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May 14, 2009 02:34 PM

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

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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  1. My friend and I had lunch at Commander's Palace the Monday after Jazz Fest. The food was good but the service was very disappointing. Drinks came late, we had to ask for bread because the apps were slow coming. The bread finally came after the appetizers were cleared away. We waited and waited and finally the waiter told us our meals were sent to the wrong dining room and instead of reheating them, he asked the chef to make fresh dishes for us. That pleased us, but when we finally got our meals, they were warm at best, so we were both left with the impression that they were, in fact, re-heated.

    In all honesty, I remember the food tasting good, but I couldn't tell you exactly what we had off the top of my head because the service was so lacking. Lunch was over two hours (we had a 1:30 reservation), which seemed excessive to both of us. They were busy when we came in and we were the second to last table to leave for the afternoon. I expected better out of them, particularly for a $100 lunch. I didn't complain - it was a birthday lunch for my guest and I didn't want to potentially make it messier than it was.

    2 Replies
    1. re: deeta

      Deeta: Generally lunch service IMO is much more relaxed and seemless than dinner service so I am sorry you had a bad experience service wise. Not to offer excuses but perhaps they were running out of steam after an insanely busy Jazzfest weekend.(And no that is no excuse) That is a shame. If you are back again in the future, please give Commander's another chance at a less busy time and hopefully your experience will be better. Or you could also try Galatoires, where service is almost always impeccable, which in turn makes the overall experience including the cuisine much better.

      Ms. Stacey: It is unfortunate that you had a bad experience at Luke. I have not been there in quite a while, so maybe things have slipped a bit or hopefully your experience was an odd isolated one that not too many have experienced as of late. I think that sometimes when you hear so much hype, it is easier to be dissapointed especially when the food is less than fresh and warm. (At least that is the case with me) Thank you so much for your descriptive reviews. They were informative and enjoyable.

      1. re: ScarlettNola

        This was only my second lunch at Commanders - the first was a spur of the moment thing with the husband one summer afternoon. It was great. I've done dinner as well as brunch there, and all were great, so lunch was a disappointment. Since it was my friend's birthday and she was visiting, I took her wherever she felt like trying and Commanders was the winner. I just wish the service had been what I'd experienced in the past.

        Interestingly enough, we went to Luke for lunch the day before and it was really good. I had the burger, simply because I'd heard so much about it, and it was excellent. My friend had shrimp and grits and said they were divine. My husband had the ham and cheese with the egg and although he was surprised at the presentation (the fried egg was laid on top of the sandwich), he was very happy with it. It may be because it was final Sunday of Jazz Fest and there weren't many people in the restaurant, but the service was the best I've experienced at Luke. When I go to Luke, I kind of expect that the service may be spotty, but that the food will win out. I know that's really not right, particularly when a restaurant is being backed by someone like Besh, but it's an attitude that has minimized any disappointment . . .

        I know service can be such a touch and go thing - one glitch anywhere can throw everything off, and I find that at different restaurants I have different expectations, much as I do at Luke vs. Commanders. Overall, I'm a pretty patient diner, but I try to be especially patient during heavy times such as Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras - I know that the staffs are maxed out, etc.

        Commanders isn't off my list by any means, but there are so many wonderful options that it will probably take a back seat for a while. Whenever we have guests, we encourage them to pick places they want to try; now if someone asks about Commanders, we'll recommend it, but it will have a small caveat, like Luke has.

    2. mstacey, thank you for great description. whetting my appetite.

      one note: BBQ Shrimp isnt quite a modern interpretation devised by commander's. while not ancient, its a long-standing new orleans buttery classic pioneered by Pascal Manale's and found all over town. i havent had CP's, but my favorites are from Mr. B's and Bacco's, both of which are also Brennan-owned restaurants.

      one CP item that *is* such a thing is the Foie Gras du Monde, a interpretation of foie gras fused w/ beignets and chicory coffee. it is amazingly strange and wonderful. i cannot get enough of it:

      "Bourbon braised fig and foie gras beignets with
      vanilla cracked coffee beans, foie gras café au lait
      and chicory coffee 'mist'"

      ...its like mcdonalds for grown-ups.

