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Living Life to the Fullest in New Orleans

Commander's 2012 Grand Award shows the city has exchanged average wine programs for creative and committed ones

Posted: Aug 2, 2012 12:30pm ET

By Mitch Frank

The first time I visited Commander's Palace was not one of the restaurant's better days. It was spring 2006, just six months after the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, and Ti Adelaide Martin, one of the owners, met me in the garden because the Victorian mansion that houses the 126-year-old restaurant was completely gutted. The floodwaters never reached Commander's Garden District neighborhood, but wind had badly damaged the roof, and rainwater had gushed in through the holes, rotting the walls below. Weeks without power had not been kind to giant walk-in refrigerators packed with food, either. Commander's would not reopen for another six months.

Ti was tired, but as welcoming as could be. The daughter of Ella Brennan, a restaurant industry icon, Ti was raised in the business, and her blood is part hemoglobin, part hospitality. I was in town reporting on how local restaurants were doing at a time when half the city's population had yet to return. Business was down 40 percent. Some national pundits were still chattering about whether New Orleans was "worth saving."

While not a priority when people's lives are upended, wine had been a casualty of Katrina too. A day earlier, I had walked through the nearly empty cellar at Brennan's, the French Quarter institution run by a different wing of the family. Brennan's was a longtime winner of Wine Spectator's Grand Award for its wine list, with 35,000 bottles in its cellar, including 19th century Bordeaux and Burgundy acquired over decades. The heat had murdered it all. Standing among the vacant racks, I listened as longtime wine director Harry Hill described the riches that had been lost. With what money he had, Hill was already buying new wines.

When I moved to New Orleans in 2010, I was curious where the city's wine programs would be five years after the storm. While the city had always had stars like Brennan's and Emeril's, a lot of restaurants were happy to have average programs, with maybe a little extra French depth. People visited New Orleans for the food.

But I have found a generation of young sommeliers here who reject that idea—and like so much down here now, pre-storm complacency has been rejected in favor of creative wine programs.

Commander's has been at the forefront. Ti told me in 2006 that she had big goals for the wine program. Looking at the rotting restaurant behind her, I thought it was a nice sentiment. But soon afterward, she put Dan Davis in charge of the wine program, and they decided they wanted a Grand Award. (Check out the whole story of how they did it in our August issue.) "After Katrina, it was one of those moments where we said, 'Damn it, we're going to live life to its fullest and go after every one of our goals,'" she told me. "Even though we weren't sure what exactly was going to happen around New Orleans, we just went for it."

Commander's award is a great achievement for Ti, Dan and the whole team at the restaurant. But it's also a marker for New Orleans. Today, almost seven years since the levees failed, there are more restaurants open than before the storm. Today, wine matters in New Orleans.

James T Vitelli
CT —  August 2, 2012 4:25pm ET
I have found New Orleans to be far more wine-savvy in the post-Katrina era. Perhaps because so many cellars were destroyed or heat damaged, and folks were forced to start over. The new beginning may have been a push to re-think cellar strategies and an opportunity to find shelf space for newer producers. I had the pleasure of dining recently at the "old guard" (Commander's) and the new guard (R'evolution) on back-to-back nights. Very different, but excellent, both. And if you are looking for any further validation that New Orleans is taking its wine seriously, look no further than a conversation with Molly Wismeier at R'evolution, and scan her list. While there is a strong Chicago lineage here, there is no mistaking the fact that they seek to put their cellar on the New Orleans map. I guarantee that by next year, this newcomer will attain Wine Spectator's highest level of achievement.
Kevin Smith
Sunshine State —  August 2, 2012 11:29pm ET
The food is so good in New Orleans, its hard to
recall the wines that went along all those great meals
I've had. From the smallest corner side restaurants to the signature restaurants in the quarter,its always about the food.
That said, what kinds of wines go best with Cajun and Creole cuisines?

On another note, whats going on at K-Pauls these days?
Jeffrey D Travis
University Park, FL., USA —  August 3, 2012 12:55pm ET
The waters parted for four of us as Chef Tory McPhail personally presented the first of 10 perfectly paired courses at the kitchen table, Commanders’s Palace, New Orleans, in August, 2010. One of our table guest preferred white wine with every course which seemed only to please chef “Tory”, as he “made it happen”, in spades! As if having each course served by chef McPhail was not quite enough, he was ably assisted by Lally Brennan as they presented the Smoked Redfish & Caviar Beignets course and wine pairing. I do not believe any room for improvement remains for this consummate restaurant and staff.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans —  August 3, 2012 1:20pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone.

James - I dined at R'evolution a few weeks after it opened and it has a very impressive wine list. Plus, it's the most ambitious new restaurant in town, by far. I'm looking forward to dining there again soon.

Kevin - Wine pairings for Cajun and Creole? Thanks for a good idea for a future blog topic! Actually, two blog topics, because Cajun and Creole are like Zydeco and Funk - some shared elements but very different. I will say that I'm drinking many more interesting white wines now that I'm eating a lot more spicy food. My wife made jambalaya last week and an Inama Soave 2009 paired beautifully with it.

Peter Hellman
New York —  August 8, 2012 2:37pm ET
For New Yorkers (me, at any rate), New Orleans befuddles. It's not the South,somehow, but nothing like the North, either. It's its own thing, I guess, and Mitch's report colors in a piece of it. The one time I was there was to compare a doctor's Petrus and Lafite that had sweltered in his wine cellar when the power was off for weeks after Katrina against bottles that had been up here at Sherry Lehmann. Verdict: the wine wasn't ruined, but probably lost a decade or two off its ultimate life....

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