Back in New Orleans: Commander’s Palace
May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
1403 Washington Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70130
I’ll spare you the history lesson as I’m sure either their website or wikipedia can do a more formal and precise job of it than myself, but suffice it to say that Commander’s Palace in New Orleans has been around since 1880 and has maintained a sterling reputation for service and quality throughout their history. Considering how accustomed one is to seeing restaurants come and go, it’s amazing to think that there are a handful of restaurants in our country that have managed to hold steadfast to their reputation and stay true to their cuisine while managing to evolve just enough to stay relevant and win over new audiences.
As far as my own personal history with Commander’s Palace goes, it was a name in my household that was synonymous with decadence and luxury and was the name was thrown around in an almost joking manner whenever someone was looking for requests on where we should eat for any particular occasion. I deduced from a childhood and then some of this banter that their food was both spectacular and expensive, and if I were to eat there it would indeed be quite a luxury. As such, my curiosity developed over time and my first experience there actually lived up to my expectations from the impeccable service to the rich cuisine.
In my handful of pleasant experiences there, I have somehow always gone for their jazz brunch on Sunday and nearly always ordered a steak dish of some sort with turtle soup. I remember fondly the different tender steaks I have had there with their marrow sauce or wine sauce or mushroom accoutrements and the ever-classic standard-setting rusty orange turtle soup with the perfect drizzle of sherry that really enhanced the complexity of flavors within. I held steadfast to my love for Commander’s Palace and recommended it for the impeccable service, experience, and cuisine to many and would occasionally take guests there for a special New Orleans style experience that grew to become quite dear to me. Unfortunately, it took one poor experience there a few years ago where the combination of errors in food execution and service left me distraught and uncomfortable to the point of embarrassed in front of my guest especially considering how much I had fondly talked about the place. It’s sad how one bad experience somewhere can make you reluctant to go back, but it did. There are entirely too many other restaurants worth trying to go back to some place when there is a fear that they will disappoint you–especially at a fairly high price tag.
As fate would have it, I was recently invited out to eat there for jazz brunch on Sunday while I was visiting home. I was willing to put aside my previous negative experience to see if Commander’s Palace could live up to the fond memories and hold up to some of the great dining experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have in the past few years.
I’ve always loved that the building is a chic but flamboyant turquoise and white striped-icon tucked in between garden district homes and across the street from Lafayette cemetery. I saw a lot of small details in the decor on this visit which delighted me–the black and white toile covering the walls in the foyer had moments of embroidered color here and there, there were a few alcoves with tassels quite tastefully arranged on the walls as a means of texture, and the wallpaper with a bird print featured a few bird statues whimsically placed in the mix of illustrations. As usual for Sunday brunch, colorful balloons loomed above each table, and the Jazz trio made their way around the various dining rooms taking requests and tastefully playing a short rendition of each song.
I don’t typically find it necessary to talk about the service in a restaurant, but the service I’ve experienced here is worth noting especially on this occasion. I took note of our head waiter’s expertise of reading the table. I warmed instantly to his familiar local accent, and he did a great job at making us feel welcome and at home and could tell that we were open to some small talk with him about growing up near New Orleans and living in Atlanta and other pleasant banter. Clearly, they staff their restaurant well and the level of attentiveness across the board is to be noted. At one point between courses, someone accidentally dropped their spoon on the floor. Without having to be informed, one of the staff had apparently noticed and replaced it wordlessly. Their friendly, at-home vibe was punctuated with elegant touches. Upon being seated, they placed either a white or a black napkin in your lap depending on what coordinates with your attire. Occasionally, your water glass is replaced completely with a fresh glass of ice water to take care of the problem of a glass dripping with condensation and melted ice cubes. Whenever a course was served, several people arrived at the table to make sure that the plates landed in front of each guest at the same time. I was with a larger group so this was handled in two quick waves, but there is something about this level of detail, precision, and presentation that I really enjoy.
Their garlic bread arrived quickly, and I feel that this is worth noting because it’s so classic as well as something I almost consider a bit of an amuse bouche for them. It’s a classic crusty bit of toasted, crunchy almost-dry style of french bread loaded with a familiar hit of garlic and butter that leaks greasy goodness out onto your mouth a little bit as you press down on it. For good measure, they serve butter on the side as well in case that isn’t quite enough butter for you. It’s classic decadent New Orleans, and a little on the heavy side of things, but deviantly delicious.
I ordered a Bloody Mary since I had remembered thinking it was quite delicious the past few times I had ordered one. The glass arrived garnished with a pickled pepper and a pickled okra speared with sugar cane and rimmed with a salty spicy mix of their own. This concoction was finished tableside with a generous shot served from a bottle of Finlandia vodka that was partially encased in ice. Their house made Bloody Mary mix was not very thick, bright and pickley with a soft fresh tomato taste. A prominent, but not overwhelming dose of fresh horseradish really rounded out the flavor without any of the nasal heat. The pickled okra was delicious as well with more sweet tartness than brine, and I was pretty much enamored with this version. I can say that it’s easily the best Bloody Mary that I’ve had in that it felt both lighter and more complex than most.
