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COOLinary New Orleans 2012: An Exclusive Preview

COOLinary New Orleans summer diningDeciding which New Orleans eatery to try next can be seriously mind-boggling when faced with a choice of 1,311 restaurants. Luckily, The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau has organized the eighth annual COOLinary dining extravaganza during the month of August to help with the selection process. It’s reminiscent of the citywide, annual holiday Reveillon dinners, but with an even friendlier price tag. COOLinary includes more than 50 of the finest local establishments, which are offering special two and three-course lunch menus for $20 or less, and three-course dinner menus for $35 or less.

I know you’ll have the utmost sympathy for me when I tell you I had the grueling task of sampling some of these menus. Ste. Marie, a modern French restaurant on Poydras in the CBD, was kind enough to host my husband and I for a preview of their lunch menu. The space is inspired by the Champagne houses of France, so I highly recommend starting off with a lovely glass of bubbly!

Ste. Marie restaurant New Orleans

A glass of bubbly is a must to accompany Ste. Marie’s COOLinary menu.

Ste. Marie’s lunch menu features your choice of a sweet and subtle Onion Soup Gratinee, with French bread points and a very generous helping of gruyere cheese; or a dark, earthy Alligator Soup with Hard-Boiled Egg, reminiscent of turtle soup, but with more bite (no, really). For the main course, you can choose a fresh, lemony Tuna Melt topped with fontina cheese, tomato and arugula, and a huge mound of crispy pomme frites; or their savory, robust Shrimp & Grits dish with tasso, onions, and bell peppers. Generous portions and gracious hosts, indeed.

Our trip to The Pelican Club, a mix of traditional and contemporary New Orleans dishes and décor tucked away in Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, proved to be much more of a challenge. Holy smokes, if you’re a terrible decision maker like me, hopefully you’ll get a helpful server, like Stefan, to make recommendations on this large dinner menu, which includes dishes from their regular menu as well as dishes created just for COOLinary. It also offers wine pairings (three glasses) for an additional $20. Serious bargain.

We started off sharing two appetizers, which gave us great insight into the chef’s signature technique that carried throughout the entire meal: generous portions, each with a light, balanced touch. I now much prefer the Pelican Club Baked Oysters to the blackened variety, as the applewood smoked bacon, roasted red peppers, parmesan and garlic herb butter complement the oysters, instead of competing with them. Similarly, the fresh, delicately fried Jumbo Lump Crabmeat and Shrimp Cakes are the stars of their dish, with a harmonious accompaniment from a subtle pineapple-jalapeno chutney, bright remoulade sauce, and tart fried green tomato.

Pelican Club New Orleans restaurant

Baked oysters are a signature item on The Pelican Club’s COOLinary menu.

For the entrée, my husband beat me to the punch and ordered the Petite Filet Mignon with Crab and Shrimp Cake. The not-so-petite filet arrived cooked to a perfect medium rare, and was accompanied by truffle mashed potatoes, tender maque choux, asparagus, and a light, slightly acidic béarnaise sauce. Not one to be a copycat, and in an effort to sample multiple dishes, I went with Stefan’s suggestion: the Thai Curry Gulf Shrimp, specially created for this menu. Served in its own pot, it marries the classic combo of chiles, lime, onion, coconut milk, lemon grass, and jasmine rice with lightly fried, tender shrimp. Plus, there’s a trio of Thai sauces on the side. It could stand up to pretty much any fine Thai restaurant in the city.

Finally, for dessert. We didn’t have to agonize over this one. White Chocolate Bread Pudding and Vanilla Bean and Brandy Crème Brulee, please! The flavors were delightful, but with some surprising elements. The bread in the bread pudding was actually light and pillowy, while the brandy in the crème brulee was distinctive, yet not overpowering. Impressive.

Seriously, this is the way to wade through the quagmire of New Orleans restaurants! To see the growing list of participating restaurants and their special menus, visit the official COOLinary website. With events like this, it’s no wonder TripAdvisor ranked New Orleans among its 2012 “Top 25 Travelers’ Choice World Destinations,” “Top 25 Travelers’ Choice U.S. Destinations,” and has acknowledged New Orleans among the most affordable cities in the U.S. for domestic travelers.

And we locals get to experience it every day! Lucky, lucky, lucky us!