Much has been said about the impact COVID has had on the restaurant industry. Horror stories abound of managers waiting and bussing tables, seating tables, and managing at the same time. Restaurants have been squeezed from all ends, and still manage to look normal to their customers, for the most part. As daily diners, we have observed these challenges from the periphery, only occasionally feeling the sting at our end.
But COVID has been merely a minor change in our lives here at the Cool Water Ranch, and we don’t get out to the gourmet places in New Orleans so much anymore. In the last several months, we have dined at Antoine’s, of course, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, GW Fins, and last Saturday night, Commander’s Palace.
Antoine’s, Brennan’s, and GW Fins all seemed perfectly normal. Arnaud’s had just reopened when we visited, and it was definitely different.
But the place where staffing shortages are most noticeable is Commander’s Palace. Full disclosure: Devotees of this renowned institution are legion, though I am not among them. Tom has a longstanding connection to the place dating back to his friend and mentor, Dick Brennan, Sr. It was the scene of monthly dinners with Dick and Marcelle Bienvenue in the days of the young Emeril Lagasse, who in our opinion presided over what was arguably the height of the food there. Emeril tested a lot of new dishes on this group each month. Tom’s thoughts on the legendary restaurant have been well-documented in these pages over many years. (Search the name on nomenu.com.)
I have not had nearly the experiences here that Tom has, but I have been with him more than a few times. The veneration of the place has never made sense to me, but it could be that my culinary bent is not to the gourmet. And there were other places in town in that vaunted space that I preferred. There are two things that I consistently noted about Commander’s Palace, and they bookend a spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The single most noteworthy thing about Commander’s Palace has always been the over-the-top greeting at your arrival. I have dined in countless restaurants since my association with Tom, and there is (or was) nothing like it.
Utterly unique. Great for the self-esteem. The entrance foyer is lovely and small enough that you are seen and greeted by a few people behind the desk at the back of this room. Your reservation is claimed, and you step through the portal toward your table accompanied by a group of smiling waiters/managers/miscellaneous people who are simply and genuinely delighted to see you. You’re a rock star!!!
The other very special thing about Commander’s Palace, to me, seriously, is their garlic bread, which is addictive. I embarrass myself each visit with my unabashed gluttony of this delicacy, proving my bona fides as a philistine.
Our last visit to Commander’s Palace was summer of 2017. Tom’s decline was already underway and we were sticking together, which explains his long dining sabbatical here.
Since then so much has changed. The last of the Brennan siblings who were hands-on here have all passed away, leaving the operations of the restaurant to Ella’s daughter Ti Martin, and her cousin Lally Brennan, sister of Ralph of his eponymous restaurant group, and Cindy of Mr. B’s.
On Saturday night we returned for an overdue visit.
The affable valet was still out front. The desk was manned by two people, but less than usual. The portal had a few people waiting for us, but it was fewer than the normal gaggle of celebrators, and these were less celebratory than I remember. I hope this will come back with time. It was all so festive!
We were seated at a table downstairs with the VIP ribbon across it. Nice touch - I’m glad they are still doing this. One of our waiters, Dylan, who was just the best in every way, and Jared, who was even better, explained to a new waitress what the ribbon means as they delivered the garlic bread. I explained further that it meant that they should try not to notice my embarrassing requests for more garlic bread, as I put in the first repeat request. Minutes later, it arrived. No extra prompts needed.
The same could not be said for requests from the bar, which seemed a little slow. I was told by our companions, both of whom ordered separate things, that the drinks were definitely to their liking, just a little slow to arrive.
The amuse bouche course commenced. First up was tuna tartare, which got a wave of approval from the group. It was a little dollop over a tiny crostini. The second of these was a sourdough beignet with a little prosciutto ribbon topped with caviar. It surprised me a little that both of these were crafted from ingredients only a gourmet would appreciate. I have learned to at least tolerate caviar, so I removed the elastic prosciutto and ate the beignet, which was underwhelming. The caviar was appropriately salty and beady.
We were boringly predictable in ordering. It will be frightening for readers to note that my order was the most adventurous of the evening. Our companions got a Romaine salad and turtle soup for starters, and each went with the pecan crusted drum for entrees, pre-ordering the signature Creole bread pudding souffle as dessert.
