WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The most stunning adaptive reuse of an old New Orleans building in the history of the restaurant business, this is the Brennan family’s answer to a French brasserie–right down to the tables on the sidewalk in front. The cooking is thoroughly Creole, unique in style without getting complicated, and served in a deliberately simple style. The Canal Street location and the big windows create a peerless environment.
Excellent in its specialties (several of its dishes have spread to many other restaurants), the Palace Cafe has become an exemplar of the more modern forms of Creole cooking. They’ve staked out rotisserie, duck, and pan roasts as focal points on their menu, but for the most part this is a seafood-dominant menu. All this is made with good, fresh, locally-sourced foodstuffs.
The Palace Cafe opened in 1991 as a casual sister restaurant to Commander’s Palace. Its big splash came from its magnificent renovation of the historic Werlein’s Music building a Canal Street landmark since the mid-1800s. Over the years it developed its own culinary style, veering in the direction of greater formality (they added tableside dessert preparation a few years ago, for example). When the Brennan family divided its assets in the late 1990s, Dick Brennan’s family got this one, which is now operated by his son Dickie, daughter Lauren, and their partner Steve Pettus.
The old Werlein’s Building was redesigned into a marvelous two-story restaurant with a photogenic old New Orleans look. Many people assume it’s always looked like this, but the grandeur is new. The best tables are along the large windows opening onto Canal Street. When the restaurant is busy, the tile floors and large open spaces conspire to create uncomfortably high sound levels.
»Crabmeat cheesecake with pecan crust.
»Oyster pan roast with rosemary cream.
Crab claws bordelaise.
Seafood or chicken-andouille gumbo.
»Werlein salad (like a Caesar).
Blue cheese salad.
»Shrimp Tchefuncte (big ones, with meuniere sauce and mushrooms).
Grilled fish with tomatoes and eggplant.
»Gulf fish with pecans.
Seafood fra diavolo (fish, shrimp, crab and oysters with a spicy tomato and fennel sauce).
Black-iron-skillet seared NY strip steak with shrimp.
»Braised pork shank.
»Roast duck any way.
»Rotisserie chicken Pontalba (brunch).
Crabmeat quiche (brunch).
White chocolate bread pudding.
»Mississippi mud pie.
FOR BEST RESULTS
When large conventions are going on, the central location of the Palace Cafe brings in hordes of visitors, and service has a way of bogging down. The list of seasonal specials is, oddly, not usually as good as the standard menu items.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The Palace Cafe has always had a consistency problem, related mostly to the wide swings in its volume.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency -1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +3
- Sidewalk tables
- Good view
- Good for business meetings
- Many private rooms
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Good for children
- Free valet parking
- Reservations recommended
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
The Palace Cafe occupies most of the historic old Werlein Building, with big windows opening onto Canal Street and its new streetcar tracks. There is no better restaurant for watching Mardi Gras parades. The premises are more casual than most Brennan family restaurants; this is not really a dress-up place.
They solved an identity crisis here when the PC became the flagship of Dickie Brennan’s group of restaurants. The food is Creole in a style that has largely (and regrettably) been left behind. But that doesn’t prevent deliciousness.
But they do their own thing, too. A few widely copied dishes were introduced here–most notably white chocolate bread pudding and garlic mashed potatoes. Service appears to be casual, but suddenly they’ve rolled up a gueridon and are flaming or carving something.
In recent times the Palace Cafe has made duck a major specialty. On any evening you’ll find the bird prepared at least three different ways, each with a Creole flavor and an ampleness that makes these the most filling dishes in the restaurant. With one exception: the Palace potato pie, a pork version of shepherd’s pie that is truly rib-sticking.
The service staff and the wine selection are both more advanced than you might expect. The room can get so noisy when full that it can become uncomfortable, especially downstairs.