I have let myself and everyone who reads Haute Plates down so far this summer by not writing about COOLinary New Orleans. COOLinary, if you are not familiar, is the annual promotional event for restaurants in New Orleans which offers two- and three-course lunches for around $20 per person and three-course dinners for around $30 per person. In past years, I’ve taken advantage of this event to eat relatively cheaply at some of the best restaurants in the city, usually going to at least one restaurant a week while it was in session. This summer, I looked up last week and realized it was nigh the ides of August and I hadn’t done squat. I know that I’ve missed some extraordinary meals by not going yet this year, so I resolved to fix it as soon as possible by going to one of the most delicious participating restaurants, Restaurant August.
Unlike many COOLinary participants, August gives you many choices for their prix fixe menu. Muriel’s does this as well, but usually a chef will dictate a strict three-course menu. August’s COOLinary menu gives you two choices for an appetizer and three choices each for an entree and dessert. I didn’t see anything on the list that looked like a cop-out – each item upheld the customary standard of care and attention.
Photo by Aaron Weidenhaft
Before the meal even started at August, an amuse bouche came out to table, pretty as could be. A salty egg custard topped with caviar and served in the egg shell with a home-made crouton was a pleasant additional course to an already three-course, $20 meal at one of the best restaurants in the country (rated as the No. 1 New Orleans restaurant in food and service in the 2007 Zagat guide).
I didn’t eat alone this past Tuesday, so I got to taste more than two-thirds of the August Coolinary lunch menu. Everything was interesting and appetizing. I started with my salad of Grilled Chilton Peaches, which had bacon, whipped ricotta, walnuts and an extra-acidic balsamic dressing that perfectly offset the sweetness of the grilled peaches. I also tasted the watermelon gazpacho, which was – pleasantly – more of a savory dish than I expected. I’ve had a watermelon gazpachos before, at Ruby Slipper in Mid-City, which was made with champagne. While it tasted great and was refreshing, bits of it were ethereal and what wasn’t ethereal was sweet. The pickled red onions and cucumbers in the August dish really differentiated it from previous versions I’d had and didn’t make me think of dessert at all (I’ve also had a dessert watermelon gazpacho at Domenica’s, another Besh restaurant, when they first opened).
Photo by Aaron Weidenhaft
The entree item I went with was the brandade de morue, which was a ravioli nero (briny ravioli, midnight-black with squid ink) stuffed with a cod and potato puree over a bed of heirloom tomatoes and sofrito (garlic, onions, tomatoes) marmalade, all covered artfully with a salty foam. The dish supposedly has a mint persillade as well, but I either missed it or it was very subtle in the dish.
The other entree I tried was the pan-seared Gulf sheepshead, which was a filet of the fish done crispy over a similar bed of heirloom tomatoes but with a vinaigrette and on top of corn custard and succotash. This wasn’t mine and I had a little entree envy; the fish was warm and crunchy on the outside and the accompanying flavors on the plate really brought out the flavor.
The third entree choice (which we didn’t get) was crispy Mangalitsa pork belly, served with a creole cream cheese malfatti, tomato confit and sauce blanquette. If you’ll recall from last week, Besh also makes the Mangalitsa pork belly available as an ingredient on his breakfast menu at the Soda Shop in the WWII Museum. I was tempted by this dish, but I figured that since I was already getting bacon on my salad, maybe some variety wouldn’t hurt me.
[Note to readers: In four reviews, bacon has only been absent from one; come to your own conclusions about that.]
Photo by Aaron Weidenhaft
The desserts we ordered were the milk chocolate peanut butter croquant and the tart of local celeste figs. Both were obscene. The tart was one of the largest I’ve seen served as a dessert, stuffed with brown butter and fig and accompanied by bourbon ice cream and more fresh figs on the side. Rich but not chewy, sweet but not overwhelming, it was well executed from start to finish, and finished it was. The croquant came out like a California long board with semi-solid salted peanut butter bars, salted caramel popcorn and chocolate sauce riding on it with ice cream balancing in the center. I think my eyes rolled up in my head while I was eating it and I laughed maniacally at least once. So it was pretty good. The third dessert (which we didn’t get) was the house-made ricotta custard, which kind of looked like a cheese plate from the menu description, but based on the quality of the rest of the menu I’m sure it would have been stellar.
I plan on taking advantage of the rest of COOLinary while it lasts (which is only for the rest of the month); it’s just too good of a deal to pass up. Definitely take a trip if you have the time, support some of the best restaurants in the world, give your waistline a work out, and appreciate what a special place New Orleans is: You can have this kind of meal 10 minutes from your house.
Where have you gone during COOLinary New Orleans? What was your impression? Share in our Comments section.