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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Mosca's Restaurant

Photos Courtesy: www.moscasrestaurant.com

With Marcello’s rising star came rising forturnes, and with them came one Provino Mosca, an Italian emigrant to Chicago who took little time in gathering both a criminal record and an irresistible item on his resumé: personal chef for Al Capone.

At the end of the old Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a seasoned publisher tells a young buck reporter, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Whenever I hear the line, I think of Mosca’s,

If New Orleans is anything, it is a decidedly Southern city. As a lot, Southerners embrace their ghosts, spin yarns about them and if the whole truth happens to get in the way, well, print the legend.

Should you choose to have dinner at Mosca’s, and you indeed should, the cab ride from the French Quarter of the CBD (Central Business District) could easily cost more than your meal. You’ll get there one of two ways: taking modern highways through the soulless suburb of Harvey with its car lots and fast food joints, or by taking a white knuckle roller coaster ride over a rickety Erector set called the Huey Long Bridge, a Depression era span that will likely have you gridlocked in traffic several hundred feet over the Mississippi River, vibrated close to panic by the trains sharing the span, and all the time having a bleak conversation with your own mortality.

The first time I was taken to Mosca’s, many years ago, I was thoroughly convinced I was about to be killed and eaten. It’s in a nondescript, white plank roadhouse on a long, flat stretch of U.S. Highway 90 about five miles west of the rickety bridge. In fact, at first glance, it’s easy to mistake the place as abandoned. These days, there are more hints of civilization around it than there used to be, but that’s not saying much.

If you arrive after sundown, you’ll hear the steady drone of insects and the occasional mating call of frogs from the 178-acre parcel of swamp that runs along the south side of the highway and protects the roadhouse from both sides and the rear. Listen harder and you may start telling yourself you hear the ghosts of several dozen deadbeat gamblers, stool pigeons and double-crossing goombahs, all reputed to have been wrapped in chains and dispatched to eternity in the slime beneath the marshland’s boggy waters.

If anyone knows the whole story about Mosca’s, they’re not talking, no doubt a wise choice. There’s a history section on the restaurant’s website, and it tells the story of hard-working, patriotic Italian immigrants who, with grit, gumption, elbow grease and pluck, claimed their modest patch of the American Dream along a forlorn highway. It’s a great story, as far as it goes, but the legends surrounding Mosca’s suggest it doesn’t go far enough.

In its earliest years, the nondescript building was known as the Willswood Tavern, which looked more or less like any roadside bar in any south Louisiana parish. The tavern had once been an abandoned shed on the acreage that was owned by the Marcello family, alleged to have deep Mafia connections. At the end of World War II, Carlos Marcello (1910-1993), known behind his back as “The Little Man,” came to be regarded as “boss” of all organized crime operations in New Orleans, and Sundays at the Willswood became legendary.

From Lake Charles in the west to Gulfport (Mississippi) in the east, family captains and lieutenants would make their ways to the don’s unofficial headquarters at the Willswood to pay tribute (and his “taste” of the take) to Marcello. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, a steady procession of bookies, madams, fences, corrupt law enforcement officials, pocketed politicos, loan sharks and other “associates” would take care of business with il padrone. Once the serious work was done, rivers of wine would flow, plate upon plate of Italian food would stream out of the kitchen and the raucous party would continue until the shadows grew long and daylight grew short.

With Marcello’s rising star came rising forturnes, and with them came one Provino Mosca, an Italian emigrant to Chicago who took little time in gathering both a criminal record and an irresistible item on his resumé: personal chef for Al Capone. Marcello installed Mosca in the kitchen of the Willswood and even went so far as to build a house for the chef’s family close to the tavern.

Circa 1960, Marcello moved his headquarters from the Willswood and the restaurant, already growing famous, became Mosca’s. Part of the legend is that the restaurant and the surrounding acreage of swamp were gifted to the Mosca family by Marcello. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but either way, it makes a charming asterisk, so print the legend.