Tom saw the word oyster in an appetizer description and had to get it. He didn’t realize it also had his least favorite food item, pork belly, interspersed with the oysters. It was a complex dish, with shaved mirliton, sugar snap peas, pear, daikon radish slaw with nuoc cham chimichurri and green garlic bang bang. It was an interesting combination of flavors, presented in an equally interesting way.
About this time new executive chef and Tory McPhail successor Meg Bickford stopped by the table. She is lovely, and we chatted about some new things on the menu. I expressed curiosity about the beef belly and she offered a taste, which I accepted. It turned out to be a full size entree, which wasn’t all that large. I didn’t understand this dish at all, and I found the beef a little chewy. Another dish with an astonishing list of ingredients, the flavor was not there to match. On the menu it read “Forever smoked Louisiana Wagyu beef with roasted St. Francisville chanterelles, pickled Northshore summer squash, Creole cream cheese stone ground grits, and Louisiana blueberry mostarda.” Meh.
I ordered another new menu item, Blue Crab gnudi. This too had a laundry list of ingredients: Louisiana blue crab, brown butter zephyr squash, shaved fennel, asparagus, and preserved chard with pillowy housemade buttermilk ricotta, and lemony summer squash cream. This was a rich dish with mellow flavors and blue crab aplenty. It was delicate but flavorful, with what I registered as a lot of “bits” of things, like all the other ingredients.
For an entree, I ordered off the appetizer menu, selecting the duck confit, labeled on the menu as Confit & Cornbread. It included the namesake items, but also sticky smoky tomato preserve, and sweet chilis on warm bacon fat cornbread with green garlic buttermilk and a sunny side up quail egg. This too was underwhelming. The confit was tender and flavorful, but I think of duck confit as debris with some au jus type almost-gravy, and somewhere is crispy duck skin. Also bones.
Here was a neatly stacked pile of bite-sized duck pieces (which were very good) sitting atop a criss-cross of what seemed like dense and stale cornbread. (Maybe the bacon fat created this texture?) All these other ingredients figured into this composition but failed to make much of an impression.’
The best food of the evening was ordered by all three of the other people at the table. Pecan crusted Gulf Fish was Drum that evening, but Sheepshead was also available. Tom is a big Sheepshead fan so that was easy. And it was terrific. Described on the menu as Prosecco poached jumbo lump crab over roasted corn, spring asparagus, grilled kale and melted leeks with whiskey spiked crushed corn cream, these flavors came together in a tasty mouthful.
Our friends had the souffle coming, so we decided to get some dessert as well. The souffle looked less than its usual self, and they verified it as diminished from the norm in taste as well.
I felt that way about my pecan pie a la mode, which was a very busy dish. I still liked it, because pecan pie a la mode is, after all, still pecan pie a la mode.
Tom got a new dish on the menu called Peaches & Cream. This was a really complicated dessert which did not seem to translate into extra goodness, because even Tom didn’t finish it, and there is no sweeter tooth out there. It was, “Toasted cardamom and sweet Georgia peach jam layered with vanilla peach custard and honey nut granola, served chilled with fresh Ponchatoula blueberries.” This was a pretty dish with a perky flavor that was a little too assertive to me. Very fruity, and the custard did not do its job in softening the tart flavors.
The food at Commander’s Palace Saturday night was not the food we have been used to seeing at Commander’s Palace. Neither was the service. Like at Arnaud’s a month ago, plates sat in front of us way too long for a restaurant with this reputation. And that’s really interesting to me. At the lesser price-point, more casual places that make up the bulk of our dining these days, plates are cleared immediately by anyone who spots them. I’ve seen owners and managers and certainly waiters not waiting for bussers to do it. With such decreased staffing, hierarchy lines should melt away. Dirty plates sitting in front of diners in restaurants like these makes them no longer “restaurants like these.”
Overall though, Commander’s does retain that stamp of Brennan service. A waiter always within arm’s reach, literally. Courteous, attentive, helpful, classy staff just waiting to fulfill a diner’s wish. I seriously wanted to take Jared and Dylan home, they were so good and understanding with us.
But the best news of all? The garlic bread is still sensational.