Sunday, February 14, 2010

Commander's Palace, New Orleans LA

…and on Valentine’s Day evening Bacchus rolled, Drew Brees threw, and the city of New Orleans went crazy… fans and celebrators standing shoulder to shoulder at least 10 deep lining every inch of St. Charles Avenue…even New Years Eve in New York lacked the energy of the Garden District that night. Starting just after six with the last float moving past my location slightly west of Washington St. at 8:15 I was happy I’d pushed my reservation at Commander’s Palace back to 8:45 – the parade was absolutely worth eating late for and if the energy of that evening could be bottled there would be a lot more happy people in the world.

Making my way into what may be New Orleans most famous restaurant approximately 10 minutes before my scheduled reservation I was greeted with all smiles and questions about how the parade was – I almost felt bad for the service staff that didn’t get a chance to experience it. Taken quickly to my beautiful two-top in the main dining room my chair was pulled out for me, my water was filled, and I was left to wait for approximately 10 minutes before my server finally arrived to introduce herself, explain the menu, and offer her suggestions – including the suggestion that 3 appetizers, a main, and a dessert was probably too much unless I went with the tasting menu (which she noted had smaller portions, but was still quite a bit of food.)

Orders placed, including coffee to go with my meal, I was left to wait and browse the room – mostly locals celebrating Valentine’s Day at that point, but later to fill up substantially with well dressed beaded folks who talked excitedly of the parade – clearly this was a Sunday night when dining late was expected and the servers never missed a beat. Coffee served, a rich and nutty blend with notes of cocoa and chicory, I actually had to request that they slow down on the refills of it because I was having difficulty balancing my sweetener with the frequent warm-ups.

Shortly following placing my order I received Commander’s Palace’s famous garlic bread – essentially a pan grilled French bread soaked in garlic butter, parmesan, and chives – it was excellent and I managed two plates without difficulty. Later in the meal (with the main course) the garlic bread was replaced by a crusty and buttery French bread – a tad tough and chewy on the interior, but certainly not bad – and a grassy salted butter.

For my first dish of the evening – my first experience with Turtle Soup. Requested as merely a taste my server informed me that it would be no problem to receive a portion from the “Soup 1-1-1” for a mere $3 and I was thrilled. Splashed with some sherry table the stock itself had a spicy yet sour flavor that I quite liked – what didn’t work, however, was the turtle meat itself…dry, gritty, almost “sandy” if you will. Having heard similar reviews from a couple of respected gourmands I assume this is largely what turtle meat tastes like and while it was certainly an experience I think I’d have much preferred the turtle soup sans turtle.

My second dish of the evening, another CP classic, was an absolute winner - “Oyster & Absinthe Dome.” Similar to clam chowder in texture the creamy and hearty soup featured heavy hints of cream, garlic, oysters and their liquor, artichokes, and what I do believe was a smoky bacon. Topping the amalgam and adding even more texture to the already complex soup was a large puff pastry that I chopped into the soup carefully to avoid spillage. While I can’t say I tasted much of what I could identify as absinthe or anise in the dish, what I did taste was sublime.

Dish three – well, dish three and four were the reason I elected to dine at CP’s for dinner instead of lunch or brunch. Described beautifully by both my primary server and the young man who delivered it to my table, the chef’s take on the classic beignets and café au lait entitled “Foie Gras du Monde” was another of my top 5 savories experienced in New Orleans. Featuring a perfectly cleaned 2-3oz portion of unctuous foie gras served over top two light and airy beignets stuffed with an admixture of pecan and foie mousse and topped with warm sugarcane chicory syrup on the left half of the plate while the right half of the dish displayed a glass of sweetened café au lait and foie gras foam – it was every bit as decadent as it sounds. An admitted fan of sweeter foie gras preparations I’d say that this was my second favorite seared foie gras preparation to date – an absolute must order, especially at the bargain price of $18. (for reference my favorite seared preparation was $35 at L2O and my favorite cold preparation the $30 supplement at The French Laundry.)

For my main course – once again it was the duck – and it was my second favorite duck of the trip. Entitled “Cracklin’ Crusted Duck” the evening’s preparation featured a quartered duck that perfectly pan seared medium and coated with crisp and salty pork cracklins’. Complimenting the smooth and meaty duck was a ragout of sweet and sour caramelized onions and roasted pecan duck jus along with Jack Daniels buttermilk coush-coush (crispy, sweet, delectable) and a smear of Tabasco jelly. Sweet and spicy, savory and sweet, plenty of texture variation – a beautifully executed dish.

Wiping my plate clean my server stopped by with a big smile on her face – it must’ve been pretty obvious how much I was enjoying the experience. Asking if she could “tempt me” with dessert there wasn’t even a question – “the Bread Pudding Souffle, please.” Refilling my coffee for the…I don’t know, probably tenth time…I sat and waited while taking in the sites and was greeted by one of the dining room managers who told me some of CP’s history and their current participation in multiple charitable organizations around New Orleans and the Share our Strength program to benefit Haiti – always nice to see a restaurant who gives back. Bidding me farewell and thanking me for coming to visit Commander’s Palace the manager stepped away and was quickly replaced by my server who was carrying a little cloud of heaven. The Queen of Creole dessert to say the least, the dish was indeed exactly what it stated – both a bread pudding and a soufflé. Featuring an airy dome of cinnamon meringue soufflé standing tall and proud over the edge of the ramekin and a dense, heavy, custard soaked bread pudding with heavy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg beneath the dish was punctured tableside and filled with a hefty bourbon custard sauce. While not the best soufflé I’ve ever tasted and not the best bread pudding I’ve ever experienced the dish was everything I expected and possibly the best dessert of my trip to New Orleans.

Making a quick visit to the restroom while I awaited my bill I noted the other rooms in the enormous dining space and was surprised at how busy the room remained at 10:30pm and how everyone, both diners and servers, had a smile on their face. Paying the bill (quite affordable for the quality of the experience) I was bid farewell by my server and given a copy of the menu to take home. Making my way back to my car through the quarter I watched the cleaning crew shovel the streets of the Garden District and encountered multiple folks still out celebrating, singing, smiling, and having fun – while I’m not a big “Valentine’s Day” guy, this is one that I will definitely remember for years to come.

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