NEW ORLEANS – COMMANDERS PALACE
In the post civil war period, the City of New Orleans enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity. The Port of New Orleans dispatched the largess of America’s farms and factories to the world. As a result, the local trading and banking industries blossomed. The new prosperity spawned a fresh group of wealthy and worldly residents that would build their own culture side by side with the old French Creole nobility.
These brash Americans built their palatial homes, not in the Vieux Carre, but across Canal Street in what came to be known as the Garden District. It was in this newly fashionable neighborhood that Emile Commander opened his restaurant in 1880. He chose the corner of Washington Avenue and Coliseum Street and built a spacious Victorian building with charming gardens and grounds.
Commander’s Palace, as it came to be known, served the Garden District and became the area’s most successful establishment. By 1900, Commander’s was considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the entire United States. Under new management in the 1920’s, Commander’s easily moved into the Jazz Age and maintained its reputation for quality food and service in the “speakeasy’” manner of the time.
From 1944 to 1974, Commander’s was owned and operated by Frank and Elinor Moran. To me this was the Golden Age of Commander’s. I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Mrs. Moran courtesy of my friend and mentor, Lee Brown. Lee grew up in the Garden District and he had known the Morans all of his life. Lee and I enjoyed many a lunch and dinner at Commander’s in the 1960’s. I can say without any hesitation that the food and service at Mrs. Moran’s Commander’s Palace was superb in every way.
In 1974, the restaurant was purchased from the Moran estate by the Brennan cabal and the fine old lady of the Garden District began a long and difficult journey. The Brennan clan has created an empire based on the theory that New Orleans is a tourist town and tourist will eat anything as long as you hype it properly. In order to bend Commander’s to fit its mould of mediocrity, the Brennan’s applied its corporate philosophy of “if it isn’t broke, fix it anyway”.
If I sound a little hostile to the Brennan cookie cutter system, there’s a reason. Said reason was reinforced last summer on a visit to the Brennan’s flagship restaurant on Royal Street. I came on a Sunday morning for the oft ballyhooed experience of Breakfast at Brennan’s. The kindest thing that I can say is that it was a dining disaster. The food was poorly prepared, served cold and stale after a wait of over an hour and a half. One of the younger Brennan women was running the joint and when I mentioned that I was somewhat displeased she suggested that I get over it. If you plan to eat breakfast in New Orleans, go to Mother’s (www.mothersrestaurant.net) located on the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas. It’s very good and the people that own it will appreciate your business.
Commander’s has managed to survive the Brennan’s influence. It has persevered through a period when it was decided that the signature turtle soup should be converted to a low fat version, that real french bread was an unnecessary expense and that most tourist found the rich, chicory laced New Orleans coffee too bitter and would prefer Folgers or Maxwell House.
The Brennan’s did a few things right; they kept and improved the physical setting, emphasizing the gardens as an integral part of the restaurant and they hired some very good chefs along the way, principally Paul Prudhomme early in his career. I have gone back every five years or so always in the hope things would return to the days of Mrs. Moran. I am pleased to say that this wish was fulfilled on my visit last summer.
I chose to go to Commander’s for a late lunch on a Saturday afternoon. I was seated in one of the downstairs dining rooms and immediately noted the well-set tables and the pleasing décor. There was live music and a gracious maître d. We were off to a grand start and it got progressively better. I was welcomed by a smiling waiter, who proved to know the menu and the house specialties without referring to a cheat sheet.
For my appetizer, I ordered the aforementioned Turtle Soup au Sherry. While I waited on my first course, I snacked contentedly on real New Orleans french bread and large pats of ice cold creamery butter. The waiter kept my glass of Pellegrino filled to the brim. When the small silver tureen of soup arrived, it was served steaming hot. The soup was rich and savory, no sign of low fat here. Chef Troy McPhail’s version of this house classic would make Mrs. Moran smile with approval.
In anticipation of dinner at Galatoire’s coming up in about five hours, I chose a small portion of blackened grouper for my entrée. The fresh fish was prepared with just the right amount of Creole seasoning and the light flavor of the grouper was not overwhelmed by the pan-charring. This was perfect execution of a very difficult dish. The fish was served with crab-boiled vegetables and a brown-butter finish.
I chose the vanilla bean ice cream with honey tuile, whipped Chantilly cream and praline syrup for dessert, accompanied by several cups of rich, dark, chicory-laced New Orleans coffee. Let the tourist go to Starbucks.
Chef Troy McPhail has re-established a commitment to Creole cuisine and locally grown products and in the process has returned Commander’s to its former glory. I will have to give the Brennan’s credit for allowing this transformation to take place. This concludes our current visit to the Crescent City. I hope you enjoyed the trip as much as I did. Bon Appétit!