I like traditions. As a child of divorce and someone who has moved many times, traditions provide me with a through-line. As such, I make new rituals and customs as often as I can and celebrating my birthday at Commander’s Palace is a tradition I hope to grow old with. Commander’s is not only one of the oldest restaurants in NOLA, having opened in the 1880’s, it is a dining experience steeped in tradition. That said, the menu includes new fare like molecular gastronomy creations and popular local farm goods from Covey Rise Farms as well as Kansas beef from Creekstone Farms processed according to the humane Dr. Temple Grandin design.
I donned a new dress and coat from Trashy Diva, another place offering the best of traditional and contemporary, and headed to the familiar blue-and-white striped awnings of Commander’s in the heart of the Garden District. We followed a friendly hostess past a dozen servers offering greetings, “Welcome in.” The restaurant is actually enormous with room after room of diners. My favorite room is mostly glass and overlooks the center courtyard. Our favorite server, Jenny, has moved on but Daniel was a handsome charmer, both knowledgeable and entertaining, the perfect mix of professional and personable.
We started our meal with an almond, goat cheese and peach amuse-bouche before someone brought us the standard buttery garlic bread. I had one of Chef Tory’s 3 Course Specials, as usual. They’re always delicious, fresh and under $40. I shared an appetizer of “The Pig and the Peach,” a sweet and savory combo of Abita root beer, tender braised pork belly over Cajun boudin with peaches from Ruston, La., local honey and smoked pork jus. Yum. For those not in the know, boudin (boo-dan , but the N is sorta silent) is a pork sausage made with rice inside.
The menu changes to accommodate the various fresh and fabulous ingredients available but there are a few things that remain the same. There’s always Turtle Soup, a Gumbo du Jour and the wonderful 1-1-1 soup tasting of those soups and the soup du jour. I tried a spoonful of the soup du jour, a bacon oyster chowder that was out of this world.
Then I moved on to my first course, the Cherry and Spicy Duck Salad. Brandy-soaked Washington state cherries punctuate delicious braised duck over crisp summer leaves sprinkled with blue cheese, toasted almonds, barbecued Vidalia onions and honey-Sazerac vinaigrette. Sazerac is an elaborately prepared New Orleans cocktail served since before the Civil War.
My entree was Louisiana Soft Shell Crab, a crispy fried blue crab with local heirloom tomato and crab salad, tangy pickled mirlitons, sweet red onions and smoked jalapeño ravigote. For those who’ve never enjoyed a mirliton, as I wrote in 2010, “Who knows how it’s really pronounced as my mother leaves the “t” out of sentence, puts an “r” at the end of idea and turns hair into nearly 3 lilting syllables, but she’s always pronounced it melly-taw.” It’s a pear-shaped jicama-like veggie served both cooked and raw and full of amino acids and vitamin C. I’m a sucker for a good soft shell crab and the ones they serve at Commander’s are always great.
Dessert was a praline parfait with Gentilly creme and vanilla ice cream enclosed by a cookie-like round and sprinkled with candied pecans. It was served with a candle and the requisite funny chef’s hat stretching to the balloons floating above my chair. I remember seeing tables with balloons and people celebrating during my first meal at Commander’s and envying them their history with this wonderful dining experience. Between the formal ballet service and the relaxed sense of a community enjoying a local treasure, I thought of how fun prom dinner would have been there, a sweet sixteen or a wedding anniversary. Though I love eating anytime at Commander’s or bringing out-of-towners there for a great meal, I’m even more delighted to be one of the annual ballooned-festooned silly-hat-wearing birthday revelers.
For more about the restaurant, read this.