Have you ever been on vacation and all of the sudden you run into someone you know? Usually your hair is messed up, you’re sweating like the tourist you wish you weren’t (but you are), and your jeans look musty and caked with dirt, because you could only pack the pair and you didn’t want to pay for laundry service at your hotel? I’m not bitter—I swear! Yeah, well this happens to me all the time.
It happened to me on a trip to Maui once, when Jonathan and I ran into someone we knew on the plane. I ran into a friend from college while walking the boardwalk of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. A few months ago, I raised my hand during a “science of flavor and taste” seminar at the Battery, a members only club in San Francisco, and a fag hag from my West Hollywood days came up to me afterwards and said she recognized my voice and then we instantly remembered how we used to get sloppy drunk in WEHO and insult perfectly nice gays, because we were full of insecurities…trust me, we’re both much better now. And we’re definitely more discrete!
Well it happened again on our trip to New Orleans. There we were, standing on the corner of Coliseum and Third Street in the heart of the fancy Garden District with all the beautiful stately homes with manicured gardens covered in Spanish moss lined up for visitors to stare and photograph. We were conducting the self-guided walking tour from the Fodors guidebook. Jonathan was reading aloud about the Greek Revival home across the street. Apparently it was one of the first in New Orleans to have indoor plumbing. Now it’s owned by actor John Goodman. “I hope he’s upgraded the plumbing,” I joked, while gesturing like I was sitting on a toilet that could accommodate a man the size of John Goodman and his presumably elephantine poops. We’d just passed author Anne Rice’s home on the previous block, and the home/memorial where Jefferson Davis (the schmuck who lead the Confederate State of America—aka, the group of states who tried to secede from the Union!) died. And all of the sudden, from across the street, I hear this soft spoken voice ask, “excuse me, but are you Philip?”
“Uh yeah,” I said. “Who’s asking?”
The petite older couple crossed the street and within seconds I realized they were the parents of a childhood friend of mine. A friend I happened to still hangout with and who lives in San Francisco. A friend who saw that I was in New Orleans from some Facebook postings and told her parents Jonathan and I were there. A friend who’d emailed me the day before to tell me her parents were traveling to New Orleans that week and wanted some restaurant recommendations. But it doesn’t matter that I learned of our trips overlapping the day before. And it doesn’t matter that I emailed them a long list of restaurant recommendations the previous night. A list Jonathan thought was soooo long nobody would actually read it in its entirety, because who has the time to read a bunch of rants and raves about places to eat in New Orleans (yes, he totally underestimates my readership). For us to be in the same place at the same time, and at the same intersection…when both parties were traveling from different cities (us from San Francisco, and they from San Diego) well it’s just bizarre. We hadn’t seen each other in 20+ years so it was fate that my friend’s mother took the potentially embarrassing chance to walk up to a possible stranger and ask if we knew each other. But she did, and we did indeed know each other.
After a 20-minute Jew-chat, [Jew-chat: noun 1.)informal conversation when Jews start talking and going off on tangents, eventually leading to complaints about bladder control, the demise of their respective synagogues, asking for internal medicine referrals, and passing judgment on relatives who aren’t there to defend themselves] Jonathan and I headed to the cemetery across from Commander’s Palace because we were a little early for our lunchtime reservation. And after lunch, still beaming with the idea that I was somehow more spiritual and connected to the universe to have our random run-in with my friend’s parents—I went and bought a lottery ticket!
Lunch at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District
You come to New Orleans and you’ve got to go to Commander’s Palace. It’s an experience of old world New Orleans glamour and sophistication with a flair for the modern from its décor to its cuisine. From the moment we entered and were greeted at the door, to the time we were seated; the gauntlet of personable waiters, servers, and bussers pelting us with pleasantries, reminded us that we were in for the perfect New Orleans dining experience.
We started off with some complimentary garlic toast, which was served with a ramekin of butter just in case we needed a little more. Why not? The toast was just okay, but a necessity for soaking up the $.25 martinis Commander’s Palace is known for during lunch and brunch services. I ordered the traditional vodka martini a little dirty, and Jonathan got the Commander’s martini with blue Curacao over ice, which our waitress recommended, because the ice cut through some of the sweetness of the less traditional martinis (either gin or vodka).