Provino Mosca passed on in 1962, followed by Carlos Marcello in 1993. Over the ensuing years, the restaurant has come to more closely resemble what is written in the website’s antiseptic history than the embodiment of a dark and sinister world, which would rightly include black sedans with rolled steel mudguards, the chatter of Thompson submachine guns, whispering godfathers, Mustache Petes, wise guys, goombahs and gun molls. No matter how colorful as such imagery may be, the real legend is considerably more flavorful.

More than sixty years after Provino Mosca first walked into the roadhouse kitchen, successive generations of his family continue to put out some of New Orleans’ best Sicilian-by-way-of-the-bayou cooking. In a city where you rarely have to venture more than a few blocks to find superlative food, crowds of local residents continue to risk rickety bridges and desolate miles to pack the place.

The menu is surprisingly short. Only four specialties are listed along with four types of spaghetti, a filet mignon, quail, Cornish hen and a homemade sausage that could very well be the city’s gold standard.

The four specialties are worth special note. Least famous among the four is a traditional chicken cacciatore, which allows diners to evaluate the kitchen’s comparative chops, considering the ubiquity of the dish in America’s Italian restaurants. In the same neighborhood is Chicken a la Grande, the house variation on classic rosemary chicken, but amped up with generous amounts of olive oil, white wine and enough garlic to send Dracula packing back to Transylvania. Somewhat sheepishly, I confess to avoiding the a la Grande on my first visits to Mosca’s, mistakenly thinking it would prove a rather pedestrian chicken dish. After one bite, I stood corrected.

Shrimp Mosca

The two specialties that attract the most attention are the eponymous Shrimp and Oysters Mosca. Shrimp Mosca is an Italianized adaptation of traditional New Orleans style barbecue shrimp – sautéed in plenty of butter with torqued-up garlic, rosemary and oregano. Despite the similarity in names, the Oysters Mosca are confidently seasoned, topped with a hearty layer of breadcrumbs and baked in an old-fashioned metal pie pan. Both dishes are, in a word, peerless.

Despite the brevity of the menu, it remains a test of indecision. Repeat customers have learned the only practicable formula to remedy their wavering is to bring as many people as they can pack in their car, have everyone order something different, put it all in the center of the table and go after it “family style.” The only drawback I’ve found to this system is that while I get a taste of everything, I never seem to get enough of anything.

Time doesn’t have much meaning at Mosca’s. Everything is cooked to order, and some dishes take close to an hour to get to the table. This sometimes leads to the staggered delivery of plates, and if all the plates happen to reach your party at the same time, don’t be overly surprised if the temperatures prove inconsistent. The only know cure for this situation is another glass of wine. Cent’anni!

A couple of caveats are in order. First, they don’t take reservations on Saturday night except for very large parties. Even though the restaurant accepts reservations Tuesday through Friday nights, expect a wait, sometimes quite lengthy. Secondly, like many old-line New Orleans restaurants, the only coin of the realm honored is cash.

Finally, in terms of ambience, Mosca’s remains an unadorned roadhouse after sixty-plus years, and several generations of New Orleanians wouldn’t have it any other way. A nibble here, a nibble there and neither will you.

With all due apologies to the crusty old editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “Don’t print the legend. Eat it.”

Mosca’s Restaurant, 4137 U.S. Highway 90 West, Avondale, Louisiana 70094

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Dark Sunday and Monday

Cash only

Call 504-436–8950 or 504-436–9942 after 4:30 p.m. to make reservations.
No reservations taken on Saturdays, except for large parties.

Webstie: www.moscasrestaurant.com

Monday, June 21, 2010

New Orleans Dining: K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen

The Sensible One was vastly amused by Prudhomme’s “star system,” reattaching her collection of stars to her driver’s license. Her sense of humor, however, wasn’t fully appreciated by the state trooper brandishing a radar gun and ticket pad.

When a long line forms outside a New Orleans restaurant, it can often prove amusing to observe the reactions of some city residents. Should they know someone in line, they cite it as proof that New Orleans is one big street party where the locals sure know their food. Should they not, the restaurant is pilloried as a tourist place unworthy of local patronage.

