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Mom’s Legacy: Celebrating Ella Brennan, New Orleans Dining Royalty

The women of Commander’s Palace celebrate Mother’s Day with an update on a classic: Oyster and Absinthe Dome, along with a Suissesse cocktail. Plus, 14 recommended wines include Champagnes and minerally whites
Photo by: Courtesy of Brennan Family Restaurants
Commander’s Palace is a flag-bearer of haute Creole cuisine.

Samantha Falewée
Posted: May 5, 2017

“We might need to start with a drink, you know what I’m saying?” twangs Ti Adelaide Martin. “Like any good family meal would.”

Martin is the daughter of New Orleans legend and restaurateur Ella Brennan, and she’s not talking about a glass of wine. She and Lally Brennan, Ella’s niece, are discussing their beloved mentor’s favorite dishes—and cocktails—in honor of Mother’s Day.

It’s a long list. The co-proprietors of the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Commander's Palace muse over seafood—“We all just love crab meat”—to Ella’s quirks—“truly her favorite thing to eat in the whole wide world is scrambled eggs and sautéed bananas, but that’s another thing”—before settling on a dish that is in many ways indicative of all the restaurant’s strengths. The Oyster and Absinthe Dome is born of Southern heritage and has all the makings of the best comfort food, with a kick of the hard stuff to boot. (For a softer pairing, we've also included 14 Wine Spectator–recommended Champagnes and white wines.)

The macaw-blue Commander’s Palace serves as the centerpiece of the historic Garden District, home to pristinely kept antebellum mansions and centuries-old live oaks. Commander's has been a pinnacle of self-described haute Creole cuisine for almost 75 years. Here Ella fostered the early careers of Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Tory McPhail, who remains the chef today. Ella herself, now 91 years old—91 and 1/2, Lally amends—has been working with restaurants for even longer. Born in 1925, Ella began working in her brother Owen’s bar when she was 18. Her legacy includes Brennan's Houston, Café Adelaide and SoBou, as well.

Ti describes Ella as her mentor and best friend, but she hadn’t always set out to continue running the family business. “Mom discouraged me from coming into the restaurant business. Only during this process now (a memoir has been published and a documentary featuring Ella’s life and accomplishments is now available on Netflix), all these years later, has she admitted she was secretly hoping that I would come into the business,” Ti says.

A life-changing moment came when Ti, then 26 years old and working in real estate in Houston, got the call that her mother had suffered a heart attack and was preparing for open-heart surgery. “I drove home, and on that drive I just said, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Long story short, I came home to work with her and the family and have never regretted a minute of it.”

Lally, Ti’s cousin, began working with the restaurant by helping arrange the many special events and parties Commander’s hosts. “I was just fortunate enough to have her as a mentor, and still rely upon her every day, to this day,” she says. “It’s been a very special life for me.”

Ti describes it another way: “We’ve worked hard and played hard and had a hell of a good time.”

Courtesy of Brennan Family Restaurants

Today, Ella lives with her sister, Dottie, in a house just next door to Commander’s. “They’re very current on what’s going on over here. And they still have lots of things to tell us that we’re doing wrong,” quips Lally. The sister duo also maintains a habit of keeping pre-mixed, no-ice old fashioneds ready to go at all times, should an unexpected guest come calling.

The Commander's Palace Oyster and Absinthe Dome originated in 2007, when it became legal once more in the U.S. to produce and sell absinthe. Ella and chef McPhail schemed over recipe ideas while enjoying Absinthe Suissesse cocktails (recipe below). Inspiration came from rich and creamy French oyster stews, which are often spiced with anise and presented a good pairing for the absinthe, along with a taste of New Orleans history: The name of the dish is a nod to a recipe that was popular in southern Louisiana kitchens in the 1800s. Large, buffet-style pots of stew prepared for group gatherings were topped with flaky pastry dough, and became known for their unmistakable "domes."

The wine is equally important. Dan Davis, the restaurant’s longtime wine director, suggests a mineral-driven Italian white, Manni Nössing Kerner Südtirol Eisacktaler 2014, which he discovered on a recent trip to Alto Adige. For other lean whites, he suggests Muscadet in the Loire Valley and cru Beaujolais with enough acidity to cut through the dish’s creaminess. But a full-bodied, complementing wine can work well too, like rich Champagnes or “broad-shouldered" Chardonnays.

Courtesy of Brennan Family Restaurants

Oyster and Absinthe Dome

Recipe courtesy of Commander’s Palace and Brennan Family Restaurants.

For the Oyster and Absinthe Dome:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon shallot, brunoise (finely diced and cooked in butter)
  • 1 cup bacon, diced
  • 4 ounces Absinthe
  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked artichokes, sliced
  • 20 oysters
  • 1 tablespoon tarragon, chopped
  • Salt and white pepper to taste
  • 4 flaky puff pastries

To make the Oyster and Absinthe Dome:

1. Place a medium sauce pan on the stove over medium high heat for 2 minutes to warm. Add the butter, garlic, shallots and bacon to the pot and stir for 2 to 3 minutes until garlic is slightly brown and bacon is rendered.

2. Remove the pan from the stove and deglaze with 3 ounces of absinthe. Return to the stove and flambé.

3. When flames subside, reduce until the liquid is nearly evaporated and pour in the cream. Bring to a boil (be sure it doesn’t boil over).