Oyster and Absinthe “Dome”
poached briny gulf oysters with bacon, artichokes, tarragon cream, and a splash of Parisian absinthe presented under a flaky pastry shell
I settled on ordering the oysters for myself knowing that I could steal a taste of turtle soup from someone else, and I was glad that I did. The description made me afraid that this could easily have been quite rich, but I was delighted to find this appetizer to be surprisingly delicate in texture and flavor. The tarragon shined through the most with a touch of bacon smokiness and delicate herbal absinthe in the background, and didn’t overpower the plump, silky oysters. The pastry soaked up just enough broth and added a nice, gentle layer of texture.
A Commander’s classic
~ Finished tableside with a splash of sherry
I only took a small sample of soup again to relive the fond memories of one of their classics. It was not quite as deeply flavorful as I had remembered and it seemed as if that day it had an unusually cornstarch-thickened gumminess to it. It was still a quite nice balance of savory and tangy flavors, and it continues to stand as my favorite rendition of turtle soup. If you’ve never had this before, I still highly suggest trying it.
Convey Rise Farm Duck Salad
tender duck confit over local greens with brûléed shallots, herbed goat cheese, honey glazed pistachios, and a citrus caramel vinaigrette
I really enjoyed the bit of this salad that I tasted. The duck was soft and mildy tender although lacking a bit of the meltingly soft quality that I’ve come to expect from duck confit. The shallots added a great caramelization that played off the creamy bits of cheese, and the pistachios’ glaze was just enough to counterbalance their natural bitterness. I was under the impression that this was going to be sweeter than it was, but again I was pleasantly surprised with the harmony of flavors created here
Two soft poached farm fresh hen’s eggs over slow braised Convey Rise Farm duck with Cognac & spring mushroom financiere and foie gras hollandaise
Since there was no beef on the brunch menu, I was bouncing between ordering this and the quail. I chose this, and after a few contemplative bites, disappointment quickly set in. The sauced duck/stew pile at the bottom of the plate tasted as if it had been cooking itself to death in its sauce all morning. The texture was inconsistent, but it was far from delicate. The financiere was gummy and might have been an interesting combination of flavors mellowed out by the cognac, but I couldn’t get past how immensely salty it was. At least the eggs were perfect, and I liked the light and bright hollandaise even though I couldn’t pick up on any hint of foie gras. This dish sadly fell flat and the only textures it played with were in the mushy range. This is the sort of thing I would have sent back since most of the components were completely unappetizing, but I was with a fairly large group that was having a great time, and there’s something socially uncomfortable about doing that when everyone else is so pleased with their food. I figured this way, I’d at least have plenty of room for dessert.
Fire Roasted Texas Quail
Chouchon de lait & charred pepper boudin over pork belly braised greens, red pepper jelly, and Steen’s sugarcane glaze
I sampled a tiny bit of this and I wanted to kick myself for not ordering it. Again, I was worried this might be too sweet with both sugarcane glaze and jelly in the description, but it was just the right amount to complement the fantastically smoky quail and boudin flavors. The flesh of the quail was perfectly moist and soft with crisp skin and the boudin had a wonderful creaminess. Had I have gotten this instead, I would have probably been singing high praises across the board. My small sample was enough to make me aware this was something special.
I wanted to go a simple route here knowing once again that I’d be able to taste their famous bread pudding soufflee for comparison. Despite my desire for something new and complex, sometimes the simplest and most straightforward of desserts executed perfectly can be the most delicious, and this is a classic example of such a thing. The peaches themselves were clearly of great quality and their natural flavors shined through. The caramelized sugar and bourbon added a depth, and the ice cream added that nice melting drizzle of cream to the sticky mix.
Creole Bread Pudding Souffle
“The queen of Creole Desserts”
Warm whiskey sauce added tableside
The infamous bread pudding souffle arrived and was promptly popped and drizzled with cream sauce. I have always ordered this in the past despite not entirely being sure that it was my favorite thing so much that it felt mandatory to order this pristine dessert. Well, this was even better than I remembered it and it’s been on their menu for ages for a reason. Combining all the eggy souffle goodness with bread pudding gives a great variety of textures by way of a creamy soft center and a thickening chewiness on the top and the sides where the crust has browned. It’s got all the appeal of bread pudding flavor with a wonderful light dimension to it.
While there were some weak moments, the service and high points of my new favorite Bloody Mary, excellent oysters, and great desserts pushed me back into my love for this classic establishment. While there might be the occasional misstep in execution, it’s difficult to stay mad at an old friend. I’ll admit a lot of this place is the overall experience, and it’s almost lagnappe that you’ll likely end up with some fantastic food as well. In the midst of all sorts of different styles of creative restaurants, sometimes it’s nice to have something tried and true and so representative of its local culture. I would put this place in the category of more decadent special occasion restaurants–and yes, visiting New Orleans is indeed a special occasion. I urge you to go and enjoy the hospitality here, and I’d love to hear about your experiences if you’ve been.