Thursday, January 10, 2008

Restaurant Review: Commander's Palace: A classy cosmopolitan cajun cure to cookie cutter contemporary cooking

I think R-, my brother and I have all started to get jaded by upscale restaurants. The New-Contemporary American, more new-International, that Bobo's around the world are flocking to, with their asymmetrical white table settings, the sleek stark interior designs, their multi-course tasting menus, their international wine pairings, their timid nod to the same few fusion flavors (yuzu, satsuma, mole, sashimi, truffle oil, olive oil ice cream), and the ubiquitous sesame crusted rare wasabi tuna steak (though this has shifted more downmarket of late).

My brother and I were watching a new food network show where these D-list star chefs/star designers made over these restaurants in the same universal international contempo image. It is inescapable. I've been to these same contempo restaurants in places as far removed as Dublin, Budapest and Istanbul.

That's why Commander's Palace in the Garden District of New Orleans is very refreshing change of pace. A restaurant that renewed my jaded appetite, all for under $100 per person (a steal for what the restaurant offers).

On Sundays, they offer a Jazz Brunch, with live music. In New Orleans, they do their brunches right, with 3 courses complete with cocktails and wines. I had a leisurely walk to a charming neighborhood of New Orleans, miles away from the rowdiness frivolity of Bourbon Street. Like its Bourbon Street counterpart (Brennan's), your entrance is greeted with an avalanche of servers, but here, the servers are professional and respectful, whereas at Brennan's, the service felt unpolished.

The food though is the most important feature of a restaurant, and here, they served New Orleans classics, while still being classy and cosmopolitan. I started with a cocktail, an Abilene Swizzle, characterized by the bitters that helped New Orleans invent cocktails. I later followed with the New Orleans classic, the Sazerac, and finished with a creamy, licorice-y Absinthe concoction. (Absinthe, having just been legalized, was evident throughout the menu). I had also recently become disillusioned with cocktails, essentially swearing off of them, as they are almost universally saccharine and vile, but Commander's Palace renewed my faith in the profession of mixology (I actually dislike that term, as I think it more elicits the craft of DJs rater than bartenders).

My first course was a trio of soups, a turtle soup, perfected over the past one hundred years, a shrimp and absinthe creme soup, and the most amazing chicken and oyster gumbo finished with brandy, the oysters having the perfect creamy texture. My main was a chicory coffee encrusted quail with a corn and oyster dressing accompanied by a satsuma marmalade. The delicate quail meet delightfully taking on the flavors of the chicory and the corn, while the satsuma providing a nod to duck a l'orange. I finished with their signature bread pudding souflee topped with a whiskey sauce. I always have a soft spot for bread pudding, but this one was topped with a magnificent souflee, defying gravity, of a beautiful airy consistency that I've never seen matched.

All in all, New Orleans is a great food town, with fantastic and inexpensive Gumbos and Jambalayas and Po Boys and Oysters. But Commander's Palace shows they can do all that with class, and mix it up with the best the world has to offer, without breaking the bank.


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