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AT LOLA, APPETIZERS AND ENTREES WITH A WHIMSICAL BUT DISTINCTIVE TOUCH By Tom Steele I was quite startled when Lola's Flatiron location was shuttered about four years ago. The restaurant was immensely popular, cherished for two decades for its superb American/soul food, its live jazz and R&B, and its rambunctious gospel brunches. I had more than a few terrific meals there. So when I heard that Lola's owners, Lola Gayle Patrick-Odeen and her husband, Tom, were opening a larger, swankier edition of the restaurant in southwestern SoHo, I was delighted. Truth be told, the original restaurant had long outgrown its Flatiron space and it was time to tweak the menu, keeping the incomparable fried chicken and crab cakes, but injecting some new and lively dishes. Lola and Tom, who are every bit as nice as their lovely new restaurant, wisely decided to add some distinctly Creole and Cajun preparations, which go so naturally with traditional Southern cuisine. Lola's new space, which opened last September, is complex and extremely handsome. At the center is a luxurious lounge with a raised stage from which live music is performed nightly. Mahogany framed French windows surround the area, which features a gorgeous crystal chandelier hanging from a ceiling draped with plum and gold satin that, with the aubergine velvet curtains hung thither and yon throughout the restaurant, keep matters from ever getting too loud. (For a schedule of performances, visit Around the lounge are variously sized dining areas, including a private garden dining room that seats 35. The nimble staff doesn't miss a beat. Our winning server, Josh, is new at waiting tables, but you'd certainly never know it. He has the focus of a seasoned pro. Wild-and-crazy house cocktails are all the rage around town, and Lola steps right up to the plate with concoctions like "Private Dancer," a zinger of a tart blend of Ketel One Citron, Bacardi peach, sweetened lemon juice and black currant puree, which gives the drink its dark scarlet color. Chef Miguel Trinidad, in cahoots with the Patrick-Odeens, gives the appetizers and entrees whimsical but distinctive touches, like putting dried cherries on the plate around "Caribbean Quail," carving the little birds into manageable sections, liberally seasoning and grilling them to a light char, then stacking them on orange and grapefruit rings. Warmed shredded fennel completes this marvelous opener. Nice little heaps of steak tartare are parked on fried plantain chips. The tartare is chunkier in texture than usual and quite beefy, wound through with shallots and capers, all tossed in a cayenne-mustard aïoli. The plate is fluttered with a mesclun salad with perfect cherry tomatoes. A "golden haystack" of thin onion rings flaunts the freshness of the oil they were fried in. The utterly addictive rings are tossed in a house herb mixture. It would be unthinkable to visit this restaurant and not order Lola's Famous 101-Spice Fried Chicken. You choose dark or white meat; all my life I've preferred dark poultry for its relentless juiciness and deeper flavor. I was rewarded with a drumstick and a thigh from a mature brined roaster, dredged in a thick, garlicky and beguilingly spicy batter, and fried to a fare-thee-well. A mound of quite spicy mashed potatoes is on hand, along with collard greens braised with bacon. It would be equally unthinkable to forego "Mac-n-Cheese," though it's fusilli, not macaroni, in a dark and cheesy engulfment. Lola herself told us the sauce ingredients: smoked Spanish paprika; three melting cheeses, including sharp cheddar; white, black and cayenne pepper; with a crisp bacon topping. I don't remember ever tasting better macaroni and cheese, and I've had-and made-quite a lot in my day. Desserts follow the preceding sumptuousness in spirit. Warm cinnamon and cherry bread pudding is dribbled with a rich white chocolate sauce, while red velvet cake uses "Southern cream cheese" icing, which of course is far firmer and richer than the traditional Crisco-laced fluffy icing, but we should all be avoiding hydrogenated oils like Crisco, anyway. The cake is ruby red, to be sure. In addition to its luscious fare, Lola is a restaurant with real heart and soul. Add great live music to the mix, and you've got an obligatory destination. -- Lola 15 Watts St. at Thompson Street 212-675-6700 Entrées: $23 to $32 -- [](

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