23 July 2007

Lost City: New Orleans Edition: Stop Helping Me!

Commander's Palace is known for, perhaps more than anything, its attentive service. Little did I know.

The other night, I had planned to eat at Dick and Jenny's, a local favorite in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood. But, upon arriving, I discovered they were closed for July. All I knew about the area was that Commander's Palace was somewhere nearby, so I told the cab to drive there, hoping the place (routinely rated NoLa's most popular restaurant) wouldn't be fully booked.

The front desk told me they could possible squeeze me in if I was willing to cool my heels at the bar for 45 minutes. I agreed. Every New Orleans restaurant has its singular eccentricities, and I discovered one of Commander's Palace's when I was led to the bar. My guide led me straight into the kitchen (through doors labeled "Yes" and "No" in big brass letters). Passing the kitchen is the only way you can get to the bar. So it's a safe bet that every diner gets a good long look at the chefs in action.

Commander's Palace's second eccentricity—and, yes, I would call it a eccentricity rather than a clear-cut virtue—is the slavish devotion of the waiters and staff. I was shunted off to a far corner of a second floor space called the Garden Room. I was none too happy, feeling I had gotten the worst table in the house. But my mood soon changed. Every waiter—and I seemed to have at least four—constantly smiled at me, refilled my water glass, asked if I was all right, and engaged me in conversations about my life and experiences which sometimes lasted five minutes. I was taken care of, as they say. If I had truly wanted to be left alone, I would have had to beat these guys off with a stick.

By the end of the evening, I had met the head chef, the estimable Tory McPhail, and the dining room manager, Michael Brewer. Both acted like they would have died a little inside if I hadn't chosen to eat there that night. I was flabbergasted, but I had to hand it to them. They knew how to treat a customer.

As for the meal, I was stunned. I expected that, since Commander's Palace is a big tourist magnet, the food would be rote, less than stellar. But this was the best meal I had in New Orleans. The Oysters Racca—light and crispy oysters, with bacon braised artichokes, leeks, double cream and oyster demi-glace—was mouth-watering and is one of the best things I have ever eaten. And the Gulf Crusted Wild American Shrimp was almost as good, with succulent homemade barbeque sauce and mushrooms, grilled leeks, and andouille-cracked. I could have started over and eaten the entire meal a second time.

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