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New Orleans' new shine

The Royal Street Stroll, the signature event for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, will be held this year on May 22. Vintner dinners will also be held in some of NOLA's most storied restaurants.
The Royal Street Stroll, the signature event for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, will be held this year on May 22. Vintner dinners will also be held in some of NOLA's most storied restaurants.New Orleans Wine and Food Experience
/ Source: Forbes

Two-and-a-half years after Katrina, New Orleans gears up for the festive springtime season with a sense of guarded optimism. The streetcars are finally running, convention business has bounced back and residents are gradually returning. NOLA’s buoyant spirit is more in evidence than its woes, and now’s the perfect time to visit a city on the cusp of a comeback.

“We have more restaurants open than ever before,” says Kelly Shulz, vice president of Communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. She’s all smiles about a “fresher hotel product with $400 million of refurbishments in the past two years, a cleaner French Quarter and festivals and celebrations to indulge your senses all year long.”

To be sure, some things are better than ever. Store owners, cabbies and waiters are extra-friendly, welcoming tourists as partners in recovery. The pungent morning-after aroma of Bourbon Street has vanished. Since January 2007, local entrepreneur Sidney Torres, president of SDT Waste and Debris, has been handling trash removal and street cleaning in the French Quarter. His smartly dressed crew employs cutting-edge cleaning methods so that Sunday strollers inhale scents of lemon and eucalyptus instead of party swill. Day and night, workers tidy the streets even when the trucks aren’t rolling.

Hotels are also working hard to entice visitors. For a quintessential French Quarter experience, the glitzy Royal Sonesta provides an island of calm in a sea of activity. The tranquil courtyard, with its pool, outdoor bar and breezy cabanas, is the ideal spot to sip Sazeracs and lounge in the shade of tropical plants. Seafood-lovers pack the iconic Desire Oyster Bar overlooking Bourbon Street for its succulent shellfish and entertaining oyster shuckers. The sleek Loews Hotel, located in the Central Business District, offers a chic atmosphere along with a full-service spa and a standout contemporary Creole restaurant, Café Adelaide.

The eating scene is buzzing with news that Ruth’s Chris will bring their sizzling steaks back to NOLA in a location adjacent to Harrah’s Hotel. Cherished favorites are doing the city proud, like K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where Chef Paul Prudhomme often roams the dining room signing menus and chatting up guests who can’t resist his spicy Creole and Cajun creations. Upperline, housed in an 1877 Garden District cottage decorated with local art, oozes character and delivers memorable flavors. The seven-course “Taste of New Orleans” menu, featuring Chef Ken Smith’s fried green tomato with remoulade and his legendary duck, always pleases the palate. Donald Link, winner of the 2007 James Beard award for Best Chef, South, fearlessly reopened Herbsaint just weeks after the storm, and now the sleek bistro is packed with an arty crowd enjoying his sublime small plates and delectable deserts. Nine months after Katrina, the intrepid Link also opened Cajun restaurant Cochon, a magnet for diners addicted to his transcendent rustic fare. Don’t miss the mouthwatering rabbit and dumplings, and homemade sausages.

You can now confidently enjoy your favorite NOLA activities, like riding the St. Charles streetcar, strolling the Garden District, checking out the local music scene and window-shopping in the Quarter. Historic Royal Street reflects the city’s slow-but-steady recovery. Foot traffic has recovered to approximately 75 percent of pre-storm traffic, and the weak dollar is drawing Europeans to indulge in some of the world’s best antique shopping. The 25,000-square-foot treasure house of M.S. Rau Antiques has enjoyed 15 percent growth through 2006 and 2007. Owner Bill Rau assures that “as the convention business rebounds, we anticipate a return to pre-storm traffic and possibly beyond.”

Barry Cohen, a fifth-generation dealer at James H. Cohen and Sons Cohen Antiques, purveyor of antique firearms swords, rare coins and currency, is also optimistic: “The French Quarter is back—it’s safe, and you can breathe the air.”

New Orleans is a party any time of year, but spring and summer bring a tempting roster of festivals that highlight the city’s cultural offerings. Jazz Fest (April 25-May 4), officially known as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, is still the mother of all jam sessions, featuring more than 600 musicians on 11 stages. This year’s festival-goers will be treated to the first full seven days of programming since 2005. Superstars like Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and Santana groove alongside homegrown celebs like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.

Foodies and oenophiles are not forgotten in this season’s festival roundup. The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (May 20-24) is getting ready for its 17th annual celebration of good taste. More than 175 wineries from around the world and 75 local restaurants will show off their wares at what’s being billed as a “Five-Day Feast for All of the Senses.” The newly-conceived Vieux To Do weekend (June 13-15) rolls three festivals into one—the Cajun Zydeco Festival, the Louisiana Seafood Festival and the Creole Tomato Festival. This extravaganza features fishermen, arts & crafts, and farmers’ villages filled with local sounds, food booths, cooking demonstrations and products fresh from the farm and the sea.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the Big Easy without celebrating the cocktail, rumored to have originated in New Orleans. Tales of the Cocktail, the 6th Annual Culinary and Cocktail Festival (July 16-20), gets visitors in the spirit by celebrating the history and culture of cocktails and regional food with five days of rum and whiskey-soaked events. Cocktail gurus from around the globe assist in presenting seminars, tastings and classes for amateurs and experts. New events on the 2008 program include a cocktail market, a cocktail cinema and seminars on erudite subjects such as molecular mixology.

There’s no reason to wait any longer. It’s time to succumb to NOLA’s southern charms all over again.