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New Orleans report pt. 2: Luke, Commander's Palace


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New Orleans report pt. 2: Luke, Commander's Palace

mstacey42 | May 14, 2009 02:34 PM

After resting for much of the afternoon and sobering up from the exceedingly generous sazeracs we had consumed at lunch, my gf and I decided it was again time to brave the sweltering heat in search of food and drinks. Not feeling like going too far, however, we decided on a smallish dinner at Luke across the street from our hotel. I had seen pictures of the food at Luke and I thought the menu looked exciting too, but right from the moment we arrived, I felt like something just wasn't right. The space is long and narrow and doesn't really contribute to that sprawling brasserie feel that would have made a great compliment to a hearty and (heart-stopping) marriage of alsatian and creole cuisines. Our waiter is young, but very friendly, and the cocktails look good. I order a sazerac and my girlfriend goes for a french 75.

Things go really wrong with the bread: It comes warm and beautifully wrapped in a napkin, but the texture is so off that we both swear it has gone stale and then been microwaved. It has an eerie chewyness throughout---instead of the alternating crunch and fluff that makes New Orleans bread so wild.

The atmosphere (lacking by our already ridiculously high New Orleans standards) and the shockingly bad way of attempting to preserve bread put us on the defensive. We decide to split one thing---the cochon de lait, which comes with frites and some cherry mustard.

The sandwich is a mess. The cochon itself is nicely smoked, and the bread, swiss and pickles are all fine. The problem: it feels like it was made this morning and warmed up. The meat and cheese just have that "been sitting around for a while in an institutional cafeteria" look about them. And the fries----what a disappointment---they're great---or would have been when they were originally cooked. They've gone limp and cold and are under-salted, but they look beautiful (you know that crispy, golden, oil filled kinda beautiful?) and they have a good potato flavour. The cherry mustard which comes with the meat was tangy and sweet and made a good dipping sauce for everything.

So my feeling about Luke was that it was not so much a bad (as in inedible) meal, but more that it was just relentlessly disappointing. With a bit more managerial or chefly oversight all of the problems (stale bread, old sandwich, fries) could have been avoided and these classic dishes and good ingredients could have shined.

We take a cab to Saturn Bar, which, though covered in grimy old kitsch that showed how great a place can start to look if you just avoid cleaning it and never decorate with any sense of purpose, was playing host to a band of unacceptable loudness. If only dive bars could remember to stick to old Supremes records. de gustibus something something....

Next morning we wake up late and ride the St. Charles street car to the garden district. We walk around for around an hour and explore the Lafayatte cemetery before our noon reservation at Commander's.

Commander's palace is huge. We are seated in what we are told is the main dining room--the one with the birds on the walls. Everyone is exceedingly friendly, with the kind of unaffected charm which seems to come easily to servers in this part of the world. We order a couple 25 cent martinis (YES!) and try to make some tough choices on the menu. Garlic bread arrives and it is great. It takes full of advantage of the virtues of New Orleans bread---super crunchy on the outside, cloud soft on the in.

My gf has the turtle soup, I have the seafood gumbo, followed by a pork loin dish and abita BBQ shrimp, with strawberry short-cake and bread pudding souffle for dessert.

I won't go into a full description of the food because it seems too daunting, but what is really amazing at Commander's is the way that tradition and modernity blend so seemlessly together.

The soups seem like they have come out of the same well-executed but ancient playbook that Galatoire's uses; same with the strawberry short-cake. The pork, shrimp and souffle, however, all seemed like well careful attempts to put classic ingredients through modern preparations and presentation. I prefer to keep old things old, generally, but the more "interpreted" dishes were still very tasty.

A few small complaints....both soups had started to develop skins, and the sauce accompanying the shrimp was doing the same. it's a miracle that things don't sit on the pass forever in a restaurant this size, though.

After lunch, our server seemed totally happy to give us a tour of the kitchen, even though we were in the middle of service in a busy restaurant.

Oh...I almost forgot to mention the best thing---while perusing the vast list of cocktails, I (loudly, I guess) exclaimed my excitement at seeing a "sidecar", a drink I have long wanted to try. One of the more senior servers rushed to our table to tell us that she felt it was her favourite drink on the menu. Minutes later, she reappeared with a food runner, holding two tiny sidecars in shot glasses for us to try. Getting comp'd anything is a thrill, but having it done as a response to something we had said made it feel much more personal.

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