RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: The foods of the gods live in New Orleans' kitchens

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

NEW ORLEANS – My idea of fine dining here is down-home Elizabeth’s in the Bywater, where they have praline bacon. How’s that for decadent? I also love Acme Oysters in the French Quarter. Any place with “oysters” in its name has to be good.
On occasion I’ve been to the fancier New Orleans restaurants, and the food in most cases was excellent. This is New Orleans. Once, years ago, I had dinner at the Court of Two Sisters, and I can still describe each course; it was worth the money, soup to nuts.
Seems the high-toned establishments come in and out of favor, ebb and flow, depending on new chefs and current style and who gets written up where. Food snobs are Pied Pipers and lead us all, depending on a new hors d’oeuvre or a whim.
Mostly I like the places where you can wear your shorts and sandals and there’s no need to float a loan to pay the check. I’m not above lunching on a Lucky Dog. That way you can keep right on moving.
This visit, however, there’s something big to celebrate; I shoot the moon and dine at Commander’s Palace. I’d never been. I had seen the Garden District landmark, but no occasion ever seemed big enough to warrant eating here.
I put on my best frock and shoes and call a taxi. When a Palace employee rushes across the street to open the cab door, I know I’m in for some serious shucking and jiving.
The old, blue house looks, from a distance, like an ornament to hang from a Christmas tree. It has aqua and white striped awnings and Victorian icing, and I wanted to do more than have dinner. Perhaps rent an alcove apartment?
Emille Commander opened the restaurant in 1880, and it’s been family-owned ever since. The Brennan family owns it now.
The first thing I notice about the dining room is how well-dressed almost everyone is, the better to digest their Oyster and Absinthe Dome appetizer. All but two young men wear jackets, and they look like Brad Pitt’s younger brothers so I cut them some slack.
The room also is full of Red Hat Club ladies, resplendent in their purple and red accessories, carrying bags the size of my Mini-Cooper and having one heckuva good time. I’m not a joiner, but I applaud the club’s spirit and purpose.
I have crab soup and pork tenderloin and potatoes delivered straight from heaven. But it’s the dessert I’ll remember the rest of my days, unless dementia steals the sweet memory. The bread pudding souffle is to die for, but makes you want to live to eat again. Bread pudding has never been my favorite, but this is in a league of its own.
A small army of attendants keeps the food and drink coming and going until I’m dizzy and exhausted. The meals must have 4,000 calories, but you burn some of them by watching the waitstaff run around like extras in a Cecil B. deMille movie. They sweep and scrape and bow and suggest until you begin to wonder how you ever before ate a meal without help.
I thought about buying a Commander’s Palace cookbook to learn to make bread pudding souffle. I suspect without the pomp and ceremony it wouldn’t taste as good, even if I used all the other ingredients.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.