Wild Shrimp & Grits
New Orleans, Louisiana
“He’ll play it extra schmaltzy,” said the leader of the jazz trio, nudging the trumpet player.
Indeed, he did. He played my song real nice like, smooth and sassy.
There’s nothing like eating brunch in the Garden Room at Commander’s Palace with your friends while being serenaded with an extra schmaltzy version of your favorite tune.
It was my first time at Commander’s Palace, and our jazz brunch couldn’t have been a more quintessential experience.
From the outside, Commander’s Palace looks like the biggest ice cream parlor ever.
Like many of the houses in the surrounding Garden District of New Orleans, Commander’s Palace occupies a Victorian-era Queen Anne-style house. Moderately spindled and painted bright turquoise blue with white trim, it consumes the larger half of a block.
The inside is ginormous.
We passed through at least two dining rooms (I believe there are seven total) and up a flight of stairs before arriving in the popular (and by all accounts, coveted) Garden Room, a spacious, squat room made uncharacteristically pleasant by a wall of windows with a view of the outside courtyard below. Clearly an addition to the main house, it had a decidedly updated look. Every table strung with balloons, it was a party in progress.
The Drummer decided to stay back at the hotel, so I had mes anges (“Good morning, angels!” “Good morning, u.e.!”), Iggy, Houston, and The Hair, all to myself.
We ordered cocktails – a few too many.
Thick, rich, and sweet, the restaurant’s signature Milk Punch was my favorite ($7.50). The “milk” refers to the half-and-half that is mixed with sugar and brandy (or bourbon upon request)*, the “punch” is for the smack it laid on me after a few sips. Served cold and topped with a dash of freshly grated nutmeg, it’s like the lighter, more refreshing cousin to eggnog.
And because our double-fisted cocktailing wasn’t enough, our wonderful server – Jennifer – brought us all shots of their “Holly Berry” cocktail ($10.25; Stoli Citrus vodka, Chambord liqueur, Pama pomegranate liqueur and fresh lemon).
Jennifer understands the fine art of lagniappe-giving.
Not since Hélène Cousins of l’Arpege have I encountered such an enthusiastic and snappy server.
Rolling with our punches (milky ones and all), Jennifer knew exactly how to respond to my bad humor (with a wink and a nod), presaged exactly which dishes I wanted (I let her choose for me, and she chose wisely at every turn), and even managed to make a few off-menu items magically appear upon request (more on this later). Able to read between the lines at every turn, she put our meal on autopilot. Over the course of our meal, Jennifer became my quatrieme ange.
Jennifer is also the type of server that a busy restaurant like Commander’s Palace values.
An incredible multi-tasker, she miraculously juggles tables at opposite ends of the room with a smile. One second, she’s welcoming regulars back to their favorite table, another second, she’s flaming a Cafe Pierre for a large birthday party. With the blink of an eye, she’s at table 31 easing over some cranky guest who wants his eggs hard-boiled, not poached, and, just when the hostess is begging her to turn your table for awaiting guests, she enthusiastically extends you the favor of seeing the restaurant’s kitchen. Scooting you along, she escorts you downstairs with a bubbly chat to the kitchen, which is so full of tourists it might as well be the main terminal at Grand Central Station. But (even if you notice) you don’t care, because you’ve just had one of the happiest meals of your life.
Jennifer will snap your picture, bid you farewell, and then, without missing a beat, pick up the order for her four-top and head back upstairs to do it all over again.
So, it was with Jennifer’s big smile, extra schmaltzy music in the background, and a table brimming with cocktails that we turned to the menu.
With the exception of supplements, which are clearly marked, the price of the three-course prix fixe brunch is the price assigned to the main course you choose.
To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE. To see the photos of each dish, click on the individual dish title below.
