Few places do Sunday brunch better than New Orleans. The 300-year-old city is not only brimming over with brunch tradition, it is thoroughly expert at delivering the mid-morning meal with plenty of genteel Southern charm and hospitality. Jacqui Gibson heads to the Garden District to find out how a jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace stacks up.
There’s a string of smiling waiters lined up at the door to greet us when we arrive at Commander’s Palace. It’s got to be a good sign. See, I’m hoping for a positive omen because we foolishly haven’t made a reservation. Waking up this morning, it just seemed right to take the half-hour stroll to Washington Street and chance our luck on a jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace. Surely they’ll squeeze us in?
Right this way, says Sebastian, our smartly turned-out waiter, who’s shrewdly found us an outside table. It’s just on opening time; Commander’s is yet to fill up. But apparently it’s one of the last tables left. Pleased-as-punch, we follow Sebastian through the cranking engine room of the kitchen, past the bar that looks ready for a serious run on bloody Marys and outside into the leafy Louisiana courtyard.
There are 16 tables out here, each one dressed in a spanking white linen table cloth, crystal condiment holders and heavy silver cutlery. It’s fine dining New Orleans style – so, to honor that fact, we order up an award-winning bloody Mary from the menu section entitled: ‘eye openers’.
The brunch cocktail is served in a tall glass rimmed with a sharp, spicy cayenne salt. Add to that a cherry pepper, a pickle, Commander’s housemade bloody Mary mix and a generous pour of ‘ice block’ vodka and you’ve arrived at a near-perfect tipple that’ll help you start the day by putting you straight back to bed.
Commander’s Palace, we learn long before we get here, is a New Orleans’ institution established by Emile Commander in 1893. The winner of untold (six at last count) James Beard Foundation Awards (America’s leading culinary excellence awards), it’s known as a leader in haute Creole cuisine, a highbrow style of cooking, blending everything from French, Spanish and West African tastes to those belonging to the Haitians, Germans, Italian and Irish. And it frequently tops the list when newbies to the Big Easy ask: Where shall we go to eat?
To be fair, it’s hard to deny the sort of sensory joy that comes with the perfect pairing of a Commander’s gingernut beignet and sparkling rosé, followed by an entreé of pecan crusted gulf fish. But when the three-piece jazz ensemble enters the courtyard to belt out When the Saints Go Marching In – while I’m scoffing pecan pie slathered in vanilla bean ice cream – I worry I might hit peak brunch-induced bliss.
Eventually it comes time to leave New Orleans’ third oldest restaurant for a wander around nearby Lafayette Cemetery in the afternoon sun. Frankly, we need the exercise. Around us, people celebrate birthdays, their chairs festooned with balloons, couples get up from tables to dance to the band and waiters chat to diners about what’s on the menu.
Sebastian tells us it’s like this every weekend. “You might think of it as a privately-owned business,” he says, “but really it’s a family restaurant that belongs to the people of New Orleans.”
To get there
- From the French Quarter, take the St. Charles Streetcar Line to Washington Street. The fare is $1.25, though day passes are also available. Make sure you have exact amount you need – driver’s don’t give out change.
- Watch a short video on traveling on the St. Charles Streetcar Line by GoNOLA, 2013 (YouTube, 1’26”).