Commander's Palace: New Orleans - A House Not Divided Will Surely Stand

Sometimes you don't know what you're walking into. A lamb, a virgin, or even a gladiator all must have a little anxiety when they pass through a new door.

The drive to Commander's Palace in New Orleans took about three hundred years to create.

Meander through the historic Garden District, peeking into the mansions' windows, seeing a time long past, but still lovingly, meticulously maintained. The journey is your destination -- look up at the marquis rimmed in Vaudevillian light bulbs, swing the door open and stride confidently through.

You are about to be taken care of by one of the rare restaurants that operates from the logical, strategical belief that front of house and back of house are indeed, one house. Commander's Palace fights within its walls over which "house" is better -- food or service.

Never divide your houses. In Kurosawa's epic masterpiece movie, Ran, a tired old King splits his land between four greedy sons in the hope that they'll harmoniously co-exist. Within moments, they each dispatch their own, vividly-colored and splendidly outfitted horses and soldiers to conquer the others in battle. For stunning effect, Kurosawa mutes the sound of the noisy, charging horses and slows them down. We only hear beautiful, classical orchestral music over the gruesomely horrible fights. Result: Entertaining conflict. I don't know what to feel.

That battle between birthright and death and beauty and gore and service and food are battles that Commander's Palace avoids.
The lobby is the amuse-bouche of the entire building. A cozy, warm little bite before a meal to set the tone for what's to follow. The wallpaper looks edible, and the smile from the tanned maitre'd makes you think you won something. We're all here to have a good time. Jackets for gentlemen are suggested, but not required, but the suggestion is as spot-on as suggesting their not-to-miss turtle soup.

If the maitre'd asks you to wait at the bar, it's because they love you, not as a stall tactic to raise funds. Kiss the ring and head to the bar so legendary it's in a book, and watch a mixologist magically shake you into a sensational French 75. 

The endlessly long row of spiffy bow-tied waiters, in fitted vests and long aprons, line up along the wall to greet you as you pass -- as if they are about to bust into song and high-step escort you in the room like Hello Dolly walking in to dine with Horace Vandergelder.

Normally the bread pudding souffle blows the roof off the room, but instead Hurricane Katrina did. A souffle and the South can only rise once, but Commanders Palace rose again, and became the calm after the storm. Rebuilding and redecorating, they lined their new strong walls with tranquil paper adorned with cheerily hopeful birds. Those birds represent luscious dishes that are soon to swirl around the room and land in front of you to devour.

As I sat down, admiring the stylish china and anticipating the food that would soon grace it, I also anticipated the tiny balls of white fluff the white napkin would leave on my black trousers longer than veal stayed with its mother. I heard the sadistic snap of a whip before I saw the source -- a smiling, ginger-haired busboy who placed a dark napkin onto my lap at the same moment another boy whisked the offending, normally unapologetic white one out of my sight, as if they were ashamed that it existed. That gesture, that prequel to service, is what makes Commander's Palace shine.

This visit, which feels like coming home, my party of ten all decided on the tasting menu, Chef Tory's Playground, a production of a play in Six Acts.

Dinner at Commander's Palace provides everything you need that night. Hot New Orleans Jazz is served as my first course: Cornmeal crusted oysters & caviar. The trumpeter spits them out onto a bed of crab boiled sweet corn. The drummer taps some local sturgeon caviar on top and the bassist unapologetically thumps in some cognac double cream. Music in my mouth.

The surprise isn't the soft crust of the oyster that must have been fried in only the hot, humid New Orleans air, but the sweet corn and incongruous cayenne pepper in the puree. My tongue high-fived the roof of my mouth.

My rule is to sit next to the most beautiful woman in the room, and hope that she requests an option to red meat courses so that I might try those too. To my left was Laura, whose eyes sparkle even brighter than the cascade of bright, white diamonds dripping off her like shiny beads of sweat from the chef's brow, and she made both possible. Our waiter, Chad, worked with the kitchen and made those substitutions more than pleasantly possible. We have food to sell and guests to make happy.

While I had pork belly, they served her the classic Shrimp and Tasso Henican -- local white shrimp, local ham, okra, onions, all resting on grits that float in very local Crystal brand hot sauce buerre blanc. Hot sauces are the bayou street gangs of condiments -- rivals Crystal and Tabasco loyalists are unwavering. The dish is fantastic.

To escort his pepper jelly glazed crispy pork belly with lyonnaise brussels sprouts, Chef Tory dispatched pickled beech mushrooms and piped out little soldiers of parsnip puree:

It got my attention. The jelly has to be made in house, by a little old Southern granny locked in the cellar. They lied to her and told her the government's Social Security money ran out, and she has to make this jelly to survive. She's not surprised, she never trusted the Yankees.

