Of Greens, Gnocchi and Glory
Homegrown food love at Nonna in Monroe
Steven Myers Photograph
Self-taught kitchen wiz Cory Bahr, the 37-year-old rising-star Monroe native who was named “The People’s Best New Chef of the Gulf Coast Region” for 2014 by Food & Wine in April, brings his unique North Delta culinary style with an Italian grandmotherly twist to Nonna, his latest culinary venture.
Bahr learned to cook while being raised by his grandparents. Everything was fresh and local. His grandfather took him hunting and fishing, they grew their own veggies, and his grandmother taught him how to cook Italian fare before he was eye-level to the stove. She is his muse.
As a salute to his loving grandmother, and grandmas everywhere, Nonna was designed to provide the kind of comfort-food memories that are tied to your grandma’s kitchen (assuming she could cook!). But of course Chef Bahr, true to form, kicks it up at least 10 notches. Dining in the courtyard adds to the overall allure. Located in a charming old house in the heart of Monroe’s Garden District, Nonna opened in March. It’s his flagship Restaurant Cotton downtown that has been getting all the national accolades.
If your grandma didn’t fuss over big pans of lasagna, made-from-scratch gnocchi or spaghetti Bolognese, Nonna will cure all that with luscious taste memories that can last you a lifetime. Melt-in-your-mouth, hand-made gnocchi with pockets of fresh jumbo lump crabmeat bathed in a creamy garlic and Parmesan foam as light as air; a 20-layer lasagna laced with collard greens, ricotta, meats and mozzarella crowned with a velvety béchamel that arrives bubbling hot from the oven; crisp hand-tossed pizzas and such starters as the fried cauliflower or the hearty ham hock Arancini with risotto and cane syrup mustard will put you into a comfort-food trance long into the afternoon – especially if you begin lunch with the gin-fortified Rosemary’s Baby cocktail. Jump back.
I stopped in for lunch at Nonna while traveling from Destin, Florida, en route to a big summer wedding in Texas, and was instantly amused with the three large, comedic photos of “The Blue Haired Angels” depicting local grandmothers at the entrance. I’d been writing about this energetic, creative young chef since he opened Restaurant Cotton, and knew that a small detour would be well worth the effort. When he spoke about recipes and culinary techniques during prior interviews, he was always on fire. Chef Bahr’s unmatched passion for food is utterly contagious.
The winning chef on Season 12 of Food Network’s Chopped in 2012, Bahr had also won the title of the “King of Louisiana Seafood” the year before at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience seafood competition with his North Delta bouillabaisse. Now, we have another four-star success with Nonna, where the ever-changing menu is tied to the seasons, the atmosphere is laid-back, and you can relax and feel at home while your taste buds are being dazzled under Chef Bahr’s spell. Aside from the marvelous pastas, creative appetizers and snazzy pizzas, be sure to end lunch or dinner with the luscious blueberry olive oil cake softened with lemon curd, served with a light, honey-thyme gelato that soothes the soul. Savor this memorable sweet ending in the courtyard for the full effect.