1403 Washington Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
at the corner of Coliseum Street in the Garden District
Commander's Palace is one of those New Orleans Institutions with a capital I, the sort of place that has been feeding the elite, successful, and merely aspirational of the New Orleans population since 1880 on. The restaurant, originally a popular gathering place for river-boat men and their mistresses, has maintained its towering and oh-so-posh reputation for a startlingly long time: nowadays, it's still one of NOLA's most popular and most rarefied dining destinations. So how's it hold up?
First impression: what a beautiful space. Truly old school restaurants are difficult to find these days, and Commanders is carrying the torch where other establishments have acquised to hipness and serving staff with interesting haircuts. Patrons dress to the nines and staff are dressed about as well: everyone you walk by up the stairs and into the warren of rooms in the restaurant greet you and do a great job of looking just thrilled to see you. It may be a conceit but I totally approve.
The menu features Creole classics but reconstructed and nicely updated: rich, complex food, at a high price point (go figure). Commander's does offer some decent deals, especially at lunch- my mom and I selected the special menu, which featured any salad or soup, an entree, and a dessert for a consolidated price.
I tried the Creole tomato salad with tomato gazpacho and roasted tomatoes for my appetizer. A really elegant dish, and I liked the combination of fresh tomatoes with a layer of cold "soup" alongside chewy, roasted tomato slices. Light and very summery. (It's summer, right? It qualifies now, right?)
I also sampled the gumbo: nice and roux heavy, although my mom noted there was not enough Stuff In It. When discussing seafood gumbo, the amount of Stuff In It (oysters, shrimp, so on) is a terrifically important barometer of quality. Be aware, Commanders, be aware.
I had the roasted fish and shrimp for my entree. This was particularly interesting because it featured ramps - those uniquely Southern ferns - as a major component of the dish. I liked the somewhat asparagus like and indisputably earthy flavor of the slightly charred ramps, and they added something to the sauteed fish and meaty, seared, shrimp. I wish they showed up on more menus (and I also wish you could get em' out here in California, but such are the proclivities of ferns).
My mom tried the special of lightly fried soft shell crabs, served with lump crab meat and various and sundry spices. Commanders dishes out a large serving, and the crabs were lightly fried and meaty - not overburdened with batter as some preparations are. The addition of lump crab meat definitely is a nice counterpoint to the crunchy and crispy crab meat.
My dad had the quail, stuffed with blue crab and served with cornbread, Creole choucroute, apples, and Makers Mark-blackberry lacquer ($32.00): a pretty excellent fowl dish from a restaurant with a yen for wild game. A little bit sweet, I liked the combination of bourbon tinged meat with sweet cornbread and apples. This would be an ideal fall dish but doesn't suffer much for being served in summer.
I also tried out the side-dish of crab boiled vegetables: mixed vegetables in a butter sauce flavored with crab boil. This was almost obscenely rich and therefore very tasty indeed - a real old fashioned side that one doesn't encounter much these days.
Commanders is famous (and justly so) for its decadent and fairly extensive dessert menu. Creole cuisine finds its greatest expression in anything involving butterfat and cream, and Commander's Palace's offerings are no exception.
I tried the Praline Parfait, a ridiculously huge dessert composed of a crispy and caremalized pastry cookie, pecan syrup, chantilly cream, candied pecans, and a boatload of rich housemade ice cream. Really liked this, although dessert-phobic me might have preferred this in a shot glass. I need to develop more testicular fortitude in the face of Creole cuisine.
My dad is a serious bread pudding fan and he selected the Creole Bread Pudding souffle, Commander's light and airy variant on the omnipresent bread pudding. Served with whiskey sauce, it's a refined dessert but may not entirely satisfy those who prefer the crispy, broiled edges of traditional bread pudding - this is more of an eggy and liquid speciality, a real pudding. Order early.
Finally, my mom selected the hibiscus sorbet with candied ginger. What a delight: tangy, fresh hibiscus sorbet works perfectly with the slight spice of ginger. A refreshing nibble after a big, rich dinner. Commanders apparently switches up its sorbet and ice cream selections on a regular basis, so check back often.
We observed a surgical ritual: a guy a table over had apparently ordered a 3000 dollar bottle of wine. This required the sommelier to open the bottle with the precision of a neurosurgeon, using a candle to check for impurities and oh-so-carefully easing the cork out of the bottle. Apparently the wine had gone off a bit, judging by the sommelier's nervous reaction, but the customer seemed to take it in a stride - wonder if he'd ordered the stuff more to seem impressive then for flavor purposes. I will never know.
Commander's offers a chef's table, and I'd very much like to take them up on it sometime soon. On the whole, I really enjoyed Commander's Palace: it's a truly classy and timeless restaurant, with an ambience and a slavish attention to service that's pretty rare these days. It's not a daily restaurant, but I can think of few better locales in New Orleans for a really special occasion, for a classic American experience. And the people watching, needless to say - superb.