Restaurants that are institutions don’t have to be good. Before it closed, Tavern on the Green in New York was like that. You didn’t go for the food–no, you definitely didn’t go for the food–you went for the chandeliers, for the topiary, for the chintzy souvenirs you could buy in the gift shop.
On its surface, you might assume that Commander’s Palace in New Orleans follows the same formula. A New Orleans institution (it’s been there since 1880!) the whole place, on the surface, positively oozes charm and character.
The first thing that you experience upon walking in is a crew of restaurant staff smiling and greeting you. Then you turn your head and see a jewel-box of a room with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and balloons floating from the chairs:
Our group (we were there as guests of the Louisiana Seafood Board) was offered a tour; so we walked along this outdoor area which was verdant and beautiful:
They also toured us through the kitchen which is a very, VERY good sign (it means they have nothing to hide):
But the real magic happens once you’re seated:
Two things make for the magic: (1) the food, which is way better than anyone might expect it to be considering that this place, again, is an institution that can, if it wanted, rest on its laurels; and (2) the live music that plays during the Sunday jazz brunch.
Here’s the band serenading our neighboring table:
And here’s a video from when the band came to our table:
As you can see, that’s very charming.
And then the food. It started with this garlic bread:
A simple gesture, but a bold one too. Perfectly crisp, perfectly buttery and fragrant with garlic this was a lovely start to the meal. (And as Matt & Adam pointed out, garlic wakens the appetite, as they learned the night they slow-roasted garlic in the oven and couldn’t fall asleep, it made them so hungry.)
The bad influences at my table suggested that we all order a gin fizz. So we did:
Frothy and light, you almost didn’t notice the gin going down. Almost.
Soon, more food came. Like this fried oyster in a tasso cream sauce, topped with caviar:
Words are unnecessary there. You know that’s good.
For my first course, I had this tryptic of soups:
That there on the left is a crab bisque, above it a gumbo and on the right–get ready for it–a TURTLE soup.
Commander’s Palace is famous for its turtle soup. Later, at the New Orleans Cooking School (I’ll tell you about that soon) the cooking instructor told us that the turtle soup at Commander’s (which gets drizzled with Sherry, table-side) isn’t made with the turtles that we kept as pets as a kid. It’s made with “the mean snapping turtles that bite you.”
I wasn’t too concerned about eating my childhood pet: this soup was fantastic. So were the others. Deep, deep flavors abounded. I’m ready to start making food like this at home (anyone have a pet turtle they’re looking to get rid of?)
For my entree, I had something of a masterpiece; cochon de lait:
As a huge consumer of brunches around the country (brunches in California, New York, Georgia, Seattle) this ranks up there as one of the greatest brunch dishes of all time. Two fluffy biscuits in a sea of stewed pork, topped with poached eggs, hollandaise, and then a gremolata of lemon zest and fennel fronds. Decadent in the extreme, this is the brunch you eat before standing in front of a firing squad: a last meal of epic proportions.
Except, that’s not the end. There’s also dessert.
I had the berry coffee cake which, I justified, because all those berries made it “healthy” (shut up):
Craig’s praline sundae, though, was crowned the winner by our table; the contrast of the salty praline with the vanilla ice cream was indeed rather noteworthy:
Also noteworthy was the coffee which was almost syrupy, it was so intense (and wonderfully bitter with the addition of chicory):
All-in-all, Commander’s Palace is that rare bird of a restaurant: a veritable institution that also happens to serve wonderful food. If you’re in New Orleans for a weekend, make a reservation for the jazz brunch. It’s not to be missed.
The Commander’s Palace Dining Experience (from Picky Palate; you can see me taking my lead photo in one of her pictures!)
Commander’s Palace–Jazz Brunch in New Orleans (from Family Fresh Cooking)
Commander’s Palace (Off The Broiler)
Master and Commander (Passionate Eater)