Let's pause here, not because some in our party said they were feeling full. (They were sprinting, and Laura gently reminded them that we were in a marathon, and only at mile marker twelve.)  Let's take a minute to honor Commander's Palace plating service style. The waiters insist that all plates be placed in front of their guests at the precisely the same moment. New York Times food guru Ruth Reichl called such a practice the Ballet of Service. This is New Orleans, here the waiters swing plates like a legendary Second Line jazz band, each waving an invisible fancy umbrella to silent music as they plop down your course all at once, with a local, sassy rhythm of perfect timing. If your party is too large and they haven't enough waiters, they pull anyone they need to in order to accomplish this simultaneous service. Except the old locked up granny - she has jelly to make.

The seared jumbo sea scallop is seared so perfectly that the crust lifts off in surrender once inside your mouth, and the soft, bouncy body of the scallop rolls about on your tongue as you chew, like a fat baby. It's served over risotto, which is stirred to perfection. The smoked tomato Creole butter needs to hit the store shelves immediately. I'd smear that on people. Why yes, those are crawfish in the risotto. Tory knows best.

A rack of shots appeared as palate cleansers. They call it the Trouble Tree, a mix of champagne, gin, and elderberry liqueur laced with fresh, bright chiffonade of basil  -- it was a callback to plantation days, where juleps were sipped as their internet surfing of the day. We don't want no trouble here...

Part of the thrill of eating out is discovering things you haven't even dared to theorize. Veal tenderloin and local crawfish over goat cheese grits is like a thrilling movie. Buy the whole seat but you only need the edge. Chef Tory sent that granny out to forage for the mushrooms, while he stayed in the kitchen, smiling wickedly and braising leeks. If anyone ever even attempts to serve me grits without goat cheese, I will knock them into next week. 

I am astonishingly brilliant, but I have never even thought of veal tenderloin. I viciously pulled the head of the crawfish off and sucked whatever was inside out, before peeling the tail. When in Nawlins. So flavorful, it must have been boiled in magic and maybe stagnant water left from Katrina. Between bites I wonder if meat does indeed make one more hostile.

The cheese course was served on a homemade pecan biscotti. Why not, they were probably making their own money back there.  The small piece of fresh honeycomb reminded me of a poem my grandfather used to sing at dinner. I eat my peas with honey, I've done it all my life. It sure makes them taste funny, but it keeps them on my knife.

A waiter passed by carrying a folder with a check inside. While I mourned for the check's owning diner whose meal was tragically over and soon they would leave this place, the credit card inside the folder popped out and landed on the floor. The waiter, without hesitation or thought, but rather instinct and incredible, caring training, immediately tossed a napkin out. The crisp white napkin floated down and covered the card. The New Orleans Saint bent over, and swooped up both the card and napkin as one -- his loving, still-pure hands never making contact with the floor. I wanted to applaud, but my hands were all cheesy and sticky from the honeycomb. I should have listened to my grandfather and used my knife.

Desserts started flying out of the kitchen like the chef was angry at his cheating wife and he was tossing out her best, frilliest lingerie. Fancy stuff he brought her from Paris. We got pelted with an Assiette of Winter Pistachios, pistachio mousse pie, a pistachio shortbread cookie that I wish the Girl Scouts sold, and a white chocolate pistachio brandy milk punch.

If you look in the corner, you see her little sister Strawberry Shortcake hiding in the corner, like she's peeking through the banister to see her parent's party. I was glad to see her, she was so soft, fluffy and cute. She's light as a feather -- she only looks heavy -- the camera adds ten pounds.

Not to be outshone by upstarts, the stalwart bread pudding souffle insistently made its way out too. The waiter punishes this brazen old hussy by poking a hole in her top and pouring hot, crazy-ass creme anglaise down her bra. It's okay, she's been poked many times.

We left through the kitchen. All guests are welcome to walk into the kitchen. That is proof of their love for a harmonious existence. I peeked around the back to see if I could see that old granny, but to no avail. I'm pretty sure the sneaky sous chef you see bending down in the back was stuffing her in an oven, temporarily, to keep her quiet till we left.

Cooking New Orleans cuisine is specifically hard because it is so unique. Doing it well keeps Commander's Palace open like the musical Cats, now and forever.

Open since 1880, this is where Julia Child tasted a dish and freaked out. She stormed into the kitchen though the doors marked "Yes" and "No". She sniffed out the chef, plucked him out from behind the line and plopped him in front of the world, culinarily knighting him. Her prince Emeril Lagasse is long gone; you can't stuff a baby back in the womb. Current Chef Tory is enjoying a triumphantly delicious, filé-spiked reign.

Watch this clip from the Japanese film, Ran, and know that's what you get at a restaurant that doesn't cooperate with itself. 

Commander's Palace, 1403 Washington Ave  New Orleans, LA 70130 (504) 899-8221

1 comment:

  1. Felt like I was there
    Seeing everything and tasting all the food
    Great , as usual


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