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April 07, 2009

New Orleans - Day II

The Reason I Did Not Get To Go to Commander's Palace Last Tuesday Dominic Armato

While Tuesday's work was off to an excellent start packed with New Orleans history, poring through antique photographs of the French Quarter, Tuesday's dining was not so much. Upscale cuisine isn't something I'd normally pursue on a short solo trip, but I had planned to make an exception for Commander's Palace. You can only read so many comments telling you about how it's such a fantastic spot that oozes New Orleans history from every pore before deciding that it's a must-visit no matter how short the trip. Sadly, my shirt had other plans and there wasn't enough time to have it cleaned. So while I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to crash a “jacket preferred” establishment in a collared short-sleeved shirt, my sense of propriety eventually won out and I called to cancel the reservation. I even told the reservationist, with a sigh, that my shirt was unexpectedly not up to the task, imagining that she'd sense the crushing disappointment in my voice and in a stunning display of the warm hospitality for which the Brennan family is known, she'd exclaim, "Oh, that's okay, come on down anyway. We'll seat you in the kitchen!" Unsurprisingly, the call didn't quite live up to my daydreams, and I was forced to make alternate dinner plans. And before I even got to dinner, lunch almost made up for it.

Domilise'sDominic Armato
There were, naturally, a number of things I really wanted to sample while in New Orleans, but heading up the list for no particular reason was a great fried seafood po' boy. And from reading around, it seemed that Domilise's might just be my best bet. Driving up, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I'd just heard this was the place to go, and I grabbed the address online. I almost missed it. A small painted plywood sign tacked to one side of the building is the only indication that there's a business inside. Domilise's is a total dive, a gritty little corner bar in the Garden District Uptown (thanks, Dave!) with one counter that serves up bottled beer, and another counter that turns out sandwiches under the direction of the bar's matron, octogenarian Dot Domilise, and her daughter-in-law Patti. Upon stepping up to the counter, don't be concerned if nobody jumps to greet you. When somebody is ready to make your po' boy, they'll ask you what you're having. I was having a half and half -- fried oysters and fried shrimp.

Domilise'sDominic Armato
Ohhhh, what a sandwich. Exactly what I was craving but even better than I'd hoped. I went with the default toppings: lettuce, pickles, mayo, ketchup and hot sauce. I watched the assembly of the oyster half, and was impressed by the amount of care that went into it. Patti sliced, laid out and carefully dressed fresh French bread with all of the accoutrements, then pulled huge, generously breaded oysters right out of the fryer before gently and purposefully placing them on the sandwich, two at a time in neat rows. Once my meal was assembled, I grabbed a can of soda from the fellow running the bar, parked at one of the six or seven tables and dug in while it was hot. Seriously, I can't imagine this sandwich being any better. Nothing fancy, just perfectly prepared. The bread was fresh and spongy on the inside, light and flaky on the outside. The oysters were huge and plump, fried just long enough to cook them while keeping them soft and juicy. The shrimp, I believe, had a thinner coating, and were similarly perfect, served hot and crisp but pulled before getting tough. And though I get the impression that the inclusion of ketchup is mildly controversial, it receives my official endorsement. The po' boy menu at Domilise's is extensive, but I think I'd need to make three or four more visits before I could get away from the fried seafood. Absolutely dynamite sandwich.

Oyster Po' BoyDominic Armato
With the day already a success, I turned my attention back to work and didn't even give dinner a thought until it was time to rush out the door for a late reservation. My Commander's Palace substitute was a popular little joint just a few blocks away from Domilise's called Dick & Jenny's. The story behind Dick & Jenny's is impossibly cute. Chef meets waitress. They fall in love. They get married and open a restaurant together in an ancient little clapboard house that they paint themselves by hand. Due to unexpected last-minute expenses, the neighbors step in and save their grand opening with a special fundraiser. The restaurant is a smash success, they have a kid and the whole enterprise is pretty much disgustingly cute from top to bottom. And then Katrina hits. Now, apparently, Dick & Jenny have relocated to upstate New York, and the restaurant has gone through at least one ownership and two executive chef changes, the most recent taking place a couple of months ago. Some of the locals, at least, seem to feel the place is a shadow of its former self. And since I have no basis of comparison, I'd sure like to know how it used to be, because it was pretty freaking good last week.

Fried Green TomatoesDominic Armato
It really is a cozy little joint, casual and warm and dimly lit, with a small main dining room and a covered patio out back that I suppose is technically indoors in the sense that you're surrounded on all four sides, but let's just say it doesn't exactly feel airtight. I parked at the worn wooden bar, got a drink in a mason jar and ordered the fried green tomatoes with gulf shrimp, celery root slaw and green onion aioli to start. Great start. Tart green tomatoes were crusted with cornmeal and fried piping hot, then served with cold shrimp, a pile of slaw and a sauce that was more salad dressing than aioli. It was big and messy and as unsophisticated as it was delicious. I'm also a sucker for textural and temperature contrast, and this dish had both. Big flavor, very enjoyable.

