Réveillon Revival

How the Brennan family, among the Crescent City’s most successful restaurateurs, breathed new life into an old French tradition.

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Réveillon for all

The Brennans―whose various second- and third-generation representatives own and operate beloved New Orleans institutions such as Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s―have kept the Réveillon going and made it something everyone can enjoy. Ella Brennan’s Commander’s Palace, which rambles like a happy home with ornate molding and robust chatter in all its many rooms, is among the dozens of Big Easy restaurants that began in recent years serving prix-fixe Réveillon menus throughout the holidays. It’s a way to keep alive the storied tradition, which hasn’t been celebrated widely in family homes for years and is now more of a dining-out phenomenon.

The 128-year-old Commander’s, where Chef Tory McPhail, successor to the restaurant’s previous chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, continues to refine what he calls “haute Creole” cuisine, serves bold, special-occasion food inspired by the tastes of the original Creoles. Several varieties of hearty gumbo are among the appetizer options, as well as foie gras with Louisiana figs roasted in bourbon, says McPhail. Richly sauced, locally fished seafood is in the mix, along with venison, elk, and house-cured duck. “We make sure there are some good game dishes,” says Ella. “We’ve picked up some of our family traditions and brought them to the restaurant.”

As Ella says, the food is just part of what makes the Réveillon mood so lively. “We have music students come in and sing,” she says. “We tell them, ‘Not the serious church music.’ We want the happy songs about how it’s snowing outside and all. [The dinner guests] walk all around the dining room talking to their friends. It’s not structured; it’s fun. People in New Orleans just get so excited about the holidays.”

The ever-growing Brennan clan no longer gathers en masse to do it up on Christmas Eve. But Ella, her daughter Ti Martin, and other family members get together in a smaller group at the Garden District mansion where Ella now resides, next door to Commander’s, which Ti now runs. It’s one of just two days a year―the other is Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras)―when the restaurant is closed. For the contemporary gathering, guests dress sharply and dine on classics catered by McPhail’s staff, and the cocktails flow almost as easily as the laughter. “It’s still elegant,” says Martin, “but not so much that you can’t enjoy a naughty joke. Oh yes, I’m sure Aunt Adelaide would love it.”

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