Chef Greg Sonnier marries international flavors with Louisiana cuisine

Advocate photo by SCOTT GOLD -- Kingfish is in the 300 block of Chartres Street in the French Quarter.
Advocate photo by SCOTT GOLD -- Kingfish is in the 300 block of Chartres Street in the French Quarter.

Hail to the Kingfish

Everyone loves a great comeback story. Since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina rocked our precious city, New Orleans has been on a bona fide comeback kick, and the Big Easy, many feel, has never been more exciting.

For some, though, coming back from the storm has been more of a trial than for others. No one knows this better than chef Greg Sonnier, whose beloved Mid-City restaurant Gabrielle was destroyed by Katrina. And to add insult to injury, a prolonged political battle with the city has kept Sonnier and his wife, Mary, from reopening Gabrielle at a new Uptown location for years. Even though that fight continues, it hasn’t kept Sonnier from cooking up robust flavors for hungry New Orleanians who’ve been missing his bold, Creole-inspired dishes. The newly opened French Quarter eatery Kingfish, in the 300 block of Chartres Street, sports chef Sonnier at the helm, and New Orleans diners couldn’t be happier.

A longstanding and respected veteran of the New Orleans culinary community, Sonnier made his bones in the kitchen under Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s. “Chef Paul was very much in the kitchen all the time, signing his first cookbook,” said Sonnier, noting that his tenure in Prudhomme’s kitchen coincided with the explosive popularity of the chef’s signature blackened redfish. “It was really a lot of fun. I was the blackened redfish boner, and we were cooking 385 redfish a night, every night. It was crazy!”

From there, he served as a sous chef at Brigtsen’s for a number of years before opening Gabrielle, which quickly found popularity with Crescent City diners and thrived for 13 years, until the storm hit, flooding out the nationally lauded restaurant.

When Sonnier’s political struggles to reopen Gabrielle after the storm dragged out (“You can’t beat City Hall,” the chef said, “I really learned that one.”), he was approached by the Creole Cuisine restaurant group about heading up the kitchen at a new restaurant in the Vieux Carre. Said Sonnier, “The concept for Kingfish, I thought, was really neat: a non-white tablecloth restaurant that really served white tablecloth food. Plus, there are the craft cocktails mixed in, which is something that’s actually really new to me. So I was excited about that.”

Needing a marketing hook, chef Sonnier decided on “New Louisiana Cuisine,” and set about the task of forming Kingfish’s menu. It’s an appropriate moniker for the eatery, which seems to enjoy a sort of creative duality: The chef aspires to pay homage to Louisiana traditions, while simultaneously inflecting the menu with a worldly accent, and the cocktail menu bows to the pre-Prohibition classics (The Sazerac follows the personal recipe of Huey Long, whose famous moniker is the restaurant’s namesake.), as well as offering up modern mixology concoctions.

The chef’s aspirations to be both traditional and novel play out clearly on the menu. A recent visit to Kingfish started with a dish called “Shakshuka-gator” ($12), a hot cast iron skillet filled with alligator ragout, a gently baked egg and a side of grilled bread.

“That came to me when I was eating at a restaurant in Portland, Ore., called ‘Tasty n Sons,’ ” Sonnier noted. “I thought their shakshuka (a Middle Eastern dish) was one of the most interesting things I’d tasted in a while. It’s very similar to alligator sauce piquant, but it has a harissa component to it, and then also a baked egg on top. It’s a nice dish, and a fun name, too.”

Another entree on the Kingfish menu comes directly from Cajun country: a generous plate of cochon de lait ($19), served with a helping of sweet, braised collard greens, a boudin cake, and topped with a jumbo-sized pork cracklin. Sonnier has the suckling pigs, all under 50 pounds, shipped directly from the famous Superette in Eunice. “There’s a slaughterhouse that’s actually behind the Superette,” he said, “and I don’t know of too many stores in America where there’s a grocery store in the front and a slaughterhouse right behind it!

Then, of course, is Sonnier’s famous duck, a favorite at Gabrielle that the chef has been evolving over the years. At Kingfish, the “Duck a la Saulnier” ($30) is an intriguing new take on the dish with a decidedly Asian flair, pairing the honey-crab boiled, slowly roasted boneless duck with roasted peppers, mushrooms, and an orange sauce with, of all things, ramen noodles. Garnished with a crispy wedge of fried duck skin, it’s an intriguing and fun play on one of Sonnier’s staples.

Another solid bet at Kingfish is the beautifully roasted quail with pickled mirliton stuffing and wilted spinach (on the lunch menu at $15), a perfect plate of food that will satisfy without weighing you down for the rest of the work day. And if you’re in the mood for sweets, Sonnier’s caramel apple bread pudding ($8) — a playful nod to the caramel apples one finds during Mardi Gras — is a sure thing.

While the chef is clearly excited about the forward-thinking menu at Kingfish, ultimately, Sonnier is just happy to be back in the kitchen, where he’s always thrived.

“When I started this out,” said the chef, “it was great to just get back involved with the restaurant business, more than anything. Hopefully we’ll be recognized as one of the newer, cutting-edge restaurants, the ones who are taking Creole food and bringing it beyond what it is today.”

Judging by the opening menu at Kingfish, Sonnier is more than off to a good start.