coffee mugs politely invite you in with Southern accents. The servers all wear denim-blue, country-style aprons, and the bakery goods are temptingly displayed behind glass next to the register, allowing you to grab a coffee cake or blueberry muffin to go.
I found it difficult to decide what to order. Everything looked like it would be my new favorite meal. Do I go with the NOLA Breakfast and quell my yearning for a traditional American breakfast with two eggs, hash browns, bacon, a vegetable salad (Talya said she added that in for the Israeli diners) and two slices of warm buttermilk toast? Or do I skip straight to lunch and try mac and cheese with a salad? I could always get the Nola Po-Boy with Creole gravy, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato on a baguette. Talya also recommended the Wheat Salad with wheat berries, fresh and grilled vegetables, sharp cheese, walnuts and fresh herbs.
No, I think I’ll stick with the Blackstone Biscuit, one of the most popular dishes. And now I know why. One of Talya’s most important aspects to copying food in the South was to serve everything on one plate. The plate brought to me was so nicely laid out and full of colors I didn’t want to destroy the aesthetic value by eating the food. I got over that, though. The yellow, red and white of the two poached eggs covered in hollandaise sauce that sat on a pile of bacon and a warm, creamy biscuit played an elegant contrast to the green, red and purple of its neighboring salad with homemade vinaigrette. No knife was required for this meal. The eggs, bacon and biscuit fell apart with the touch of a fork, letting everything swim together in the tasty egg yolk and hollandaise sauce. The grilled tomatoes in the salad and added a sweet touch to the crispy bacon in the following bite. Everything was so succulent I couldn’t stop eating, even when I felt full.
You can’t go wrong with any of the choices, and everything is made in-house. The hash browns are baked instead of fried, and the biscuits are handmade.
Make sure you save room for some goodies from the bakery. The menu is whatever Harriet is in the mood for, but there are some constant staples. Bagels and biscuits are always available. Talya said they got in trouble one day by customers for not having their infamous blueberry muffins and for putting apples in the coffee cake on Rosh Hashanah. Everything is individually sized, which was another must for Talya, who prefers her own cheesecake instead of a slice from a cake that’s been sitting on display.
The bakery is a sweet taste of home to both Talya and Harriet. The pecan pie is based off a recipe from Camellia Grill, one of Talya’s grandparents’ favorite date spots in New Orleans. The NOLA staff loves the peanut butter pie, also based off a New Orleans cafe recipe. You can also choose the cinnamon, melt-in-your mouth Mexican Wedding Cookie, a blondie or pumpkin cheesecake with pecans and dried cranberries.
Whether you decide to try Leah Jean’s Munchies, made with mandel bread in a secret family recipe from Memphis, or to, as Talya often does, go back to the basics with a chocolate chip cookie or vanilla cupcake, you’ll understand why Talya brought her taste of home to Tel Aviv. It’s something to miss while you’re away, but a meal at NOLA will fill your stomach and comfort your Southern soul, making you want seconds and thirds.