Of all the ways in which Commander's Palace's plainly Southern, patently New Orleanian sensibility has shaped local dining mores -- by turning out Paul Prudhommes and Emeril Lagasses, by raising the bar for turtle soup and bread pudding, by validating a shade of turquoise otherwise relegated to party decorations and questionable jewelry -- the institution's ardent cocktail culture is, relatively, under-touted. Brandy milk punch can commence and conclude a weekend brunch like pillowy parentheses. Softly stiff Sazeracs are silhouetted in licorice. One of my favorite moments last summer was realizing you could, without a reservation, breeze through Commander's kitchen to the back service bar and order a mint julep over ice crushed tiny as aquarium gravel.
At Cafe Adelaide and The Swizzle Stick Bar, opened within the Loews New Orleans Hotel in December and directed by the Commander's Palace Family of Restaurants, the cocktail culture is so pervasive as to become an ideology. The wine list kicks off with a borderline intellectual mix of classic and original cocktail recipes -- causing this diner to never make it to the wine. Certain people don't ever make it past the bar, where a bartender sporting a red vest confidently embroidered with the title "Bar Chef" hews glittering shards of ice from a central glacierette.
The building's unmaskable new aroma, the television tuned to sports, and the occasional despotic tourist anchor you to the reality of your surroundings: a hotel bar verging on the French Quarter. Despite this, when the bar chef poured a Hemingway Daiquiri into a tumbler of hand-chipped ice, drinking the too-easy mix of citrus and clear rum did, as Hemingway described in his booze-soaked novel Islands in the Stream , feel "the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow."
The food at Cafe Adelaide, a restaurant that's considerably less formal than Commander's Palace but nevertheless largely populated by a local coat-and-tie crowd, is more challenging to grasp. It can be as American as the martini (Cobb salad with fried chicken strips), as regional as the Sazerac (duck sauce piquant) and as contemporary as the Cosmopolitan (scallop flan). If any category outshone the others during my visits, it was the regional, in part due to a homely but heartwarming shrimp and oyster gumbo thickened with rough-cut vegetables and shored up by an intense shellfish edge. A lunchtime shrimp and mirliton salad was also striking, its chilled shrimp electrified with boiling seasonings and its cold, white Creole-cognac sauce a mellowing accompaniment.
New Orleans is Chef Kevin Vizard's native territory, and he's been a known restaurant commodity here since the 1980s. After opening and closing two of his own restaurants, he served as sous-chef at Commander's Palace and, most recently, was the chef at Indigo.
Vizard's kitchen at Cafe Adelaide isn't in top form yet, though its most egregious foibles -- lukewarm food, disproportioned ingredients, blurry focus -- are more likely symptoms of its youth than an incurable condition. I had to part the slices of toasted brioche to prove the existence of foie gras in a $14 appetizer called Foie Gras Finger Sandwiches; I resisted asking the server if the large, two-table party attended to by one of the owners, and visited by several cooks, had gotten my share. On the same evening, I chose an entree for its intriguing combination of fried sweetbreads, crawfish tails and shiitake mushrooms. It arrived with portobello mushrooms instead; not intriguing at all in this context, they simultaneously muddied up and watered down the dish. Four of us agreed upon two words to describe the strange "praline" bread pudding: bran muffin.
Neither seasonal sensitivity nor top-shelf ingredients rule absolutely over Cafe Adelaide's menu, but both have their place. Orange segments and a stack of beets sliced crosswise composed an attractive, seasonal salad in early March. And the standout entree during dinner involved immaculate, sea-washed scallops and melting foie gras communing under a thin glaze of orange butter. It was a counterintuitive but exceptional combination, the firm, clean scallops providing structure for the liver's shapeless richness.
Two more first courses could easily combine to make a meal. Green Goddess salad -- iceberg drenched in a briny, grasshopper-green herb dressing -- and mussels steamed with white wine and spicy chorizo are appetizers that, simply put, rocked.
The late Adelaide Brennan, from all accounts an eccentric character, inspired the restaurant's name, its classy casualness and its interior. The latter is warm despite the dining room's significant size, made cozier by wooden blinds, earth-toned upholstery run through with threads of turquoise, semicircular booths and living room-style table lamps. The only unfortunate, and unfortunately momentous, design point is the animal print walls. One server maintained they're meant to resemble a tiger's pelt, which would make sense if the model had overapplied the bronzer and then retraced his stripes with a black Sharpie. If a tribute on the menu is true, and Aunt Adelaide was "mischievous," maybe they can blame the walls on her. I know I took the menu's additional Adelaide-lived-it-up-and-you-should-too message as an excuse to order the Milk and Cookies dessert, twice. While the Cookies were twice dry, the Milk -- an icy brandy milk punch ice cream -- made a perfect after-dinner cocktail.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Veteran New Orleans Chef Kevin Vizard presents his Green Goddess salad at CAFE ADELAIDE AND THE SWIZZLE STICK BAR.