Mardis Gras recap: Jazz brunch at Commander's Palace (plus Rachel Ray)

February 15, 2010

Since the streetcar isn't operating, we call another cab to take us to the legendary Commander's Palace for their weekly jazz brunch. The palatial building was built by Emile Commander, as a wedding gift for his daughter. The wedding never took place, so the Commander converted it into a restaurant in 1880. Up until Katrina, it was the oldest, continuously running restaurant under the same name in the U.S. The 14 months of reconstruction and rebuilding brought the grand old space up to code and into the modern era, but the rooms and the décor and the impeccable service harkens back to another time. As we ascend the flight of stairs to the upper level dining room, we are greeted by a cadre of servers, each wishing us a happy Mardi Gras or a "good morning, welcome to Commander's" greeting. The brightly-lit room is full of windows, flooding the space with light. A trio of musicians roams the room, playing standards and jaunty tunes with Cajun and Blues roots. Ti Martin and Lally Brennan are now the face of the restaurant, having assumed the mantle of running this massive operation from the matriarch, Ella Brennan (who still lives next door to the restaurant).

Tiny amuses of crabmeat and shrimp with pepper jelly makes us lick the plate clean; a mini-beignet appears, as does a loaf of French bread. At brunch, it's a three-course prix-fixe, but you get to choose which three items you're going to have. I opt for an intensely rich gumbo, dark roux and smooth, accented by plump oysters and bell peppers. My brandy milk punch, with its whiff of nutmeg is the perfect foil. Meanwhile, Phil has opted to try a crawfish gnocchi, containing smoked mushrooms that taste like bacon; Barry has a pot of steamed oysters, artichokes and pernod, capped by a pastry shell. A second course of pulled pork-mounded poached eggs and herbed biscuits is just stellar. The pork is moist, shredded and yet full of porky flavor; the eggs release a liquid explosion, deep yellow, satisfying. Barry's pan-roasted gulf flounder is fork-tender, Mike's pecan and pear flapjacks are both substantial and yet light. For dessert, there is no question: the bread pudding soufflé, which is punctured by our server, all the better to receive the liquid brandy créme anglaise the drapes the interior. Other plates of local strawberry bread pudding, créme brulee and crazy-good pecan ice cream parfait magically arrive, but I go back to my soufflé and all is right with the world.

As we stagger into the bright sunshine, facing an enormous cemetery with its above-ground headstones, a giant black SUV pulls up to the curb. Out steps a guy with a beard and a scarf, looking a little like Andrea Bocelli. He meets his wife, Rachel Ray, who walks around the car to go into the restaurant together with him and have a quiet little brunch on Valentine's Day. I try to tell her to get the soufflé, but it's too late. She's already gone.