Sweet Potato & Sausage SoupDominic Armato
This was but a prelude, however, to a dish that I'm quite certain will make the Deliciousness of 2009. Or if it doesn't, this is destined to be one hell of a year. I'm not a soup lover. I mean, I love soup, but Asian restaurants aside, I order it infrequently. This one, however, piqued my interest. Billed as a creamy sweet potato and sausage soup with crispy yam chips and chives, no sausage was apparent upon its arrival at the bar. It looked like a smooth, creamy vegetable soup. But even though the sausage wasn't there, it was THERE, having been cooked into the stock before being strained out. The soup was thick and intense and densely layered with some seriously big flavors. It wasn't giggle-worthy -- the lobster at Schwa is still the last dish to hold that distinction -- but it had my complete attention. If the yam chips were ever actually crispy, the soup had rendered them otherwise by the time they reached me, and it's too bad because a little crunch would have been nice. But really, this is like making fun of the hairpiece on the guy who pulled you out of a burning car. It's just ungrateful. Bottom line, Day II, Dinner, Second Course, Dish of the Trip (even if the po’ boy above was a very close second).

Duck Duet with "Cypress Knees"Dominic Armato
My favorite restaurant question netted me my entree for the evening, the Duck Duet with "Cypress Knees". And though just about anything would have been a step down from the soup, I had a few issues with this one. It wasn't the most artfully plated dish, not that that's something I care much about, but even I was a little surprised by the giant lump of brown set down in front of me. The “duet” refers to two duck preparations, a smoked and seared breast and a slow-cooked leg quarter, served atop pecan risotto (in name only), a Marchand du Vin sauce and the "Cypress Knees", actually a battered and fried lattice of green beans meant to resemble the funny-looking roots of the cypress tree that stick out of the ground. The breast was REALLY smoky and charred, which I liked, and the rice and sauce made for a very low-note meaty/starchy mouthful that I thought really needed some kind of brightness until I tried the green beans and thought to myself, "Ah, there it is." They'd been either pickled or somehow dressed before frying, and they brought a little bit of acidity that helped immensely. And even without the beans, this was a nice dish, but I had a couple of issues with the duck. On the breast, the fat under the skin was still completely intact, and didn't seem as though it had been released – or even softened -- by the cooking process at all. Meanwhile, the leg wasn't nearly as moist and tender as you'd expect from a slow cooking process, which is too bad because a little succulence would have gone a long way. I wasn't unhappy with the dish. I enjoyed it. But this was clearly the weak link.

I rounded out dinner with a little key lime pie. Not sour enough for my tastes, but perfectly good. Then I paid my tab, waddled out the door, maneuvered my rental car off the shoulder that had been reduced to a quagmire by the torrential downpour that hit somewhere between the soup and the duck and disappeared in time for pie, and cruised down Tchoupitoulas en route to my pillow.

New Orleans -- Day III, on Friday.

See also, New Orleans - Day I and New Orleans - Day III.

5240 Annunciation Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Mon - Wed10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Fri - Sat10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Dick & Jenny's
4501 Tchoupitoulas Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Tue - Thu5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:30 PM - 10:30 PM


It kills me, but I've had to cancel my trip to New Orleans, which was supposed to have started last night. And my first meal was going to be at Dick & Jenny's, which I've never visited before.

But Domilise's is another story. It's a particular favorite of mine, and I'm particularly happy to see that Dot is still thriving, for reasons I'll mention below. I wrote about my first visit there on Chowhound:


I took the Magazine bus uptown to go to Domilise's. The last time I tried to go there, it was closed (bad luck -- the one week in summer they were closed). Having gorged on oysters the day before, I decided to try the famous roast beef po' boy. Fabulous. This is truly a "sum is greater than the parts" kind of sandwich. The roast beef was overcooked by my standards, but was delicious within the context of the fully dressed sandwich.

I also loved the place. I do not exaggerate when I say that every other patron in the place was not only known to the folks working there, but seemed like friends. There was much hugging, kissing, and asking after family members.

When I polished off the "large," the legendary Miss Dot noticed that I was looking a little glum. She asked why and I whined that I shouldn't have ordered a large rb so that I would have room for a small oyster. She insisted on making me an oyster po' boy, which was half the size of a large. I liked it even more than the roast beef po' boy, and she refused to let me pay a cent for it. A comped po' boy for a complete stranger.

Is New Orleans the best or what?


These days, I guess Parasol and Parkway are both considered to have better roast beef po' boys than Domilise's, so you probably did well to stick to the seafood.

One minor correction. Commander's Palace is in the Garden District, but Domilise's is in "Uptown" and Dick and Jenny's would probably be classified as Carrolton or Uptown.

I'm not a huge fan of Commander's Palace, although I haven't been there recently. The food has always tended to be heavy, and I always feel that chefs have to rein themselves in to satisfy the demand for old school dishes. But it's a gorgeous place, which I think is more fun to visit during daylight hours.

Lordy, that oyster po boy looks fantastic. But I languish here in bbq country, waiting for a chance to make a break for it.

Ooooo - did get a great lunch in NYC last month at Mexican Radio in Nolita (carnitas enchiladas with vegan sauce - no, really). Yum! Also, Ollie's on 42nd between 8th and 7th (spicy beef noodle soup).

Otherwise, it's Lean Cuisine. So you can see how the pix here might be dangerous for me.

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