For more than fifteen years, Paul Prudhomme saw plenty of the latter at the front door of K-Paul’s, his runaway success of a restaurant in the French Quarter. When opened in 1979, the restaurant had a miniscule capacity of 62 guests, creating the need for “community seating,” the polite euphemism for guests from more than one party being required to share a table with others. The arrangement was tolerated when K-Paul’s was only open at lunch, but when the restaurant expanded its operation to serve dinner, people started to balk at the notion of sharing a relatively pricey dinner with total strangers.

People grumbled and griped about seating and other rules instituted to keep things manageable for the small restaurant, but they kept flocking to K-Paul’s because a revolution was taking place in Prudhomme’s tiny kitchen.

For generations, diners in New Orleans had been hardwired into Creole cuisine, the refined style of cooking cobbled together from the foods of many nations, but with its underpinnings being predominantly French. The other Louisiana niche cuisine was Cajun, a heartier country style of cooking from Bayou Country, commonly dismissed as rustic by city dwellers. In fact, when Prudhomme opened K-Paul’s in 1979, there was only one authentic Cajun restaurant of any real renown in New Orleans, the Bon Ton Café with roots going back to the early 1900s.

Prudhomme, the caboose of thirteen children from a Cajun farming family in Opelousas, spent a great part of his childhood cooking with his mother to feed the rest of the family, which worked the fields. He opened and closed a pair of restaurants before he was thirty and worked in kitchens across America before landing a job, at age 35, as the executive chef at Commander’s Palace, which had just been taken over by the Brennans, New Orleans’ family of celebrated restaurateurs.

It was at Commander’s where Prudhomme’s star shot skyward. By integrating Cajun ingredients and techniques into the Creole cuisine through which the restaurant had built its reputation, Prudhomme created the new fusion cuisine that came to be generally known as “Louisiana” or “South Louisiana” cooking. While at Commander’s, Prudhomme revised classic New Orleans recipes for the Brennans, including barbecue shrimp, turtle soup and others, a number of which are still served today in the family’s various restaurants.

If Prudhomme’s star was rising at Commander’s, it was at K-Paul’s where it went stratospheric, and it was primarily due to a remarkably simple idea that blended nine everyday herbs and spices, some butter and a piece of local fish in a black iron skillet so hot it literally smoked. The dish was christened “blackened” redfish, and it catapulted Paul Prudhomme into the national culinary spotlight, a place that seemed as innate to the man from Opelousas as a bayou is to a gator.

Prudhomme was a natural for television. A chef of tremendous girth at the time, he was a colorful man from a colorful place, gregarious and fun loving; in short, he was an easy interview and his cooking was new, chic, exciting and exotic for its time. As word of blackened redfish spread across the country, several phenomena occurred. Blackened foods started appearing on menus all over the country with mixed results; Gulf of Mexico redfish (actually a specimen of the drum genus) was overfished to the brink of species extinction; and the lines of people waiting for a seat at K-Paul’s and hoping for a glimpse of its suddenly superstar chef stretched down Chartres Street before turning the corner and continuing on Conti.

Prudhomme’s staff, mostly family in the restaurant’s earliest days, shared the larger-than-life chef’s joie de vivre and playful nature, applying stick-on foil stars to customers’ faces, the star’s color being determined by how clean a customer’s plate was once he or she pushed back from the table. The Sensible One was vastly amused by Prudhomme’s “star system,” reattaching her collection of stars to her driver’s license. Her sense of humor, however, wasn’t fully appreciated by the state trooper brandishing a radar gun and ticket pad.

Despite the overflowing plates of a new American fusion cuisine and the joy with which it was served, a considerable number of condescending residents dismissed K-Paul’s as “okay for tourists” and stayed away. In the midst of runaway success, Prudhomme was in danger of becoming its victim. But instead of growing alarmed by the situation, America’s hottest chef considered it an opportunity to grow his flourishing business.

Fifteen years ago, the restaurant expanded its capacity to 200 people on two floors, a balcony and a courtyard, resulting in revived favor with the city’s local diners. Business is still booming and most people know it would be foolhardy trying to get a table without making a reservation.

