Any time you eat at Commander's, it's special; from brunch on any Sunday to lunch on Thursday to dinner on Saturday night. But the best times to eat there are on holidays, like Thanksgiving, or special occasions: the birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries that are the most important days in the story of your life. I had a big ol' birthday this month; I turned 40. All I wanted was to eat at the Chef's Table at Commander's, and Paul, my wonderful love, he made it happen.
The Chef's Table is the ultimate experience of what Commander's Palace really does, which is nothing short of magic. The table is in the kitchen, right behind the grill line; you're not sheltered away in a corner — you're right in the middle of it. And the Commander's kitchen is quiet, controlled, and all business. As the sous chef, Jason Wells, who prepared most of our dishes that night explained to us (above), you can easily have a conversation in the Commander's kitchen, because there's no yelling. It's not like any other restaurant kitchen I've ever seen or heard of, save The French Laundry or Daniel or other places in the top tier of restaurants in the world. And the theatre of the kitchen is part of the experience of sitting at the Chef's Table.
Read more about her epic meal.
artwork surrounding the Chef's Table booth
Jason also explained some of the ingredients they had that night at the restaurant that he wanted to showcase for us, including duck, soft-shell crabs, and some gorgeous local tomatoes. We had an amuse-bouche of a refreshing watermelon gazpacho topped with a little "tomato caviar" — something that involves fancy equipment and some molecular gastronomy to make. It was a light shot of summer flavor, just enough to whet my appetite for the 3-hour meal to follow.
Next we were served a "ceviche of summer tomatoes" along with the Champagne we'd been poured for our amuse bouche. The glass in the center is filled with a tomato consomme, which tasted like drinking liquid tomato gold — so tomatoey, and just liquid! The sauce is a thick and velvety yellow tomato coulis, and the salad on top is a variety of marinated tomatoes with a little of their housemade crab boil mozzarella. Yes, I just wrote that, and I still think it's one of the most genius things I've ever heard of. Crab boil mozzarella!
This is Paul's view of the chef's worktable where he prepared most of our dishes and the servers came to pick them up. We could see some of what he was working on, but not all of it, so we were constantly surprised when the plates arrived at the table (all at one time, each one of us served by a server or chef, including head chef Tory McPhail). Paul and I were discussing how much we'd love to eat some escargot when, surprise!, we got our wish. Fairytale land.
This dish was escargot with Creole cream cheese gnocchi, flambeed with cognac, mushrooms, and spring vegetables. Escargot has been one of my favorite things to eat since Paul introduced me to it at the great, late Chloe in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I always thought it would be one of those things I couldn't eat due to texture, but it's almost exactly like eating a mushroom. This preparation was rich and full of herbs, with a slightly sweet note from the cognac, and went beautifully with the Alexana Pinot Noir in our wine pairing. The Creole cream cheese gnocchi is a must-try if you make it to Commander's.
Our seafood course was this beautiful soft-shell crab, in a crispy, well-spiced breadcrumb coating, dipping its caviar-clad claw into a luscious soft-shell bisque. I loved this course! Chef Jason explained to us that some of the soft-shells they get in aren't intact enough to survive a frying or look as beautiful as this one, so out of those, they make a bisque. It's buttery, warm, and it changed my life. Was it rich? Oh yes. And it was at this point that I was getting riched out. But the crafters of a meal like this one know (you hope they know it) that just when things get too indulgent, it's time to cut the richness with something light that won't take up any room in the stomach. New Orleans Creoles have been serving a Coupe de Milieu since the 1700s at their lavish dinners—a little drink to act as a digestif. The chefs came out and toasted us with this one:
A "Saint 75": St. Germaine elderflower liquor, Bombay Sapphire gin, crushed citrus, and basil syrup. We said cheers to what we'd eaten, to what was to come, and to each other. Onward!
