Raising the Glass

I know a woman who tells the story that when she was a little girl, a long time ago, her family had a ritual of having dinner at Commander’s Palace every Friday night. “Oh no,” she and her siblings complained, “not Commander’s again.”

That was long before an element of the Brennan family took over the restaurant and made it globally important. Back then Commander’s was just another neighborhood restaurant, albeit one in a fine mansion.

That story comes to mind because lately I have found myself linked to a weeknight with the esteemed restaurant. Wednesday night has become Commander’s night.

Granted the situation has changed. In a sense the restaurant comes to us. In an era in which virtually everything seems virtual, so too has the classic wine and cheese tasting, live from Commander’s.

For a fee, viewers get three bottles of selected wines and two chunks of gourmet cheese delivered to them on the day of the webcast, or ready for pickup at selected locations.

Friends gather in homes or other casual places and click on the webcast which is hosted by Dan Davis, who shuns the official title of sommelier in favor of “Wine Guy.” He tells us which wine we should sample with which cheese, like any wine guy should.

One of the marvels of our era is that Zoom technology became widespread right around the same time that COVID-19 invaded. Each Wednesday there are a few hundred groups of people that have bought into the tasting. Through the magic of Zoom global cheese makers and wine producers willingly stay up very late to talk to us in America. One night there was a winemaker from Lithuania; another night someone from Greece and then Sicily. Of course, there are always folks from France, generally prompting a discussion in our group on the proper way to pronounce the river “Loire.” On the other side of the globe, one evening a California cheese maker introduced us to her cows. Behind her was a lush green field, beyond that the Pacific Ocean. Weeks later that scene would be surpassed by some Greek dairy cows seemingly dancing for joy after being released from a barn to the adjacent field.

Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, the restaurant’s proprietors are always there, costumed to the theme du jour, such as the circus or pirates, or, one night, in reference to the wines and to the specialty cheese, red, white and blue. The costuming is a mixed success with none beating Executive Chef Tory McPhail and his wife Brit who Zoom from home with the culinary benefit of a dish he has created. On the night of the pirate theme, both dressed accordingly, with Brit having the extra advantage of an optional hook for a hand. That same night, Ti Martin made her pirate debut by adding a handlebar moustache, which she later complained made wine drinking difficult.

There is always an interlude with a band, though musical sound quality is not Zoom’s biggest success, but it is the beat that counts.

As the hour passes, Zoom manages to shift to shots of those gathered at various places; this being the modern version of people-watching at a time when we are not supposed to be close to people.

There is the inevitable wine talk in which we are told to exercise our taste buds for the likes of apple, mango, lime, pomegranate, gooseberry (yes, “gooseberry”) or whatever. (My quest for a hint of green M&Ms remains unfulfilled.)

There is also informality to the webcast, which is just as well; the art of tasting wine and cheese demands time for intramural discussions (gooseberry?) or at least for asking for refills.

By 8 p.m. another Commander’s evening is over. Comedian W.C. Fields once said, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” We all have until the next Wednesday to experience that.

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