Coming Home Again
For years Gabrielle had been a restaurant without a home. In one of the longer-playing sagas in New Orleans restaurant lore, Chef Greg Sonnier’s quest for a new location had played out like a post-Katrina soap opera. After a long battle with red tape and a neighborhood association, Sonnier was forced to abandon his plans to relaunch Gabrielle in a spot-zoned Uptown event hall on Henry Clay. He then embarked on a series of chef gigs at notable restaurants around town, but never let go of his dream to reopen. Finally, on September 25th of 2017, it happened.
“I was driving down Orleans Avenue and saw this corner location called ‘Wok and Soul’ for sale,” Sonnier recalled. “I had no idea what that even was, but we took a look.” Discovering that the kitchen was recently built out – a big plus – he was also struck by the building’s character. “Looking at the dining room we felt it had so much potential – it just had some of the feel of our original space,” he said.
Sonnier’s roots go back to K-Paul’s, and his menu has a decidedly Cajun bent, with novel twists that make many dishes unique. Take for example the Ponce le Lapin, a rabbit belly stuffed with ‘dirty grains’ and plated over an unusually silky sauce piquant. The dish is a refined interpretation of a Cajun ponce, typically a pig stomach stuffed with sausage. This variation is far more delicate yet stays firmly planted in Cajun roots. The sauce piquant gets finished with a splash of cream, which creates the ‘ruddy’ hue. “That’s based off a trick we used at K-Paul’s for their red sauce,” Sonnier explained. “The taste is great but I also love what it does with the color of the sauce.”
No discussion of Gabrielle would be complete without a mention of Sonnier’s slow-roasted duck, arguably his most famous creation. The ducks are stuffed with onions and rosemary and roasted low and slow all day. Halfway through the process he pours off the rendered fat and adds orange juice and sherry, the reduction of which is used to build a finishing sauce with crimini mushrooms and roasted red peppers. The fork-tender duck goes over a bed of crispy shoestring potatoes that soften wherever the sauce lands. “I haven’t really changed the recipe because it is such a good dish and I didn’t really know what I could do different that could make it any better,” Sonnier said. He still fields the occasional request to serve it over pasta and notes that some people take orders home with them to make sandwiches.
Other good bets include the She-Crab bisque made in the traditional manner with pulverized shells strained through a chinois. Legacy dishes include his famous Oysters Gabie and his BBQ Shrimp Pie. Sonnier also makes his own sausage and charcuterie and uses them throughout his menu – to get a full-barreled taste consider his Tan-Douille Boudin, which is boudin-stuffed andouille garnished with homemade tasso – a Cajun trifecta.
Gabrielle is a family affair. Mary Sonnier handles the business and administrative side while their daughter Gabrielle (who is the restaurant’s namesake) handles the front-of-house. The restaurant draws an impressive crowd from Uptown and Mid-City as well as neighborhood residents. It is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only.
MEET THE CHEF
Greg Sonnier is one of New Orleans’s most respected chefs, with a career that began in Chef Paul Prudhomme’s landmark K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. That is where Greg met his wife Mary, also an accomplished chef. The pair has since become one of the culinary scene’s most recognizable husband-and-wife chef duos. Greg made a name for himself with the original Gabrielle on Esplanade Avenue, which he lost to Katrina. Greg then embarked on a peripatetic journey, which included executive chef stints at the Windsor Court’s high-end Grill Room and Kingfish in the French Quarter. Greg returns to his roots with Gabrielle, a return over twelve years in the making.
Fans of Greg Sonnier’s cuisine will also enjoy Frank Brigtsen’s restaurant Brigtsen’s in the Riverbend. The chefs are contemporaneous and share much of the same philosophies when it comes to cooking and hospitality. Both offer warm, family-run operations highlighting Cajun-Creole fare, which should strike fear into ducks nationwide.
Gabrielle, 2441 Orleans Ave., 603-2344. Mid-City/Treme; D Tues-Sat. Closed Sun & Mon.; Facebook.com/pg/GabrielleRestaurant