A strange thing is happening to us. We're forgetting about the best restaurants in town, in favor of diners, drive-ins, and dives. I plead guilty myself. It occurred to me while making up my annual Book Of Lists restaurant ranking that it's been almost two years since I've eaten in the perennial top restaurant: Commander's Palace.
I went immediately, and kicked myself even more afterwards. Only good things have been going on at the Brennan family's flagship. The Chef's Playground menu, which I found spectacular and innovative two years ago, is still that way. But the price has come down twenty bucks to $75, with a five-wine pairing for $50. That wine comes out of a newly-built cellar, which has grown so deep that it might be a good idea to download it and study it beforehand.
Meanwhile, all the little things we've gone to Commander's are still there: the garlic toasts, the overservice, the chicory coffee, the veal chop, the turtle soup, the bread pudding soufflee, the underpriced lunches. Some things have gone: the dress code (some people are in jeans and golf shirts at dinner) and--disturbingly--many customers on the young side of forty. Why are they passing on the best restaurant in town?
Combining classicism with inventiveness, hitting peaks in every index by which restaurants are measured, ever improving on what it's done in its brilliant past, Commander's is solidly our most pleasurable restaurant. After a few years caught in the traffic of changing tastes and dealing with Katrina problems, Commander's got a fresh start in 2007, and is cooking at least as well as at any time in its history.
The Brennan family bought the antebellum Garden District mansion (it has been a restaurant since at least 1880) in the mid-1960s, but didn't do much with it until the split in the Brennan family in 1973. That brought the elders of the Brennans here, led by Ella and Dick Brennan, two of the most brilliant restaurateurs in the annals of the business. At Commander's in the late 1970s, they and their chefs--most notably Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse--reinvented the New Orleans gourmet restaurant. Trends they launched pervade most New Orleans restaurants to this day. Commander's stayed at the top until the early 2000s, when management shifted to the next generation and the place was spooked by the death of Emeril's successor Jamie Shannon. It took Hurricane Katrina to exorcise the place, but the storm required over a year and millions of dollars to remediate. When it reopened, however, owners Ti Martin and Lally Brennan (with the continuing help of Ti's mom Ella Brennan, who lives next door) re-ascended the heights.
The Victorian mansion and its adjacent courtyard and outbuildings comprise a big restaurant with a wide variety dining environments. The most controversial is the main dining room downstairs, which makes an unusual statement with its lighting, materials, and birds. The trellised upstairs Garden Room is the most popular among locals, up there in the leafy part of the big live oak tree, looking down into the courtyard. In spring and fall, they serve out in the courtyard itself. At other times, nobody will stop you from having a drink in that romantic spot before or after dinner.
The best possible meal here for the adventuresome diner is the Chef's Playground menu, five or six courses veering from the familiar to the experimental dishes. Lunch at Commander's is convivial and a great bargain, complete repasts available for $25 or less.