Restaurant, closed since Katrina, to re-open on Orleans Ave.
TODD A. PRICE
Aug. 05, 2017
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mary Sonnier, on Wednesday afternoon (July 26), was measuring the windows for curtains. The day before, the building on Orleans Avenue near Broad Street, had passed its last inspection. It was finally happening. A dozen years after Hurricane Katrina closed their restaurant on Esplanade Avenue, Mary and her husband, chef Greg Sonnier, were going to reopen Gabrielle.
The little building on Orleans Avenue, already painted in the same blue and yellow colors as the original Gabrielle, is a block from Dooky Chase's Restaurant and around the corner from the new Broad Theater and the Whole Foods Market. Most recently, the building was a grocery and Chinese restaurant. Although the Sonniers had to take out the wok, otherwise the kitchen was ready to go.
Greg hopes to open by the end of August.
"August 29th would be the perfect date," said Greg, citing the anniversary of the hurricane that closed Gabrielle.
Mary thinks it might be a little later. But not much later.
The year leading up to Hurricane Katrina was a good one for the Sonniers and Gabrielle.
The couple had met when they both cooked for Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's. Greg went on to be Frank Brigtsen's sous chef at Brigtsen's for six years. The couple opened Gabrielle in 1992 in Mid-City, with Greg handling the bulk of the menu and Mary watching over the dining room and the desserts.
Greg, like his mentors Prudhomme and Brigtsen, cooked in a way that confused the boundaries between Cajun Country and Creole New Orleans, crafting a new style of cooking that was purely Louisiana.
At Gabrielle, Greg cooked dark gumbos, barbecue shrimp, braised rabbit with port wine and -- his signature dish -- slow-roasted duck with orange-sherry sauce over shoestring potatoes.
The combination of city and country came naturally to Greg. He was born and raised in New Orleans, and his dad was from Lafayette Parish. Greg remembers visiting his grandparents and hearing them speak Cajun French.
In May 2004, The New York Times decided that Greg's duck dish was worthy of an entire feature. The next summer, Greg was a finalist for the James Beard Award for the best chef in the Southeast. And then, in August, Hurricane Katrina hit.
Gabrielle was damaged in the storm, and the Sonniers decided to sell the building. First, they tried to reopen Uptown in an event space they bought on Henry Clay Avenue near their house. That effort was rebuffed by fierce opposition from a number of politically connected neighbors.
In the years after the storm, Greg worked at the Windsor Court Grill Room, Kingfish and Dickie Brennan and Co.
He and Mary, however, kept searching for a way to bring back Gabrielle.
"We looked a long time," Greg said. "We wanted a place that was unique, had character and maybe buy the property."
That almost happened last summer, when they were set to buy a building in downtown Gretna. But that deal fell through.
When they found the building on Orleans Avenue, they were ready to try Gabrielle again.
"We kind of want to run things pretty much the same," Mary said. "I feel like people still want traditional, family-run restaurants."
Greg has been looking over Gabrielle's old menus, deciding which dishes to bring back.
"I almost think our menu was like a great movie," he said. "You don't want to change too much of a great movie."
The barbecue shrimp will definitely be on the menu. And the peppermint patty dessert. And of course, the duck.
"I would say in New Orleans, every place has their special dish," he said. "And my special dish would be duck. I would be a fool not to have it on the menu."
Gabrielle was named after the Sonniers' oldest child. But their daughter was only 16 when the restaurant closed and never worked there. Now, she will be part of the business the bears her name, managing the dining room.
"When we had a restaurant and it was named after her she hated it," Mary said. "People used to always ask about it, and it took her parents away. But now she has a longing for it."
Greg is ready to get back into his own kitchen, cooking the food he made for so many years.
"I never wanted Gabrielle to be 'ain't dere no more'," he said. "It took a while, but we're here."
Correction: The original version of this story gave an incorrect for when the New York Times wrote about Gabrielle's duck dish. That story was publish in 2004, not 2005.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com