In the early 90s, I remember watching Paul Prudhomme on his cooking show and an unknown Emeril Lagasse on Great Chefs. Both shows aired on my local P.B.S. station. It was through those shows that I first learned of Commander's Palace in New Orleans, Louisiana--the very restaurant that launched the careers of Prudhomme and Lagasse, putting them on the national culinary map. I would never have imagined that I would one day have the privilege of dining at Commander's Palace, or that I would eventually live in New Orleans.
If you are unfamiliar with Commander's Palace, I think I could say that it is arguably the "best" and most iconic restaurant of New Orleans. It has a rich culinary legacy that has been defined by time (the restaurant itself dates from the 1800s), its owners, and its classic location. Currently, the Brennan family dynasty owns Commander's Palace and a bevy of other upscale (and pricey) establishments in the New Orleans area, including Ralph Brennan's Bacco and Café Adelaide. You will arrive the illustrious Commander's Palace by following the tree-lined boulevards in New Orleans' wealthy Garden District, but the whimsical "bird" decorations and colors inside the restaurant will amuse you more than the gorgeous neighborhood surroundings.
The evening that we dined at Commander's Palace, the beau started with the turtle soup au sherry. The turtle soup filled the air with a buttery and rich aroma, and was dense with soft pieces of the holy trinity (bell peppers, onions, and celery), tiny cubes of hard-boiled eggs, and chewy morsels of diced turtle meat. When our server brought out the shallow bowl of steaming soup, she drizzled cool sherry over the top of the soup. The beau eagerly swirled the sherry throughout his bowl, permitting the sherry to lend its tartness to warm brothy goodness.
I also selected soup as my starter. However, I instead opted for the gumbo du jour, which was made with a rich shrimp stock, chocolately dark roux, and other fresh regional ingredients. I found the gumbo to be thinner than the gumbo at Acme Oyster House and less substantial at Emeril's Nola, but it was slightly sweet and intensely flavorful, packed a bit of spicy heat, and contained large chunks of duck meat.
We eagerly used the glistening and buttery pieces of golden garlic dill bread to sop up all of the remaining soup left in the bowls.
For his main course, the beau ordered the deep-fried soft shell crab, which was injected with an acidic French-inspired ravigote sauce. The menu indicated the the crab was injected so that the crab would be "marinate[d] from the inside out." The crab was served with an amusing salad of scallions, petite herbs, grape tomatoes, and red onions in a spicy horseradish and grainy dijon mustard sauce, and a drizzling of liquified basil. The crab also came with mashed crab boiled vegetables, upon which the crab was served. The crab's deep-fried breaded coating was crunchy and perfectly contained the soft crabmeat flakes and shell.
I ordered "Commander's mixed grill," which came with a selection of meats finished with a housemade Worcestershire sauce. The meats included a hickory grilled tournedo of beef, rabbit tenderloin, and spicy lamb and rabbit sausages. The protein-heavy dish was served with mustard greens braised in New Orleans Abita beer, Creole smashed new potatoes, and a sweet and chunky huckleberry and cherry compote. I loved the tenderness of all of the meats, the different selection of proteins highlighted the distinctive gamey flavors of the lamb and the rabbit. Also, the contrasting sweetness of the compote and the savory flavors of the meat and greens really made an impact on my palate. Everything was cleverly prepared.
We ended our evening with a classic New Orleans dessert with a lot of fanfare, bananas foster, which was flambéed at our tableside. The server halved the bananas; cooked them in butter, brown sugar, Caribbean rum, banana liqueur; set the bananas ablaze; and poured the mixture over a rotund scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.
Check out the video of our bananas foster in action here:
I hope this post inspired you to visit New Orleans soon, and stop by Commander's Palace for a divine meal!