Once, a look at the dining room table told you a lot about who was coming for dinner. If the box of last year’s tax receipts and the half-completed 1500 piece Water Lilies puzzle were suddenly replaced by the fancy place settings and flatware, something special was afoot. Guests from out-of-town, or the new boss, perhaps? One thing was certain: Someone too good for the mere kitchen table was on the way. It’s more than a little ironic that in our search for the ultimate New Orleans dining experience we found ourselves back in the kitchen, that place too humble for the important guests to sit.
The Chef’s table has been around at Commander’s Palace since the mid-1990’s. I can remember reading about it with some amazement. This was still an era of ‘big’ dining in New Orleans. Places like Versailles and Louis the XVI and the Grill Room were serving elaborate preparations in ultra-formal dining rooms. All of these, and Commander’s was among them, were event dining. Special destinations for special celebrations, the furthest thing from everyday eating there could be. But for the jaded Sybarite for whom such experiences produced nothing more than a been there done that gastronomic ennui, there was another mountain yet to climb. Dinner with the chef in the kitchen: a private feed-me apart from the main dining room.
In retrospect, whether by design or simple good fortune, this development anticipated the current foodie craze and the emergence of the rock star chef in American dining. To be sure, top chefs in France have long been considered artists and minor royalty, but there is another long tradition of aristocratic dining, particularly in the home. For centuries, the bluest of blue-bloods wouldn’t dream of soiling their hands in the kitchen, or even of setting foot there. Formal dining rooms in middle-class households were aspirational design, reflecting a dining approach in which the finished products were produced, enjoyed, and then whisked away with all of the heavy lifting safely behind the doors of the kitchen, the last place a guest would care to venture. How striking then, to discover the most coveted table in the house amid the pots and pans.
And so there we were last Thursday night with a couple of friends, each of us celebrating anniversaries. (FYI, the Chef’s Table seats four; no more, no less. I suppose one could buy out the additional seats and make it a table for two, but even without that this is a long way from bargain dining.) I’ve always been a fan of Commander’s in general and their service in particular, and this night was no exception. Pampering began at the door as a team of people greeted us with smiles and welcomed us to the restaurant, and continued through the evening as Steve our server was the point-guard on a team that attended to our every need, including the stowing of a pair of ladies flats that helped us negotiate the walk across the Avenue directly through Chaos (pun very much intended) to the restaurant.
Once we were seated, Tory McPhail introduced himself to us and we spent some time talking about food. After asking us what we liked (everything) and what we didn’t eat (almost nothing) and pressing us for more details, we watched him step aside and write a menu for us on the spot. Chefs don’t have to be friendly; we know some whose work we admire greatly whom we really don’t care for as people, but McPhail is ideally suited to this role. Charismatic and engaging, he returned to participate in and talk about every single course, providing an ideal forum for us to satisfy our curiosity about preparation and ingredients.
Rather than catalogue all twelve (!) courses, a few highlights:
A vegetarian Creole Cream Cheese Gnocchi, blanched in crab boil and accompanied by several varieties of mushrooms, truffle butter, and parmesan. A dish so exquisite we wanted to lick the plates. So we did. And we took a picture.
Foie Gras King Cake: No surprise that I loved this one. Seared foie gras atop a foie-gras-filled brioche with purple (Pinot Noir) green (mint) and gold (Grand Marnier) sauces. Beautiful, decadent, festive, and perfect.
Diver Scallop on Million Year Old Salt: McPhail brought out two disks of ancient salt, heated to 500 degrees, and placed them on the table in front of us. After adding a bit of olive oil to the salt and some pepper to four huge scallops, he allowed them to cook at the table in front of us before finishing and plating the dish.
There was pork belly in Abita Root beer reduction, Pontchatoula strawberries, the first crawfish of the season, a cheese course, and much, much more. Each course scored on the three elements that really make fine dining: top notch ingredients, flawless execution and preparation, imaginative and unexpected combinations of flavors and textures. As course followed course, we became aware we were experiencing something singular.
Throughout the more than three-hour meal pacing was a marvel: dishes were presented and discussed and we were able to eat, savor, and enjoy conversation before the next one appeared. We began with a round of cocktails, followed with a bottle of champagne, and then moved to a Premier Cru Chassagne Montrachet White Burgundy and a Chateau Latour ‘Pauillac’ Bordeaux we’d brought for the occasion. Both of these were amazing wines, worthy of the event. Very festive by this time, we came down from the heights with a Napa Cab and finished with coffee as we were presented with the Dessert Bomb, one each of all eight desserts on the menu. Kind of like the crescendo of fireworks at midnight.
Anything done often can become commonplace, even fine-dining. We love the restaurant experience and we work hard to preserve the ooh and ahh moment that a great place can deliver. If it ever becomes just a meal it would be hard to justify what we spend. There was no danger of not being in the moment this night; Tory, Steve, and the entire staff exceeded our very high expectations.
We’ve been lucky enough to have some memorable meals, in and out of New Orleans. The tapas at Cal Pep in Barcelona, The Slanted Door in San Francisco, F-12 in Stockholm, Les Bouquinistas in Paris, the Winter Truffle Tasting at Stella!, and an incredible anniversary meal last year at Lilette all come to mind. This night topped them all: The best meal of our lives. How thrilling to have it in our beloved NOLA.
Expensive? Ridiculously so. Over the top? Without question. A memory we and our friends will share together for the rest of our lives? Absolutely. If you love food and love dining, put the pennies in the jar and once, just once, do this thing.