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Command Performance

March 25, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Proust had his madeleines. For me, now that I've been to Commander's Palace, it's pralines (pronounced PRAW-leens) that bring Las Vegas flooding back in memory. Tasting of burnt sugar and pecans, these are the reward for slogging through what seems like miles of the cheesy Desert Passage shopping mall attached to the new Aladdin casino on the Strip. Finally, past tacky Arabian-themed facades and concrete Ali Baba jars, looms the welcoming sign, and we were swept into the arms of New Orleans hospitality.

Have some pralines, the affable host says, stuffing our pockets with the cookies. Have some before dinner, he urges, promising to give us more afterward.

We are seated at a swell table for two in a smallish room lined with floor-to-ceiling wine racks. I love the look of the place: intricate mosaic floors, twirling ceiling fans, antique brass light fixtures, etched glass panels, expanses of dark wood. On the tables, candlesticks with gold beaded shades cast a warm light. Ella and Louis are playing on the sound system.

Our waiter asks whether we have any plans for the evening other than dinner (such as rushing off to a show or the gaming tables). "Dine it is," I say. That settled, he then hands us the ample wine list and the menu, which is deeply rooted in the one at the original Commander's Palace in New Orleans (the Las Vegas branch is the second, although the family also owns Brennan's in Houston). We start with a Sazerac, the ultimate New Orleans cocktail. The Commander's version is bourbon with two kinds of bitters, a dash of Pernod and a lemon twist.

Our waiter tells us he has been going to Commander's Palace in New Orleans since he was 5. When he heard it was opening here, he applied immediately. I detect a Southern accent from a number of the servers, whose training is impressive. Their performance under the watchful eye of the captain is completely professional.

The $38 prix fixe menu is a great introduction to Commander's signature dishes. The first course, turtle soup, is definitely not mock. It's an enticing, thick soup laced with real nibs of turtle meat (albeit farm-raised alligator snapping turtle), spinach and caramelized vegetables, halfway between the texture of a gumbo and a stew. Would I like a little sherry in it? When I say yes, the waiter pours in a large dose of a very good Lustau sherry. Pecan-crusted fish from the Gulf of Mexico is also delicious. Beneath its crunchy brown crust, the fish is moist and flavorful, and set on a bed of sweet corn. It's easy to see why the bread pudding souffle is a Commander's signature. It arrives at the table tall and proud, only to have the waiter punch a hole in the top and pour in a rich, boozy whiskey sauce. "Awesome!" comes a cry from two tables over. Yes, indeed. The mingled scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and good bourbon are sublime.

Several other dishes stand out. I don't much care for Gulf oysters raw, but when these plump beauties are cooked (think po' boys) they're something else. I've since developed a craving for Commander's roasted oysters with artichoke confit: slivers of artichoke heart and those ineffably tender oysters gratineed with Parmesan, bread crumbs and fresh oregano. It's fabulous. Oysters Rockefeller runs a close second, due to the quality of the oysters, the tender fresh spinach leaves and a gossamer hollandaise sauce.

As much as I love the turtle soup, once I taste the Gulf seafood gumbo, I switch allegiance. Redolent of herbs and swamp, this heady, mysterious gumbo is brimming with shrimp, crab legs and oysters. Seafood is definitely where Commander's shines, and I wouldn't order anything else. Lamb chops or steak you can find anywhere.

We can't leave this virtual New Orleans without trying the city's famous dessert, bananas Foster. Commander's version leaves every other I've tasted in the dust. The warm bananas--slightly caramelized at the edges--brown sugar, butter and rum are heavenly, especially with a ball of ice cream freckled with vanilla bean melting in the center. As we leave, the host hands us three more packs of pralines. I feel as if I've won the bank.

On later visits, we taste our way through the menu, concentrating on regional dishes. The more inventive items are segregated on chef Carlos Gala's grand tasting menu. Don't miss the fat crab cakes made with beautiful Maryland crabs. Or the crunchy batter-fried tasso shrimp henican dosed with Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc and served with wonderful pickled okra and a biting five-pepper jelly. Grilled swordfish (a special) from the Gulf of Mexico, is perfectly cooked and comes with spicy fresh corn, sweet peppers and okra. Strawberry shortcake is a sweet and sassy Southern version, made with warm sauteed berries so that the juices soak into the shortcake. Those nostalgic for the French Quarter can order beignets, snippets of dough deep-fried and showered with confectioners' sugar.

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