It’s difficult to believe that K-Paul’s is now over thirty years old, and perhaps even more difficult to believe that Prudhomme himself is seventy. Although he no longer cooks for customers in the restaurant at 416 Chartres Street, having turned over Executive Chef duties to Paul Miller some years ago, his presence remains regular and, even on those occasions he’s not on the premises, palpable.

In the wake of Katrina’s destruction, Prudhomme was adamant about K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen being one of the first French Quarter restaurants to reopen for business. Knowing that the city’s community of musicians was hit just as hard as the restaurant industry, Prudhomme hired jazz musicians to play on the sidewalk at his front door, a practice that still occurs from time to time, now years after the fact.

Over the past quarter century, Prudhomme’s circle of operations has expanded. Samples of spices requested by early customers grew into Magic Seasonings Blends®, a spice and sauces company doing business in all 50 states and more than two dozen nations. His first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, is nearing its 100th printing and has been followed by eight more books. Despite the spice blends, books, television enterprises and image/brand licensing, the true wellspring of the empire continues to come out of the Chartres Street kitchen six nights a week.

It may be misleading to say the cuisine has developed over the past thirty years; the more appropriate word is probably “refined.” While the relatively short menu is rewritten daily to both reflect and take advantage of the seasonal and regional offerings that give Prudhomme’s signature brand of Louisiana cooking its identity, there are always a few basics to be found.

Of course, there is a blackened fish, although these days it’s far more likely to be a black drum than a classic redfish. From time to time, a “bronzed” fish (or other meat), the result of less heat and peppers, appears on the menu. While tamer than their blackened cousins, these dishes are still probably too intense for people gauche enough to ask their waitperson, “Is it spicy?” On that note, most of the food coming out of the Prudhomme/Miller kitchen can certainly be considered to be “full-flavored” if not out-and-out spicy, and those with nervous stomachs or overly delicate digestive systems should really consider going somewhere else and leave the hard-to-get seats for those who will truly appreciate them.

The kitchen notably turns out magnificent etouffées, the “smothered” stews of seafood or chicken cooked with the “trinity” (celery, green pepper and onion) in a smoky roux and serve around a mound of rice.

Prudhomme has been known to say that, “Everyone in South Louisiana makes their own special gumbo – and they are all fantastic.” While I’m inclined to disagree, having tasted a few that certainly fall short of Chef Paul’s level of enthusiasm, it would certainly be an injustice not to highlight the chef’s own rendering of what amounts to the national dish of Louisiana. It is rich, smoky and twice as filling as it looks sitting so innocently in a cup. Interestingly enough, Prudhomme enjoys his gumbo with a scoop of potato salad in it. Figuring “If that’s how the master eats it, I’ll give it a shot,” I did. It was, well, interesting, but not enough for me to make a habit of it, particularly when both elements are wonderful on their own.

Prices at K-Paul’s strike some people I know as high, the impression I initially had – at least until my first forkful. At that very moment, any correlation between a handful of nickels and a single bite of manna became sheer folly.

Money isn’t really the point at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and perhaps it never has been. For over a generation, Paul Prudhomme has been more than a chef, spice merchant and cheerleader for a city recovering from the largest disaster in our national history. He’s been a true American culinary icon, a Louisiana answer to Frances’ Paul Bocuse and Auguste Escoffier, as well as the successor to Julia Child and the acknowledged trailblazer for what has become New Orleans’ Golden Age of Chefs.

And how does anyone put a price tag on a national treasure?

K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, 419 Chartres Street (Between Conti and St. Louis Streets)

Lunch served Thursday through Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Dinner served Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

All major credit cards honored

Reservations emphatically recommended. To make a reservation, please call the Reservations Department at (504) 596-2530 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. CST, or visit the online reservation service.
Cell phones are not allowed in any of the dining rooms.

Website: www.chefpaul.com

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Commander's Palace

While its food is still among the best in New Orleans, the advancements being made by the city’s nouvelle garde of chefs have left Commander’s cuisine in their wake, relegating it almost to a museum status (even if that museum is some kind of culinary Louvre).

It must be me.