Ah, this duck. Say hello to a dry-aged breast of duck over wilted greens and sweet potato puree, with a Tabasco and sour cherry glaze. The duck skin was rendered so beautifully crisp, it was truly the most enjoyable time I've ever had eating duck skin. The spice in the Tabasco glaze was a perfect balance to the richness of the sweet potatoes and the duck itself, and the wine was the most perfect pairing of the evening, I thought. Our waiter, Steve, chose a Robert Foley Charbono from Napa. Charbono is a rare grape — not a blend — that's enjoying some resurgence in California, and is it ever perfect with duck. I've been to a few wine dinners in my life, and one thing I've learned is that when a pairing of food and wine is great, the food will make the wine taste better, and the wine will make the food taste better, and every bite will get better and better and you'll find yourself in a dizzying state of bliss. That happened to me.
Here's a great action shot, taken by Paul, of servers and chef Jason bringing plates to us. When you're served at Commander's, you're served: everyone's plates arrive at the same time and they're all set down in front of you at the same exact moment. Commander's precisely timed service is one of the things you talk about after eating there, because it's so rare and so perfect.
Our meat course was this beautiful pork "spinalis" that Chef Tory McPhail prepared for us. This dish was new on the menu that night, he explained, and uses the most flavorful cut of the ribeye of any animal, the "spinalis," or slightly curved cap along the top of the ribeye. It had a spicy crust that played beautifully against the pork-belly boudin(!) at the bottom of the plate....seriously, that boudin was the best any of us had ever tasted. There were loads of spices partying down in that boudin! I'm pretty sure I tasted cinnamon and nutmeg. The sauces are a bacon fat glaze (oh yes, I did say bacon fat) and pepper jelly, with its jewel-like flecks of peppers and seasonings. Crispy parsnips topped it off and brought in a crispy texture. If you see this dish on the menu, ORDER IT. You could never be sorry, not in a million years.
Next was a beautiful and simple cheese course, which I was grateful for. I loved the pace of this meal, and how, amazingly, we were all still able to eat anything at this point — that's the sign of a well-crafted menu and great service. We had a selection of white cheddar, bleu, and chevre, along with mango, oranges, spiced pecans, and a red wine glaze. Our dessert wine was a Bamfi Rosa Regale from Italy, a cheerful sparkling wine that put a festive touch on the sweet endings to our meal.
Now, I mentioned before that it was my birthday, but it was also recently Paul's mom's birthday and his parents' 40th anniversary. So we just went all out with the celebrations, including wearing our birthday chef's hats:
We're looking super excited here because we're about to be dessert bombed!
Dessert bombed! At the Chef's Table, the dessert course is EVERYTHING. We have the famous bread pudding souffle, a tequila sunrise sorbet, crème brûlée (with the fleur-de-lys stenciled on top), Creole cream cheese cheesecake, dark chocolate torte, peach and buttermilk shortcake, pecan pie, and a pecan praline custard. Too much? Not for us!!
Paul's dad is also looking a little stunned over all the desserts. We knew what he was thinking, though: "I want that souffle."
Post-dessert bomb: not bad, folks, not bad. One of the coolest things about sitting there in the kitchen is that other diners walk through it to get to the courtyard or rear dining room, so they pass your table and see what's going on throughout the evening. All the women that passed our table during the dessert course were doing double takes. One of them said, "Well WOW."
At the end, we were still standing, and elated. Chef Tory was so friendly and generous with his time, especially during a busy Saturday service, and though our waiter Steve snapped a picture of us with the Chef, we had to get one with Steve as well. So here we all are, after a deliciously entertaining evening. I can't recommend the Chef's Table enough. If you can do it, DO IT, and book it far in advance. But regardless of whether you sit at the Chef's Table, come to Commander's at least once in your life. Everything they do is spectacular, and everyone has a story just waiting for them here.
credits: Photos 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, and 16 were taken by Kathy White. Photos 3, 4, 7, 12, 15, and 17 were taken by Paul White. Photos 10 and 18 were taken by me.