      1. Your Luke lunch experience was eerie similar to ours, my husband & I, missing the mark on so many levels over the same simple things.

        Will post our experience(s) at another time but your review tickled me when you mentioned the sweltering heat and you were here in May! Bless your heart, you think it is hot now...

        1 Reply
        1. re: serich

          This was our lunch at Luke - apparently, our expectations were too high for another chef-centric restaurant - was warned off of Herbsaint recently as well for the same reason

          Our server was subdued and cordial - a nice combination. We didn't really have any inquiries about the menu so we didn't bother playing 20 questions with him.

          The presentation of the food was really lovely. The pâté of Louisiana rabbit and duck livers perfumed with truffle and country bread croutons was served on a wooden cutting board along with some fun accoutrement:
          + crispy, but slightly greasy croutons
          + cornichons
          + quince marmalade
          + a grainy creole mustard
          + watermelon pickles

          The pate was whipped to a such chiffon like consistency that there wasn't much density to it - very different.

          It was enough for 4-6 people and was a bargain at $7.00. Unfortunately, the truffle scent couldn't mask the gamey taste that the rabbit lent to the pate.

          Mark's "croque monsieur", essentially a grilled ham and Emmenthaler cheese sandwich, was a no go for him. He had spied it on the menu online the day before and had visions of the light tasty creation he had enjoyed in Pau, France. What arrived was a soggy, heavy disappointment. Bummer.

          The "moules et frites" Prince Edward Island mussels steamed with garlic
          and thyme with housemade fries arrived in their heavy cast iron pot. They were very nice - all, save one, had opened during their steaming. (And it's 2 lbs of mussels, not 5, I have the same cast iron pot at home)

          The broth was light and savory but the raw garlic thrown in could have done with a light saute before they gave up their lives for my mussels. We had, again, over ordered and we struggled to finish them.

          Our frites were nicely browned and non-greasy, but completely limp. We had received what tasted like the "end of lunch bunch" since we arrived after 2:00 pm for lunch.

          I enjoyed a quarter carafe (2 medium sized glasses) of a nice dry pinot gris from their completely reasonable wine list. We passed on dessert and asked for our check. Before tip, it was $64. It was a LOT of food, but the food missed the mark on couple of notes for us.

          I would easily come back for an afternoon espresso or glass of wine in, but to eat? Too many other places to try before I'd come back for another round.

          Because it is a Besh establishment, it comes with high expectations and automatically lends itself to a higher scrutiny.

        2. It's crazy, you are not the first person I've heard with problems at Luke. I've been 5 or 6 times and had nothing but outstanding food and service each and every time. The fries are my favorite in the city. The steak frite is incredible.
          The same thing can be said for Cochon. I go all the time and love it. I must be lucky as I've read many questionable to bad reviews on here for that award winning restaurant as well. If and when you make it back to New Orleans, I'd give Luke another shot.

          3 Replies
          1. re: NolaNick

            I, too, have never had a problem in our 8-10 Luke visits in the past year. Contrarily, when something has even begun to go poorly, the response and repair have been laudable. I'm glad to share in the luck, Nick.

            1. re: brucec

              @NolaNick & brucec

              I live here now (moved from Houston in Jan) so giving it another try isn't the problem. I'll have to go on my own as the hubby won't go in again.

              I did go back in & sit at the bar with a friend at lunch. We had raw oysters and they were delicious, but that's on my basic list of things that should be done well without even really trying.

              A restaurant of that caliber shouldn't need an excuse but I am wondering if it's because lunch & dinner are two different animals? Executive chef on Saturday lunches around 2:30? I don't know.

              I tried to concentrate on the food because I find on the threads, it is so subjective that it gets very confusing about what places to try - reading the Bottom 5 restaurants thread made my head spin!

              I am ready for my luck to change, believe me.

              1. re: serich

                I would go to Luke over Herbsaint any day, cheaper, less pretentious. Herbsaint was better, but the menu was disturbingly complicated, and we waited 2 hours for our dinner, despite having to ask and finally plead - repeatedly for things like water, wine, bread, service, napkin, please, more and better service? luke was light hearted, pleasing, fun, easy, cheap.

                701 Saint Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130