New Year’s Eve is too much for me. I’d rather celebrate the day before when the crowds are a shade thinner and the bars aren’t in full panic mode. Better to be on the edge of a party than in the thick of it. Besides, this year Dec. 31 was going to be a cold one.
Don’t get me wrong. Closing out 2017 was a big deal. I had a lot to celebrate, to be thankful for. My first year of business was under my belt and my children are doing well. Family, relationships, healthier lifestyle and my outlook were finishing out the year on a happier note, especially when compared to the torrential downpour of negativity that was 2016. Yes, 2017 started out rocky but in the end it treated me right.
Excited as I was about 2018, I thought it more fitting to honor 2017. The idea was more of ringing out the old instead of ringing in the new. And when celebrating in Mobile, one of the best spots is NoJa.
In the nine or so years of me filling this space in the paper, I’ve haven’t done a proper review of this diamond because most Mobilians already are too familiar with this North Jackson locale. It’s a special place for many as the go-to restaurant for birthdays and anniversaries. My special night was not much different from one of those celebrations, so I thought I’d shed a little light on how Mobile treats itself to something nice.
Before we get to that, let’s learn a little about NoJa. Chef/owner Chakli Diggs was born and raised in Ethiopia, his mother from Madagascar and his father an American from Texas. He came to the United States and graduated from Michigan State before working his way through the hotel business. He found himself visiting Mobile to see his mother and sister, and eventually opened Bienville Bistro. After that he worked with the former Adam’s Mark Hotel and came back as a businessman with NoJa in 2005.
There was also the short-lived (but delicious) Saisho on Dauphin Street that fell in 2017, but his flagship NoJa still reigns. It’s an elegant experience without being too stuffy and probably has the best wait staff in Mobile.
My latest visit began with a new coat, a good-looking date, old shoes and an Uber ride. With 8 p.m. reservations, we took our time going downtown in search of our table for two. Katie had never been to NoJa, but she’d heard me speak highly of it and on this night we thought bubbles would be necessary. Rarely do I start with bubbles but on this occasion we needed a glass of sparkling rosé. I didn’t bother to ask what kind and placed our first drink in the hands of the staff.
The waitress recited an impressive number of specials, enough make me change my mind three times, but I was pleased to hear about the 4-ounce petite filet appetizer. It’s hard to not get some kind of red meat when you visit NoJa, and the Colorado lamb chops are unbeatable, but I was feeling the fish tonight so the steak app was the perfect way to get my red meat fix. So tender, so juicy, this rare piece of protein barely needed a knife.
Not only did we share the steak, our soup was too good to find permanent footing on at either side of the table. The acorn squash was a puree with other vegetables hearty enough for the wine and I am certain we looked like a couple of kids at a malt shop, passing it back and forth. “Earthy” may be an overused term but on this evening it was apt.
What made the soup and steak even better was a bottle of Diora Pinot Noir. One of my favorite values, this bottle is silky smooth with a little hint of dark chocolate and a generous dose of black cherry that made the steak sing and prepped us for the courses to follow. Even at NoJa the price was under $50, a steal, but you can find this wine at local retailers such as Red or White and Southern Napa.
If there was a dish on the menu meant for this wine, it was the duck breast. I’m not an “always get the duck” kind of guy but Katie knew what she was doing when she ordered this one. Served with a cherry reduction sauce, it was a fine example of the way these guys execute. There were no sides with it, just a dish that stands alone.
For me the fish was the route. Never have I ever had a piece of fish here that wasn’t cooked perfectly. In this case they didn’t miss with the halibut. Fingerling potatoes on the side were a treat and by the time every morsel was finished (it’s a classy enough place that I didn’t lick the plate), I can say I was pretty full.
NoJa isn’t the kind of restaurant where you order a $50 entrée and receive a speck of dust on an oversized plate, nor will you leave so stuffed you can’t walk to the car. It’s the perfect amount of food for sensible eating when you want the night to never end.
We were more than satisfied with our meal and decided to spread the love downtown by having dessert at a different location, not that I don’t love NoJa’s flourless chocolate cake. We just needed a change of scenery.
Sparkling wine, two appetizers, two entrees, bread and a bottle of good wine and our total came to $183.70. I’ve paid much more in this town for lesser food and service. The wait staff is impeccable at NoJa. My 2018 resolution is to eat there more often.
6 N. Jackson St.
(Photos | Facebook) Chef Chakli Diggs’ NoJa is an elegant experience without being too stuffy and probably has the best wait staff in Mobile.