The day had arrived, my birthday, but better yet, our lunch reservation at Commander’s Palace. Nestled beside the unique Laffayette Cemetery No.1 in the heart of the Garden District. This beautiful area of the city is home to many a wealthy New Orleanian as well as a fair few of Hollywood’s finest like the great John Goodman and Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock. But the real reason to visit the Garden District is the numerous restaurants in and around Magazine Street, one of which being Commander’s Palace, a locals favourite since opening in 1880. Commander’s Palace frequently tops many best of New Orleans eating lists for its authentic French-Creole style cooking from the mastermind of Chef Tony McPhail. Reservations are a must and there is a dress code. This meant no black drainpipes and Converse high-tops for English Hippy. But hell, it’s my birthday and who doesn’t like dressing up for a swanky lunch?
Entry to Commander’s Palace is greeted with welcome smiles. The dining room is intimate but holds a fair amount of patrons, which means a louder environment than your regular fine-dining establishment, just how they like it in New Orleans. Drinks shortly follow, and as it’s weekday lunch, it means 25cent martinis are on offer. For me that’s a straight-up vodka martini with olives and for Lucy a cosmopolitan martini with a twist of lemon. Sophisticated. Now let me tell you, this isn’t single shot, weak-ass drinking. The martinis are mixed with expert precision, some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of drinking, and if you drink a dollar worth you’ll certainly know about it as you exit the restaurant.
Lunch begins with slices of toasty garlic and herb bread to nibble on as you browse the menu of the day. For starter we choose Commander’s Turtle Soup, a dish that takes three days to prepare and is the signature dish, in other words, not to be missed on a first visit. The soup itself was truly unique in flavour; roasted tomato, red peppers and oregano form the base. An optional swirl of aged Spanish sherry is added to your soup at the table and this adds yet another dimension on your palate’s taste buds. I’m not sure what the flavour of turtle is having never sampled this sea creature prior to this encounter, all I can tell you is the soup is delicious and you should order a bowl for yourself if you’re ever in town to see what all the fuss is about.
Another round of martinis followed by our entrée selection of Louisiana Shrimp and Grits, a classic Creole dish. I’d had variations of this dish in other restaurants in and around New Orleans but was fairly confident Commander’s rendition would be a truly authentic representation of the dish, I wasn’t disappointed. Wild Louisiana white shrimp sits atop meltingly soft grits, sharp with goats cheese and seasoned perfectly. The dish is completed with a Cajun spiced sauce forestière, robust with caramelised onion, concassé tomato, leeks and roasted mushroom, then garnished with julienne vegetables and peppery micro-herbs. The dish was well-balanced, the soft and creamy grits was complemented by the sweet shrimp and slightly vinegary sauce, but the dish did not quite meeting the refinement of the Shrimp and Grits I had previously eaten at Atchafalaya.
Portions are generous at Commander’s Palace so at this point we were filling up nicely. Martinis were flowing at every table and ours was no exception, round number three was swiftly followed by dessert. I opted for another house specialty, Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé, and Lucy went for the equally decadent Southern Style Pecan Pie.
The soufflé was brought to us sitting tall and proud from its ramekin before having warmed whiskey cream poured into its interior at the table. Given the base of its ingredients this was a surprisingly light dish, with a nice boozy kick that warmed the soul. Pecan Pie was packed with nutty, chocolate flavour and came alongside vanilla bean ice cream and caramelised whole pecans. Thin crisp pastry, dark caramel sauce, earthy pecans, what’s not to like?
At this point early signs of a food coma were kicking in, the kind of feeling you get after constant grazing throughout Christmas morning and finally eating your bodyweight in turkey by the early afternoon. We took this as a sign to settle our bill and make a beeline for the nearest daiquiri shop to continue the birthday drinking.
Commander’s Palace is a well preserved slice of history in New Orleans. Just walking through the entrance into the dining room gives you the feeling that the next few hours are going to be truly wonderful. Louisiana Cajun cuisine at its finest, generous portions of well executed and beautifully presented food, excellent front-of-house waiting staff and a setting that makes you feel like your sitting comfortably around the family diner table, and you are, although this dinner table seats the family of New Orleans.