A couple of weeks ago, I came across a bowl of game-changing gumbo. It was beyond dark. Swampy and thick, it was more reminiscent of a Mexican mole than anything Creole — and it was utterly delicious.
I've had my fair share of inky, dark-roux gumbos, mostly in Cajun country at diners and corner shops where waitresses called me "Sugar" and a dollop of yellow potato salad sat in the bowl. Still, nothing had prepared me for this.
I found this gumbo at Gabrielle Restaurant, Greg and Mary Sonnier's much-anticipated return to the New Orleans dining scene more than a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina forced the couple to shutter their beloved Esplanade Avenue restaurant.
The gumbo in question was a smoky quail version with bits of anise-flavored sausage bobbing next to popcorn rice. Our server informed us that the deep, dark flavor stemmed, in part, from a base that was three months in the making.
Gabrielle is a family-run business and as true to the form as they come, with Greg in the kitchen and daughter Gabie, for whom the restaurant was named, running the front of the house. Her fiance helms the bar, and Mary Sonnier floats between the kitchen and the front, greeting guests with the welcoming air and familiarity of a host at a dinner party. Dining at Gabrielle feels much like dining at an old friend's home.
There's plenty of casual banter between servers and diners, and the latter often take their time thanking the hosts and exchanging pleasantries before departing. The dining room has the soft, warm glow of a living room, and the dishes, while executed with care, aren't overly fussy or plated with pretense.
Sonnier's cooking serves as a reminder that this is a fine-dining establishment, but the dishes in his Creole repertoire always feel approachable.
Barbecue shrimp top sweet potato pie in a dish that straddles the divide between savory and sweet. The ponce de lapin appetizer looks awkward at first, but the flavorful rabbit belly wrapped tightly around a loin stuffed with dirty rice and nestled in a fiery sauce piquante, was devoured in seconds. A blackened drum fillet is served with a mirliton stuffed with shrimp dressing, maque choux sauce and lemon-Sriracha aioli — a flavorful combination in which each component speaks for itself.
Some dishes are new creations, but there are several mainstays reincarnated from the Sonniers' original restaurant. Greg's roasted duck is a thing of local lore. The duck is roasted all day and arrives as soft and pliable as pulled pork, but with the characteristic depth and earthiness of a game bird. Crispy duck cracklings top the dish, while red pepper and mushrooms are folded in and a tangy orange-sherry sauce pools around the meat and across crispy shoestring potatoes. After just a few bites, I, too, became a Sonnier duck enthusiast.
Another throwback is the peppermint patty dessert, pairing light pink ice cream and a fudgy chocolate brownie. The flavors are sweet, familiar and deeply comforting.
Gabrielle's warm hospitality is timeless and an important reminder of what makes dining out in New Orleans so special. That gumbo was among the best in the city, but in the end, dining here is about a lot more than that.