Commander’s Palace, that venerable turquoise restaurant in New Orleans’ Garden District that’s been around since 1880, has always been one of my favorite “occasion” restaurants, in a city where people go out of their way to find reasons to celebrate, no matter what disasters are going on at the time.
Back in 1999, I lived down the street from Commander’s, on the ground floor of a large home on Washington Avenue just off St. Charles. Although my apartment was small, I loved walking around the neighborhood, wondering who lived in the fabulous mansions behind wrought iron fences, and whiling away Sunday afternoons browsing for books at the Garden District Book Store. Commander’s, with its cheerful Victorian spires and banners, seemed the perfect architectural antidote to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, so gracefully morbid, across the street.
I enjoyed many meals at Commander’s during my seven-year New Orleans stint. My parents loved the celebratory atmosphere, as well as the Creole food, and we would usually eat there at least once when they came to town. I spent several Easters and a Thanksgiving here, as well as a law school graduation and a rehearsal dinner. I always felt it was worth the price of admission.
Like many New Orleans restaurants, Commander’s suffered severe damage during Hurricane Katrina. It ended up closing for 13 months, as owners Ti Martin and Lally Brennan took the opportunity to update the kitchen and redo the decor. Now the walls of the upstairs rooms are lighter in color, although the elaborate Victorian details of the building are still there. The large downstairs room seems more open, less clubby. Or maybe that’s merely a perception of the more casual dress code; the restaurant relaxed its jacket requirement after Katrina (but don’t you dare show up in shorts).
It ain’t a proper NOLA Sunday brunch without an eye-opener. My husband and I both started with standard-issue mimosas and coffee. But our friend Stephanie is a Bloody Mary girl, and it arrived with a rim seasoned with Creole spices. A server finished the drink tableside, pouring out the vodka from a bottle encased in ice. Pickled okra through a sugarcane spear completed the drink.
Brunch at Commander’s is a three-course affair, where the entrees (priced from $28-$39) come with an appetizer and a dessert. My husband and I couldn’t decide between the soups; besides the usual Gumbo ya=ya and sherry-tinged turtle soup, the chef was serving up a softshell crab bisque as the soup of the day. Luckily, you can order all three as a demitasse trio – it’s not on the brunch menu, but ask your server about it. The bisque (which appears orange-yellow in the photo above) tasted silky and smooth; absolutely fabulous.
The horrible British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf is foremost in every New Orleanian mind these days. “I’m ordering shrimp while I still can,” Stephanie said defiantly, a rallying call that I heard several times in restaurants over the weekend. Her shrimp remoulade tasted delicious; I fervently hope that Louisiana’s fishing and shellfish industry can recover (although at this point, it looks doubtful).
Fo rmy entree, I chose eggs Acadianan – two poached eggs atop red beans and what was supposed to be an andouille and pork “cake.” The dish was a little less structured than billed, and Steph and I both agreed that a firmer “cake” texture would have improved the dish. But there was no denying how tasty it was.
My husband ordered the veal and eggs, which arrived in a gorgeous tower.
Of course, I couldn’t pass up the bread pudding souffle. It’s a “production” dessert, and the servers make the most of the moment, breaking the foam with generous dollops of whiskey cream sauce.
Throughout the meal, musicians came around, taking suggestions from diners and elevating the atmosphere from a brunch into a party.
They noticed our table swaying to the music and took several requests (We chose “Little Liza Jane” and “Careless Love). The trio finished up with a rollicking version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which sealed my love for Commander’s.
Our total bill came to about $190 for three people. Is that pricey for brunch? Of course. Did I feel the expense was worth it? Absolutely. For proof, here’s a crop of that photo of my husband getting his dessert again. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him so happy with a meal – and that includes the tasting dinner we had at John Besh’s restaurant August last year. While there are so many great places in NOLA to try, I know that he’ll want to go back. Luckily, we visit at least once a year.
What’s your favorite upscale New Orleans restaurant?