Friday, May 1, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Eat Like a King, Pay Like a Pauper

After finding out about the delectable specials that were going on immediately after work at Palace Cafe, I of course shot an email over to Boy about it. Thanks to his new best friend, the BlackBerry Bold, plans were quickly confirmed to check out this fun, inexpensive way to do nice tapas for dinner and pretend to be fancy while actually being a little bit cheap. After all, Dickie Brennan's Palace is a fairly upscale restaurant, so to get anything for $5 was exciting.

The day was a little brisk for Boy, so we opted for the indoor bar area dining. Our server greeted us politely enough, and I asked for the small plates menu. He obliged and I opted to try to South African Sauvignon Blanc, which was frankly not too impressive. For just five bucks, I'm not expecting a whole lot, but there was less fruitiness than I would have liked. Give me a Robert Mondavi Sauv Blanc any night!

We sat munching on warmed Leidenheimer bread, good as usual with a flaky outer crust, but not as good as I'm used to from a Dickie Brennan restaurant. (They serve their bread in miniature loafs from the famous bakery at Bourbon House, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, and PAlace Cafe.) Ordinarily, the bread is piping hot with a warm center, not hot enough to melt the better, but certainly not very cold. Well this bread this day was cold in the center. Weird. But French bread is French bread, and complimentary is free, so with a shoulder shrug and a big pat of butter, I downed half the loaf.

The first two things to come out were the crabmeat cheesecake and the fried oysters on grilled ciabatta. We were surprised that they would choose to serve these first before the salads and other less substantial tapas, but didn't think much of it. The crabmeat cheesecake had a nice, nutty crust made of pecans, and the mushroom and Creole meuniere was delectable. The fried oysters were juicy and reasonably sized, and the flavor and texture of the oysters themselves were dead on, not grainy inside as tends to happen with overcooked oysters. The sherry tasso cream was rich and decadent on the buttery toasted bread, but not overly so. I could have popped these babies in my mouth for the next couple of hours with pleasure.

After we finished these, it was to my extreme surprise when the server asked us if we were ready for dessert. I let him know that we were not, and asked about the other plates. Apparently, when I gestured to the entire bar menu and said "one of each of these," he thought I was just pointing to the first two items. Why? I don't know. But he was not happy about this and showed it, telling me that I didn't specify. Umm ... what?

I kind of "whatever"ed this, since I was going to get what I wanted anyway, which were the other three missing items. And as Boy pointed out, I couldn't expect the same level of service in the bar area as the dining room. However, it always does feel like crap to be spoken down to by your server and have him roll his eyes at you when you thought you made yourself perfectly clear. It gets worse, though, as the food gets better. Tragic irony, isn't it? But I'm getting ahead of myself, here.

Anyway, we obviously waited around for the rest of the food since we were excited to try it. The crab claws remoulade was served with a tangy variety of remoulade sauce versus the sweet I prefer far more, but it was still delicious. Served cold, it was refreshing and the spring greens the half-open claws were on were a perfect complement. The crab was sweet of flesh and plentiful, but Boy thought it was hazardous and a tad messy to have to use your hands to eat your salad. I thought it was $5 and didn't really care.

The fried eggplant fingers were next up on our personal itinerary, since our brilliant server brought everything out all at once, and we figured we'd eat these before they lost their crunch. In a light, crispy shell, these tender stalks of ripe eggplant were great for snacking, a little bland, but with a tinge of salt to keep it from being too boring. The jalapenos in the tartar sauce, though, were not very obvious, and it seemed almost like dipping really nice pizza parlor eggplant sticks into mayonnaise rather than marinara. However, though they were nothing too special, they were good and there was a lot of them, so no complaints.

The best, however, was the spinach salad, served with red onion, chopped boiled egg, and tossed in a sherry cane vinaigrette. It was also supposed to come with housemade candied bacon, though, which it did not when it hit our table. At first bite, I felt that something was missing, and I borrowed a menu from another table to check. Sure enough, I was right, but since our server had already written us off, after waiting for abour ten minutes, I had to tell a different server of the problem, who went off to find our waiter.

Our server sulkily took our spinach salad from us, then returned with the same salad, retossed and retopped (so double the onions and eggs now) plus some candied bacon. I thanked him as graciously as possible, to which his response was, in the most patronizing tone as possible, with a subtle eye roll, "mm humph." Not even "mm hmm," but a definitive huff of disdain, a sound I was getting really tired of hearing throughout dinner, since it was his standard response every time I said "please" or "thank you."

Anyway, although service sucked, the bar bites menu did end on a positive note. The spinach leaves were tender, the candied bacon crunchy, fresh, and in large pieces, the red onion shaved thin and sweet and tangy simultaneously, and the boiled egg provided a nice tone of neutrality and pleasant texture change. The sugar cane vinaigrette was absolutely Besh Steak spectacular (Besh's spinach salad with goat cheese and candied pecans being among one of the best salads I've EVER had), sweet, rich, slighlty smoky, but not too cloying or thick.

We wrapped it up with the white chocolate bread pudding, a dense, fluffy, and spongy bread pudding of a substantial size, drizzled with little chocolate pieces and covered in a white chocolate sauce. This was extremely heavy after a considerable amount of food, and I was unable to get past the first few bites. Boy soldiered on and finished the entire thing, but the whole dessert just smacked too much of chocolate for my liking. I like chocolate when I expect chocolate, like in a flourless cake, a brownie, or a bonbon, but with the texture of bread pudding, I found it a tad confusing.

So what's the verdict? The winners of the night? The spinach salad, fried oysters, and crabmeat cheesecake. The losers? The level of service, a level that should never, EVER be the case in any Brennan restaurant, which makes it even more of a shame.

Palace Cafe
605 Canal Street
Downtown/CBD/FrenchQuarter boundaries
New Orleans

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