- Associated Press - Saturday, October 7, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Bouquets of flowers and gifts of wine piled up around the host stand. Every seat, at the tables and along the bar, was claimed Wednesday night (Sept. 27) at the new Gabrielle Restaurant.

Mary Sonnier, looking tired but relieved, moved through the dining room on Orleans Avenue, greeting customers she knew by name. Her husband, chef Greg Sonnier, made his presence known with bowls of his gumbo and plates of his braised rabbit and his famed roasted and fried duck over shoestring potatoes.

Gabrielle Restaurant, 12 years gone, is back. And opening night felt like a homecoming.

“It’ll make you cry,” Greg said about finally having his own restaurant again. “It really will.”

The Sonniers dealt with the usual bumps of opening a new restaurant. The night before, at a preview for friends and family, a waiter and a cook didn’t show up. And at 3 p.m., two hours before diners arrived, a steam table broke and Greg Sonnier had to run out and find a replacement.

Even before opening, the couple faced an old adversary: water. On Aug. 5, the failure of the city’s pumps caused the new building on Orleans Avenue to flood.

The dozen years between the last meal served at Gabrielle - on Friday, Aug. 26, 2005 - as Hurricane Katrina approached, and the move a mile away from the original location on Esplanade Avenue, shows how hard it can be to right your life after a disaster.

Even when you run one of the city’s best restaurants.

Even when you’re a James Beard-nominated chef.

Even when your duck is deemed worthy of an entire article in The New York Times.

It’s a story of persevering.

After the storm, the Sonniers planned to move Gabrielle Uptown - to the “sliver by the river” - in a special event space down the street from their house. That decision led to a long and expensive battle with neighbors. In the end, the former event space on Henry Clay Avenue did not receive the zoning to be a restaurant.

Greg moved on, working as the chef at the Windsor Court’s Grill Room, as the opening chef for Kingfish and doing a stint with Dickie Brennan’s restaurant group.

Still, he knew he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had his own restaurant again.

“It’s truly special,” he said. “It’s fun to say I’m back behind that stove and it’s my place. I’m not working for somebody else.”

Gabrielle, the new Gabrielle, is not exactly like the old restaurant. It couldn’t be.

Gabrielle herself, the Sonniers’ oldest daughter and the namesake of the restaurant, was a kid in 2005. Now, the young woman manages the restaurant’s dining room.

The building is still cozy and modest, but instead of the tree-lined Esplanade Avenue, it shares its Treme neighborhood with Dooky Chase’s down the street and the new Broad Theater around the corner.

And, fans of the old Gabrielle should not expect a mirror image of the old menu.

Sonnier, whose family and palate both come from Cajun country, continues to build on the foundation he learned while working for Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and then as the sous chef for Frank Brigtsen at Brigtsen’s.

“I will always go back to that layered flavor,” he said. “It’s that layered flavor effect. That’s what I hold true.”

To prepare for his new menu, Sonnier dug up old ones from his original restaurant, recalling dishes he hadn’t cooked since that summer of 2005. He knew he didn’t want to pick up where he left off. He did not want the re-opened restaurant to be a history lesson.

“What can I make better?” was the question Sonnier asked himself.

On the new Gabrielle menu, a whole flounder is filled, like an overstuffed po-boy, with an inch-high layer of crabmeat and served with a fennel cream sauce. His play on ponce, traditionally a stuffed pig’s stomach, features a rabbit belly wrapped around ground rabbit mixed with grains that have the flavors of dirty rice.

Sonnier might find inspiration in the Low-Country for his “Creolized” she-crab bisque or serve his seared drum with a lemon Sriracha aioli. Still, when he talks about creating a dish, he speaks with a culinary vocabulary that could only be learned in South Louisiana.

The new Sonnier’s Cajun gumbo, for example, comes with a quail on top that is stuffed with what the chef calls “green sausage,” and made with an eclipse-dark roux. That stuffing’s flavors are inspired by oysters Rockefeller.

“Rockefeller is one of my favorite stuffings. I love the anise flavor and the spinach,” Sonnier said of the smoky dish that marries a New Orleans and a Cajun classic.

At least one dish has returned unchanged: the slow-roasted duck with an orange-sherry sauce atop a bed of shoestring potatoes.

“I thought hard and long about what I could do differently, but I don’t want to change it,” Sonnier said. “I’m going to keep it exactly the same.”

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