For years, Commander’s Palace has been regularly ranked as the most popular restaurant in New Orleans in the ZAGAT Guide surveys.

And I just don’t get it.

The big, blue Victorian building has been around since 1880, when Emile Commander first opened the restaurant’s doors. At that point in time, the Garden District was flourishing as home turf for the up and coming “Americans,” the people of Anglo backgrounds who wanted their own corner of New Orleans, much like the Creoles had their own in the French Quarter.

The restaurant’s popularity was not long in coming, and for its first forty years it gained and maintained a reputation for impeccable respectability. It was a popular location for families after church on Sundays and the genteel celebrations of the city’s “carriage trade.”

Shortly after the end of World War I, the upstairs areas of Commander’s Palace went through quite a transformation. While downstairs with its separate entrance remained the embodiment of societal decorum, upstairs became the gathering place of choice for prospering riverboat captains and a popular rendezvous site for gentlemen and ladies with “sporting” inclinations.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the need for upstairs parlors in establishment like Commander’s Palace was certainly diminished if not eradicated. Business returned to its somewhat starchy, patrician comportment and has stayed more or less the same ever since.

Commander’s changed hands several times though the passing of decades until members of the highly successful Brennan family bought the restaurant in 1974 and handed it down a generation or two. Currently at the helm are first cousins Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, who have also successful collaborated on the combination memoir and bartender’s guide In the Land of Cocktails: Recipes and Adventures from the Cocktail Chicks.

The Brennans made some major architectural renovations to the blue Victorian behemoth at the corners of Washington and Coliseum Streets, but the changes that reignited the restaurant’s reputation for culinary leadership were the back-to-back hirings of two executive chefs, both plucked from relative obscurity but destined for global renown – Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. It was in the kitchen at Commander’s where Prudhomme was given free reign and started developing the fusion of Louisiana cuisines into a whole new category of American cooking, and Lagasse would build upon that base and develop his celebrated reputation for ingredient innovation.

While Commander’s continues to maintain its reputation for culinary distinction, the true glory days have faded, although it’s not entirely the establishment’s own fault; after all, how many restaurants have the good fortune to hire two rising comets for the kitchen’s helm back-to-back, let alone once?

It’s no real feat for a place to live on its reputation, particularly in a city like New Orleans where institutional longevity is not only respected, but revered. It recalls the old joke that it takes 100 Southerners to change a light bulb; one to actually change the bulb, and 99 to stand around and talk about how great the old one was. There are any number of such old places in New Orleans that get by one memories of years past; Commander’s Palace is merely one of them, along with Antoine’s, The Camellia Grill, The Court of Two Sisters and others.

These are places – particularly Antoine’s and Commander’s -- that each should have aged gracefully into elegant grande dames, but somehow turned out to be the disheartened Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations. The real tragedy of these two noble dining institutions is that they would be considered top tier restaurants today were they not compared to their formers selves of former eras.

Every city has a handful of very good restaurant that used to be great ones, but now survive more on memories of joyful events that happened there than what they offer today. Happy tears blur sharp vision, causing eyes to see a room through filters of gossamer nostalgia. This is equally true for customers and proprietors alike.

The restaurant even plays on this theme at its website, where it says, “That's the Commander's atmosphere; like a well run party given by old friends.” I suppose that’s very true in you happen to be an old fried (read: longstanding regular customer) of the house, a situation made abundantly clear when The Sensible One and I had lunch there not long ago.

While it’s more a matter of architecture than anything else, some of the restaurant’s legendary mystique evaporated while we watched a tour bus disgorge its herd decked out in American Abroad (all the way down to the clunk jogging shoes and fanny packs). Yes, Commander’s Palace is a large-scale commercial enterprise and underdressed people traveling en masse in motorcoaches have to eat, too. And yes, I’m sure I’m becoming an irascible old fart, but I find myself growing increasingly homesick for the days when gentlemen wore jackets and neckties to a major city’s finer establishments (a custom I ignored once at Galatoire’s and felt naked all the way through lunch).

While the herd was being seated at a long table in the downstairs dining room, which looked curiously dated and frayed around the edges despite being totally restored post-Katrina, we were led upstairs and through a labyrinth of smaller rooms into a fairly large room with glass looking into the elegantly gnarled branches of ancient trees outside.

