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The Commander’s Palace miracle: If there is a sliding scale of formality, they have an uncanny ability to serve up just the amount your mood requires (and a room to match it). An elegant “event” evening? Got it. Rollicking (civilized) good time? Jaded foodie who wants a wow? They’re on it. Marriage proposal in the offing? Just tell them when to serve the ring. They understand that service reigns supreme, and in the ultimate New Orleanian experience—stately needn’t be stuffy, formal can still be fun, and sometimes innovation is the best way to honor tradition—they immerse you in it. They’re also leaders in mentoring and fostering the city’s culinary scene: A who’s who of New Orleans restaurant owners, chefs, and front-of-house managers resembles a Commander’s family tree. Yet regardless of how many “best of” lists and awards Commander’s racks up, they never rest on their laurels.

The continually changing menu reflects 2013 James Beard award–winning “Best Chef” Tory McPhail’s commitment to local ingredients and fervent imagination, on best display in the seven-course “Chef’s Playground.” The a la carte menu mixes its classics—spicy-sweet shrimp and tasso henican (the gateway drug of Commander’s Palace dishes); consistently perfect pecan-crusted Gulf fish—with seasonal newbies, like a sublime boudin-stuffed quail with a pepper jelly and sugarcane reduction. The gumbo can be a tad salty; opt for the robust turtle soup instead. For enders, the famed bread pudding soufflé is a puff of gladness with whiskey sauce. The wine list is one of the finest in this or any city, with a good selection offered by the glass in half or full pours. Everyone should dine at Commander’s, and everyone can. Its unintimidating finery plus multicourse lunch and happy-hour deals start under $18 (less than some po’ boys, not to mention 25-cent martinis!); $39 at dinner. So worth it. Reserve well in advance.