And for those of you wondering if the martinis are any good, knowing they’re only a quarter….well, wonder no more. They’re strong, and thirst quenching. Or at least that’s what we told ourselves as we ordered our maximum of three per person. And when the meal was over, we stumbled joyfully out of the restaurant with a solid—yet manageable—buzz.
Commander’s Palace is a good menu of both heavier and…well…less heavy dishes. If you’re looking for a slim-fit-friendly Beverly Hills plate of greens with a misting of oil and vinegar….well, you’re in New Orleans and you should pull your head out of your skinny arse! Commander’s Palace offers a variety of proteins, some of which are served in the traditional New Orleans Creole way as they have been since 1880 when the restaurant was first founded by Emile Commander on the J.F.E. Livaudais Plantation. Other dishes are a playful twist on those traditions, either using flavor or technique as a way of celebrating the evolution of cuisine over the past several decades.
What’s great are their three or two course selections for lunch. They offer a few three-course meals they’ve curated for you, and the two course meal is a little more “choose your own adventure.” And you can always order a la carte. We mixed it up and chose one of the three course meals and then created our own three courses to come simultaneously, offering us a greater variety of dishes to try, and an experience we enjoyed greatly!
Here’s what we had.
Commander’s Turtle Soup: their famous soup that takes three days to make. The turtle meat is ground and throughout the soup and they finish it with aged sherry tableside.
Creole Gumbo: The day that we went they called it their “three little piggies gumbo” using cochon, pork belly, and Tasso ham. The rich gumbo was spiked with Louisiana hot sauce and Creole seasonings. The three types of pork were smoky and blended well with the dark thick roux base. This was one of the better gumbos we had in Louisiana.
Ginger glazed wild white shrimp: These large gulf shrimp were seared in a light flour dredge giving them the most delicate of crust, before tossed in a sweet ginger glaze. Think Chinese honey walnut shrimp only much lighter and not smothered in mayonnaise. The shrimp, with their tails still on, were piled high over a bed of cracked corn-marscapone grits with a lemongrass shellfish broth, charred chilies for a kiss of heat, roasted cherry tomatoes, and sweet caramelized Vidalia onions. The marscapone gave the corn grits a thicker consistency like mashed potatoes, which was unlike much of the runny grits we’d had at other places (like cheesy grits from Elizabeth’s), but that just meant we had more control with mixing things around the plate. This was an amazing plate of food.
New Orleans barbecued gulf fish. The blackened fish filet was served over a jalapeno cracked corn coush-coush, caramelized onions, and charred chilies with red pepper paint and New Orleans barbecue sauce. The spiced rub on the fish was potent, but mellowed by the sweet caramelized onions and the red pepper paint, which was a sweet roasted red pepper sauce. The barbecue sauce added a smoky kick that played well is the charred edges of the grilled fish filet.
I got a side of veggies that were covered in butter….and…well…not worth it. But they look nice, right?
If you go to Commander’s Palace, you’ve got to try the infamous creole bread pudding soufflé, which has been nicknamed the “Queen of Creole Desserts.” Like any good soufflé it’s all about the timing, so you have to give it a little extra time to prepare, but once it’s done, it’s done, and they finish this traditional bread-pudding/soufflé off tableside with a whisky cream sauce that’s more whisky than anything else. Personally I think this was a little lackluster considering all the hype. Sure it’s a fun presentation and the soufflé is perfectly airy and sweet, but it wasn’t our favorite dessert, and how can anything live up to such a high standard set by so many.
Our favorite dessert was actually the Ponchatoula strawberry shortcake. This plate of sweet Louisiana strawberries layered across a warm buttermilk biscuit with whipped Chantilly cream and a dusting of powdered sugar, also take a little extra time to prepare. But it’s so worth it. Think of your favorite strawberry shortcake and then imagine improving it by 50X. Yeah, the biscuit was warm and buttery like all biscuits should be, but it also had a nice crackly upper crust where the powdered sugar could get lost and nestled making the perfect bite. Even though they were macerated, we could tell the strawberries were fresh from the farms up near Lake Ponchatoula. Yum!