Foie Gras Pain Perdu
Commander’s Palace Soup Trio 1-1-1
(Turtle Soup, Seafood Gumbo, and the Soup du Jour
[Vegetable Bisque]; $3 supplement)|
Wild Shrimp & Grits
Rosemary & garlic-crusted Louisiana shrimp over
yellow stone ground grits with Vidalia onions, peppers,
pickled garlic and New Orleans barbecue sauce. ($34)
Pecan-Crusted Gulf Fish
Champagne poached lobster, spiced pecans and
crushed corn sauce. ($39)
Roasted vegetables in a puff pastry shell
with whipped mascarpone. ($34)
Eggs Cochon de Lait
Smoky braised pork debris over black pepper
and rosemary biscuits with soft poached eggs,
winter mushrooms & bourbon-bacon fat Hollandaise. ($35)
Warm pecan pie and vanilla bean ice cream with melted chocolate,
candied pecans and Fleur de Sel caramel sauce.
Bread Pudding Souffle
“The Queen of Creole Desserts”
Bourbon custard. ($3 supplement)
Ponchatoula strawberries and whipped cream.
Commander’s Palace has been around long enough to have created some famous dishes.
Most who are familiar with the restaurant’s menu will tell you that the short list of required eating at Commander’s Palace includes the Shrimp & Tasso Henican, the Oyster & Absinthe “Dome,” the Bread Pudding Souffle (for dessert), and, last but not least, the legendary Turtle Soup.
We ordered all of these. And, sadly, none of them, save the “Oyster & Absinthe ‘Dome,'” was particularly memorable.
Of the first courses, that “Oyster & Absinthe ‘Dome'” was my favorite. Creamy and rich, this warm oyster chowder was laced with a subtle hint of anisey Absinthe and capped with a round of puff pastry.** Performing a little table-side surgery, Jennifer sawed the floating “dome” in half and submerged the two halves in the velvety soup. The oysters were fat, the flavor was complex. Together with the flaky puff pastry crumb, the chowder was magnificent.
The turtle soup was my least favorite of the three house soups (“Commander’s Palace Soup Trio 1-1-1“). Actually, it was my least favorite taste of the entire meal. Splashed with some sherry table-side (my splash was more like a dribble; had Jennifer not been occupied with sawing the puff, she might have done a better job than the lad who tried to top off my soup), it had a nice flavor (here, the broth is made from veal stock, not turtle stock). But the turtle meat was dry, mealy, and overcooked. That was a turn-off.
Having tasted what was probably the last word on seafood gumbo the night before (stay tuned), the one at Commander’s Palace was flat by comparison. The soup was disappointingly thin, the flavor shallow.
The vegetable bisque (the soup du jour), on the other hand, couldn’t have had more flavor. It was hard to believe that it contained no animal-derived stock. Fortified with a touch of dairy, it managed to be relatively light. It was, by far, my favorite of the three soups.
To Houston’s disappointment, the “Foie Gras Pain Perdu” wasn’t on the menu. So, I asked for it. Jennifer made it appear (with a $10 surcharge).
This decadent breakfast creation could have been a meal on its own. Houston claims that there was a bit of vein left in the slice of pan-seared foie gras (though the corner I tried was fine), which was a bit troubling. But I needn’t tell you how sinfully delicious the rest of it was. Just look at the ingredient list above and imagine it for yourself.
Perhaps, like the Turtle Soup, the “Shrimp & Tasso Henican” is a Southern specialty that I’m unable to fully appreciate. I’m sure that a restaurant of this size can’t possibly cook shrimp to order. And it shows. These shrimp had clearly been pre-cooked and over-cooked. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t great. Coated in a Crystal hot sauce “beurre blanc,” they sat on a pool of sweet five pepper jelly, a sticky, warm syrup whose sweet-hot flavor was quite addictive. Along with pickled okra that garnished the plate, the strips of house-made Tasso ham stuffed into the vein canal of the shrimp were my favorite parts of this dish. Tasty though it was, I failed to grasp why it was so popular.
“Small” is not a word associated with New Orleans cuisine, and “portion control” is a concept foreign to Commander’s Palace.
If the first courses were large, our main courses were over-generous. All of them were good, even Iggy’s “Vegetable Puff,” which Jennifer offered as an off-menu vegetarian option. Though it was served a touch cool, the buttery and flaky puff pastry box was filled with a flavorful tumble of roasted vegetables – a large format ratatouille of sorts – topped with a fluffy dollop of whipped mascarpone.
