Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Commander's Palace, New Orleans (Review)

I was in New Orleans in June for the first time since Katrina. The French Quarter is as lovely as ever but a lot of restaurants have not been able to hire their pre-Katrina quota of staff yet, and there were some slight glitches because of that: a young waiter at Antoine's who called my mother and I "you guys" repeatedly, restaurants that have had to remove time-consuming dishes from their menus, some restricted hours.

I enjoyed Antoine's (I had two starters - Bisque d'ecrevisses with a stuffed crawfish on top, followed by Chair de crabes ravigote; and then Cafe Brulot - it was a really good meal) and Sunday jazz brunch at Arnaud's (the band was more the highlight than the food, but the food was good) and Coop's Place (all I had time for was their superb gumbo and a beer). One afternoon I ran out of the rain into some touristy-looking place on Decatur and had great crab cakes - way better than a fancy restaurant would serve where I live.

But the gastronomic highlight of the trip was Commander's Palace. I had never been there before. I knew it was a serious restaurant so I didn't want to go there for lunch or brunch when the food would be cheap but less spectacular. We went for supper and ordered the tasting menu with the wine tasting menu. It was worth it! In fact, at $290 for two (including tax and a good tip), I thought it was very good value. (The seven course tasting menu was $70 and the wine tasting menu was an additional $35.) As a great restaurant should be, our meal was more than eating: it was theater. We each had the same menu. This is what we had:

Drinks: Bourbon milk punch for one; a glass of Viognier for the other. (In retrospect, ordering a pre-meal drink was a mistake, as the amount of wine in the tasting wine menu was very generous, and I was feeling very happy by the time we rolled out of there, hours later.)

Course 1: Shrimp and green chili ceviche. Shrimp, roasted chilis, mango, cilantro and lime, served with fried plantain. It was very good - not brilliant. Served with yummy champagne (Commander's Palace Cuvee).

Course 2: Truffled Maine lobster bisque. It was a small bowl, which was good because I don't like these tasting menus to be too much food. I ate tiny bites to make it last. What can I say - it was a perfect use of lobster and truffles. Heavenly. Served with an unoaked 2005 Chardonnay by Trefethan.

Course 3: Fois gras "P B & J" - A very light-hearted take on fois gras! It worked completely. The bread was toasted brioche. The Hudson Valley fois gras was barely cooked. The tart homemade blackberry jelly was on the side (which I appreciated, since I don't like sweet with meat). This meal was building in quality in a way that was almost dramatic. As a sort of joke we got a tiny glass of milk with our "P B & J". Also served with a glass of 2004 Chateau Camplazens Viognier.

Coup de Milieu - a small glass of Brazilian sugar cane alcohol (ypioca cachaca) with blueberries and lime. Delicioius!

Course 4: Speckled trout with caviar and caramelized red pepper. I couldn't detect the caviar, but I wasn't complaining. The trout was the tenderest and sweetest I've ever tasted. This was a truly memorable dish. Served with a 2005 Eola Hills Pinot Noir.

Course 5: Veal tenderloin injected with sour cherry juice and butter, served with perserved lemons and vegetables. Before this came out I was feeling that the last thing I needed at that moment was a hunk of meat, but this was actually the highlight of a great meal. It was served with a 2004 Archetype Shiraz.

Course 6: Pineapple upside-down cake with coconut, served with Creole cream cheese ice cream. Another light-hearted note that worked perfectly. I wish I could make that ice cream as it was like nothing I have eaten. Dessert was served with "J" Rose Brut NV which was the only off note in the meal - it didn't taste very good. (Which was just as well as I didn't need any more alcohol.)

The service was impeccable, but not at all like what you'd get in France (or even NYC). The staff was chatty - several people came around and chatted with us (but never while we were eating, so it wasn't intrusive). One waiter told us part of his life story. That's not what I'd generally want in a restaurant, but it was all part of the amazing experience and was a wonderful, memorable evening.

This post was originally published (in a slightly different form) on Chowhound.

For my report on the state of New Orleans' post-Katrina reconstruction, see here.


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