French Quarter: 615 Bienville. 504-523-1504. Website
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The Pelican Club is the finest undercover restaurant in the entire New Orleans restaurant scene. Chef-owner Richard Hughes buys beautiful food and cooks it with skill and originality. Unlike most restaurants of its caliber, however, it’s never had an especially high profile. Its regulars treat it like a secret club. The restaurant itself is semi-hidden on Exchange Alley, which even among lifelong locals is a familiar name but a mysterious location. It’s the place to go when excellence is needed but fame is not.
Local flavors and ingredients dominate the menu, but not to the point of exclusivity. The chef likes to mix Italian, French, and Asian flavors into his Creole and Cajun dishes, and he has the sense of taste to pull such things off with aplomb. What emerges from the mix is an unmistakably New Orleans restaurant with a menu and style different from any other.
Richard Hughes came to light as chef of Iler Pope’s Dante By The River (Brigtsen’s is there now). He left town for a stint in New York, running a New Orleans-style restarant called (oddly) Memphis. He returned to open the Pelican Club in 1990, originally with Chin Ling, a chef who brought the Asian flavors that still remain here and there. (Ling left after the hurricane.)
The building has hosted a number of restaurants over the years. The first of them was Il Ristorante Tre Fontane, a grand Italian restaurant far ahead of its time in the late 1960s. Its owner, Goffredo Fraccaro, relocated to Metairie to open the excellent La Riviera.
The entrance is on Exchange Alley, and opens into a bar with a few tables for dining. These may be the best in the house, because the sound level is lower, and a pianist is in there playing most nights. The three dining rooms line up into a long hall, with marble floors and enough other hard surfaces to make the acoustics uncomfortably lively when the place is full.
Baked oysters with bacon, red peppers, herb butter.
Crabmeat and wild mushroom ravioli.
Scallop stuffed artichoke.
Seafood martini (cold (lobster, crabmeat, and shrimp).
Escargots with mushrooms and tequila.
Claypot barbecue shrimp.
Creole Caesar salad.
Smoked duck and shrimp gumbo.
Panneed fish with crabmeat.
Whole fried flounder with citrus chili sauce, scallops and shrimp.
Trio of duck (confit leg, grilled breast, and Asian-style stir-fry).
Louisiana cioppino (served in a copper pot).
Filet mignon marchand de vin or bearnaise.
Veal chop with lobster and peppercorn cream sauce.
Rack of lamb with port-mint demi-glace.
Vanilla bean and brandy creme brulee.
Bourbon pecan pie.
Coconut cream pie.
FOR BEST RESULTS
Dine at a table in the bar. Keep the restaurant in mind during the holidays, when they have the city’s best Reveillon menu, and during the summer, when they run an extraordinarily attractive special menu.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
Especially when the place is busy, the service is something less than exacting. Parts of the restaurant are very noisy when full, too.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +2
- Value +1
- Wine & Bar +2
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +2
- Live music some nights
- Sidewalk tables
- Good view
- Good for business meetings
- Open Sunday dinner
- Open Monday dinner
- Open some holidays
- Free valet parking
- Reservations honored promptly
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
It’s rare that food good enough to make it to the top of the ratings comes in a restaurant that also offers table d’hote dinners with such attractive prices that one becomes suspicious. Almost since the Pelican Club opened (at nearly the same time that Emeril’s and Bayona did), it’s priced its dinners during the off seasons in the same range you’d find in some chains–but with incomparably better food. The off season is about to begin, so it’s a good time to check out what the place is offering this year. Something new: an early-evening special of three courses for under $30. All you have to do is get in during the first half hour.
Nobody does better cold seafood appetizers than this place. The crabmeat, shrimp, and even lobster in the seafood martini and could not be more attractive or delicious.