I can see why the “Pecan-Crusted Gulf Fish” is a house favorite. The fish was moist and flaky; the nut crust on top, toasty – magnificent, really. And the crushed corn sauce – think corn chowder meets gravy – was creamy, thick, and delicious.
Similarly, the popular “Eggs Cochon de Lait,” which Jennifer plucked from “Chef Tony’s Jazz Brunch” prix fixe for me, was worthy of its favor. The biscuits were fluffy and soft, bound by a wonderfully flaky crust that held its own against runny yolks and a rich gravy. The ropey strands of pulled pork were moist and flavorful.
The grits here are sturdy but not stiff, the kind I like. They have just enough texture so you don’t feel like you’ve regressed to infantile pulp. Unlike the shrimp on my Shrimp & Tasso Henican, the giant gulf shrimp that came piled on top of the grits seemed to be pan-fried to order (“Wild Shrimp & Grits“). But like the shrimp on my first course, these were just a smidge overcooked as well. However, glazed with a spicy barbecue sauce and tossed with sliced garlic, rosemary, and smoky grilled onions, the flavor was wonderful.
Desserts here are classic, large, iconic. And here again, the most famous one failed me, a victim of unreasonable expectations, I suspect.
The name “Bread Pudding Souffle” conjured in my mind a tall confectionery cloud pocketed with soft nubs of custard-soaked bread. Instead, the ramekin held a dense, heavy bread pudding base topped with an airy meringue dome. Punctured and filled with a boozy bourbon custard (truly a milk punch eggnog), we ate the top and left the bread pudding behind.
Those fluffy biscuits enjoyed a stunning encore in my “Strawberry Shortcake.” Moistened slightly with fresh strawberry syrup and stuffed with sweet, ripe berries (locally, they’re in season in January) and a generous piping of whipped cream, this dessert was everything I could have hoped for. It was simple and straightforward, every component perfect.
Both the “Bananas Foster Sorbet” and “Pecan Pie” were well-made, though perhaps a bit forgettable. Nestled in a finely crafted caramel tuile cup, the sorbet tasted of ripe bananas; I can’t say that there was anything particularly “Foster” about it. The pecan pie filling was thick and dense, a dark caramel jelly. Criss-crossed with chocolate and caramel sauce, this slice of pie had a turtle like effect. Perhaps an instance where less might have been more, it wasn’t for me.
The food here isn’t the reason why our brunch at Commander’s Palace was my fondest one of the half dozen or so we had on my latest trip to New Orleans. Though most of it was good, none of it was any better than anything I could find in a very nice restaurant in a handful of restaurants around the country. If anything, like all other aspects of Commander’s Palace, the food was generous, with a touch of whimsy.
The Commander’s Palace experience is a special one. And lucky for us, every ounce of magic promised was delivered to our table.
The service was wonderful – Jennifer sprinkled plenty of fairy dust on us.
The atmosphere was festive and fun – every table a celebration, including my table of very good friends.
The migrating jazz trio took requests along the way – they even played my song, extra schmaltzy.
And I walked out with a milk punch mustache just as a Hollywood star walked in for his late-afternoon brunch reservation.
Abuzz from the pork fat, butter, cream, sugar, and booze, we walked around the corner to admire the big, white, porch-lined house where Benjamin Button was filmed (it was for sale, we noticed). And right across the street, we caught a glimpse of a stately Victorian house that had just been bought by Ms. Bullock.
Starry-eyed and full, off I went with my angels to walk off our glut around the neighborhood, all the while plotting when I’d be able to return to Commander’s Palace next.
1403 Washington Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
* There is some confusion as to whether the restaurant uses whole milk or half-and-half in their milk punch. It seemed too thick to be simply whole milk. Indeed, our server confirmed that they use half-and-half. However, every recipe I’ve seen for Commander’s Palace’s milk punch (including the one in their cookbooks) calls for whole milk.
** Saveur published the recipe HERE.