Commander's Palace in New Orleans is a great place for an outdoor meal. (Geoff Worden Photo)
We now enter my favorite time of the year in New Orleans. The weather is predictably warm but not hot, festivals abound, and everyone is smiling.
The unhappiness I feel about the looming end of the Fair Grounds meet is mitigated by one, last fantastic day at the races.
The Louisiana Derby will be held on March 29 this year, the next to last day of racing until the fall.
There are seven, count ’em, seven stakes races that day, including the Fair Grounds Oaks, with more than $2.3 million in total purses. Four of last yearʼs Louisiana Derby runners competed in the Kentucky Derby, and three of them finished in the top five! The Fair Grounds Oaks on the undercard has produced half of the last ten winners of the Kentucky Oaks, the sister race to the Kentucky Derby.
The day is filled with nationally relevant horses, big name trainers and lots of fans. It is the biggest day at the Fair Grounds all year. Think about matching the intensity and grandeur by having a special meal on Louisiana Derby weekend.
I am focusing on some great restaurants that also offer outdoor seating for the next three posts. You may need to get lucky, or wait, for an outside table but these are some excellent choices.
The turquoise and white awning found in the heart of the Garden District is nearly synonymous with genteel New Orleans dining. The kitchen has nurtured household names like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, as well as local legends like Frank Brigtsen and Emanuel “Eman” Loubier (more on him later). The current man running the show, Tory McPhail, is a name I think you will hear about for a long time to come.
The menu has always focused on Louisianaʼs bounty, but now, according to the Commanderʼs Palace website, they “strive for 90% of our ingredients to come from within 100 miles of our back door.” The food is the best it has ever been during my 20+ years in New Orleans and, while lunch and dinner are excellent, my favorite meal there is brunch. They have a jazz band circulating through the restaurant and there is something magical about getting dressed up for the first meal of the day.
I always start with a Brandy Milk Punch, a tasty little stomach-settler (if you had a late night) that reminds me of a classy eggnog. The Champagne Cocktail might also set the mood appropriately, as would a fresh Bellini. Perhaps youʼll opt for a classic New Orleansʼ cocktail like the Sazerac or the Sidecar if youʼre looking to rev things up early. The wine list is extensive and well cared for by sommelier Dan Davis. The top accolade (Grand Award) has been bestowed upon Commander’s Palace by Wine Spectator two years running.
The turtle soup is the best Iʼve had in the city, finished with a touch of sherry at the table. Shrimp and Tasso Henican (tasso is spicy Cajun ham) has flavor to spare and the Crystal hot sauce and pepper jelly accents will excite your palate. The Pecan-Crusted Gulf Fish is a signature dish for good reason, but I am partial to the Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict. The decadent familiarity of the dish is tweaked by the addition of young, suckling pig (cochon), and it is fabulous.
COCHON DE LAIT EGGS BENEDICT
Lots of specials are generally available so donʼt get locked in on anything specific, except for the Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé. This was my first bread pudding dessert ever and no other restaurant has been able to equal it since. The flaky soufflé top is cracked tableside and warm whiskey sauce is poured in. This sauce should be available by the glass.
If you can finagle a seat on the patio do it, but other rooms do a good job of bringing the outside in. I counted 16 tables for al fresco dining but the room behind it is all glass so you feel almost like being outside (thereʼs even a tree growing in the middle of this room!).
Make a reservation if youʼre going, they do a brisk business. If youʼre headed to the patio oasis you will pass through the kitchen, watch your step and read the doors, marked “Yes” and “No” to avoid collisions.
Eman Loubier left the Commanderʼs Palace kitchen a decade and a half ago to start his own restaurant and never looked back. He transformed a sleepy little café across the street from Frank Brigtsenʼs eponymous eatery into a dining destination in Riverbend, just beyond the end of St. Charles Ave., way uptown. The focus on local ingredients is very evident here, from the posts on the website about crop reports, to the jarred bounty, often pickled, proudly displayed throughout the restaurant.
Geoff Worden Photo
While the staff and feel of the restaurant is casual, the food is polished and professional but with plenty of heart and soul. The cocktail program is exceptional, without being overly fussy, and the wine list is much stronger than one might expect from a restaurant of this size. The Bermuda Breakfast Club Cocktail is a memorable concoction with a cornucopia of ingredients: El Dorado 5 yr. Rum, Campari, Creme de Cassis, iced coffee, lemon and mint. (The general manager and the bartender team up on Tuesdays, when Danteʼs is closed, to run Sarsparilla, a cocktail pop-up with snacks.)
Brunch at Danteʼs Kitchen is lots of fun but can be crowded, especially on a nice sunny day. Reservations are accepted and encouraged for dinner but are not available for brunch. Err on the early side - they open at 10:30 for brunch - and youʼll probably be fine. They do a brisk business with college students and 20-somethings who are not usually the earliest risers. This will also allow time for a leisurely meal and travel to the Fair Grounds for the first- or second-race post time.
Bacon Praline Cinnamon Buns are as good as they sound. The Debris Poached Eggs features bits of a roast that might otherwise be discarded (you know, the parts you nibble on while in your own kitchen, the ones full of flavor but maybe not so pretty). Grilled Shrimp and Grits with andouille red eye gravy has been a hit since day one and is available at dinner as well. The brunch menu is full of familiar items that have a little twist, house-made sausage for Biscuits and Sausage Gravy, Crab and Brie Omelette, Bread Pudding French Toast, etc.
Brunch is a good choice, but I prefer dinner. They do a wonderful job with salads. Be sure to also pay attention to the vegetable selections, something I rarely advise. This portion of the menu is not the uninspired, overcooked copouts offered by way too many restaurants. The Roasted Broccoli alone is worthy of a trip to eat at Danteʼs. The steamed mussels, prepared with shrimp/crawfish boil seasonings, are another great example of a familiar flavor with an unexpected ingredient. The grilled redfish “on the half shell” is a must have, and so is the Chicken Roasted Under a Brick. The latter is the only non-fried chicken I order when dining out.
The wine list evolves and has changes pending, so I hesitate to recommend specific bottles, but the good news is that you can order without stress. The wines are well chosen and varietally correct. You wonʼt find lots of familiar, grocery labels here but itʼs safe to try something new. Go for it!
Danteʼs patio boasts about eight tables and feels like the deck of a friend you wish you knew better. A busy road passes by one side, but the fence and plants buffer that noise pretty effectively. Trains occasionally make their presence felt but they keep on moving and are rare enough to be more of an amusement than a distraction. The whole restaurant feels like a great party in someoneʼs home with a bunch of people you just havenʼt met yet. Enjoy.