4. Reduce to the consistency of a thick soup. Add the artichokes and cook for 1 minute.

5. Add the oysters, tarragon, salt, pepper and final ounce of absinthe. Stir to incorporate. (As the oysters cook, they will release their liquid, resulting in a thinner consistency.)

6. Finally, check the seasoning (the juice from the oysters can exude different levels of natural salt depending on where they come from). To serve, divide evenly between four appetizer-size ramekins and top each with a puff pastry. Serves 4.

Absinthe Suissesse Cocktail

  • 1 1/2 ounces absinthe
  • 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
  • 1/2 ounce half-and-half
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 dash orange flower water

To make the Absinthe Suissesse Cocktail:

1. Fill a rocks glass with ice and set aside.

2. Combine all the ingredients with 1/2 cup ice in a blender and blend until frothy.

3. Discard the ice from the rocks glass. Pour the contents of the blender into the glass and serve immediately. Repeat as needed. Serves 1.

14 Recommended Champagnes and White Wines

Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. For more French white wines rated in the past year, see our Wine Ratings Search.

Rich and Full-Bodied

JEAN-MARC BROCARD Chablis Butteaux 2015 Score: 93 | $40
Ripe and creamy, this white displays lemon cake and white peach flavors, with a stony undertow. Harmonious and long on the finish. Lively acidity keeps this focused and clean. Drink now through 2023. 100 cases imported.—B.S.

MICHEL GONET Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Charles-Gilbert de Vindé NV Score: 91 | $57
Rich flavors of Honeycrisp apple, spun honey, slivered almond and graphite are enlivened by mouthwatering acidity in this fine, creamy Champagne. Long and spiced on the citrusy finish. Drink now through 2021. 350 cases imported.—A.N.

MOUTARD PÈRE & FILS Brut Champagne Réserve NV Score: 91 | $35
Apple blossom and spice notes are underscored by ripe green melon, honey, pastry dough and smoke details in this creamy Champagne. Lively acidity firms the mouthwatering finish. Disgorged June 2016. Drink now through 2018. 100 cases imported.—A.N.

PIERRE LEGRAS Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV Score: 91 | $56
A mouthwatering version that offers flavors of ripe yellow plum, graphite, biscuit and spice. Creamy, with rich hints of toasted almond and lemon pâte de fruit on the subtle finish. Drink now through 2019. 270 cases imported.—A.N.

PLOYEZ-JACQUEMART Brut Champagne Extra Quality NV Score: 91 | $43
Finely knit and mouthwatering, this creamy Champagne shows expressive flavors of glazed apricot, lemon curd, orchard blossom and pastry dough. A hint of smoky mineral lingers on the clean-cut finish. Drink now through 2020. 1,357 cases imported.—A.N.

CHÂTEAU DE LA ROULERIE Chenin Blanc Anjou 2015 Score: 90 | $16
Tightly wound, with vibrant acidity holding the core of anise, star fruit, white peach and yellow apple flavors back for now. The racy finish has good length. Just needs to unfurl a bit in the cellar. Drink now through 2022. 1,000 cases imported.—JM

Lean and Mineral-Driven

GÉRARD FIOU Sancerre Terroir Silex 2015 Score: 92 | $27
A piercing, bone-dry style, with chalk and flint notes driving through the core of gooseberry and thyme. Mouthwatering and lengthy, showing crystal-clear purity on the finish. A rapier. Drink now through 2021. 300 cases imported.—JM

BRUNO PAILLARD Extra Brut Champagne Première Cuvée NV Score: 90 | $55
This lively version offers bright, citrusy acidity, with flavors of nectarine, toasted almond and lemon curd, layered with a streak of smoky mineral. Crunchy finish. Disgorged March 2015. Drink now through 2019. 1,000 cases imported.—A.N.

DOMAINE LAROCHE Chablis Les Vaillons Vieilles Vignes 2014 Score: 90 | $56
Peach, apple, chalk and stone aromas and flavors are the highlights in this sleek, juicy white. The bracing acidity leaves a clean, minerally aftertaste. Drink now through 2023. 125 cases imported.—BS

HENRI BOURGEOIS Quincy Haute Victorie 2015 Score: 89 | $18
Offers a good crackling feel, with chive and gooseberry notes backed by a flinty finish. Energetic and refreshing, offering enough vivacity to match with fresh oysters or a goat cheese and onion tart. Drink now. 200 cases imported.—JM

JEAN-MARIE BERTHIER Sauvignon Blanc Coteaux du Giennois Domaine de Montbenoit 2015 Score: 89 | $18
This is understated, but very pure and sneakily long, as white peach, jicama and lemon curd notes glide along, carried by a mineral echo through the finish. Drink now. 500 cases imported.—JM

JÉRÔME CHOBLET Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu Sur Lie Clos de la Fine 2015 Score: 89 | $16
Lively, with fresh peach and lemon notes backed by lively herb and fleur de sel details. Displays a crackling feel through the finish. Drink now. 575 cases imported.—JM

ROLAND TISSIER & FILS Sancerre 2015 Score: 89 | $22
A bony style, with lots of chive and flint notes leading the way, backed by tangy lime pith and thyme accents through the finish. Drink now through 2018. 100 cases imported.—JM

LES VIGNERONS DES TERROIRS DE LA NOËLLE Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Domaine de Bégrolles 2015 Score: 88 | $15
This crackles nicely, with lime, fleur de sel and thyme notes rippling through. Lively finish. Drink now. 800 cases imported.—JM

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