Despite making reservations three weeks in advance, being correctly attired in jacket and tie for me, subtropical linen for The Sensible One, and being the first people led into the room, we were promptly seated at the worst table. It was in a front corner, directly next to the kitchen doors and the busboys’ work area, and chattering waiters were lurking close enough behind us to induce mild attacks of claustrophobia. Yes, I realize that floor space in a successful restaurant is valuable real estate and it’s inevitable that there will be a lousy table or two. It strikes me that these Siberian outposts should be held for customers thoughtless enough not to make a reservation, dress like they just got off a tour bus or are already familiar as high maintenance and low tippers.

I wondered why The Sensible One and I had been assigned such an undesirable table, until she reminded me that when making reservations my phone number was requested. The number was out-of-market, out-of-state and apparently from far enough away to avert any kind of concern about offending a local regular. Remembering the website line about “like a well run party given by old friends” made us feel like gate crashers, people who really couldn’t be turned away but not really wanted, the social equivalent of one ex showing up at the other’s next weeding.

It is somewhat difficult to put aside feeling like a second-class citizen, but to the restaurant’s credit, everything else went more or less according to plan. It should be noted that halfway through lunch, the more than affable Lally Brennan stopped by out table while making he rounds and asked if everything was okay, but by then it was too late to request another table, so we all made nice and left it at that.

The soups (gumbo for The Sensible One, turtle for yours truly) outshone the entrées (cochon for her, fish cakes for me), no real surprise since Brennan family operations citywide are renowned for their highly regarded bisques, gumbo and soups. Dessert, which we shared, was a better than average pecan pie. We had a couple of cocktails each (including one of their notorious 25¢ lunch martinis) and our bill, including a 22% tip for our somewhat unctuous waiter, was well under a C-note, more than reasonable for a place with the reputation of Commander’s Palace.

All in all, Commander’s Palace is in a curious place. Less than six years after Katrina and a long hiatus for renovation, the rooms are beginning to acquire a slightly shopworn look. In fact, a disproportionate part of our meal was spent trying to decide if our upstairs room overlooking the garden looked more like an old-line country club in decline (her observation) or belonged in a downtown department store right next to “Ladies’ Fine Dresses” (mine).

While its food is still among the best in New Orleans, the advancements being made by the city’s nouvelle garde of chefs have left Commander’s cuisine in their wake, relegating it almost to a museum status (even if that museum is some kind of culinary Louvre).

Economic downturns, Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a general emancipation of America’s fashion mores have conspired to relax standards of dress and decorum in the nation’s most celebrated dining establishments. Formality and starch have become casualties of our cultural changes, but with the newfound freedom of loosened collars for men and the gradual disappearance of foundations for women comes the sunset of elegance. In order to survive, our legendary restaurants are being forced to climb down from their pedestals and fight in the trenches like everyone else. Even in the best of times, it’s a tough business, and these times are anything but rosy.

Elegance and tradition are without doubt two of Commander’s Palace’s greatest assets, but they also present the restaurant’s greatest challenges. Should the Brennan family choose to once again enforce the rules and traditions that built the business, they run a real risk of losing the whole thing. If on the other hand, they completely succumb to the “casualization” of America, they endanger the cachet that has carried Commander’s Palace for 130 years.

One thing is certain, however. Unless the restaurant expands the circle of people they treat like old friends, the party’s over.


Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue (at Coliseum Street)

Lunch served Monday – Friday, 11:30 am - 2:00 pm

Dinner served Monday – Sunday, 6:30 pm - 10:00 pm

Jazz Brunch Saturday, 11:30 am - 1:00 pm and Sunday, 10:30 am - 1:30 pm

Restaurant Closed Christmas Day and Mardi Gras Day

All Major Credit Cards Accepted and Reservations Strongly Recommended
Business Casual attire is acceptable, jackets preferred at dinner. No shorts.
Complimentary valet service provided.

Telephone: (504) 899-8221 Website: www. commanderspalace.com