by Ian McNulty
In a sense the restaurant Gabrielle is back. In another sense, the Uptowner events hall is serving the food of Gabrielle to anyone who wants to book a table there.
Technically speaking – and technicalities have had a lot of sway on the long-running attempt to recreate Gabrielle – this business remains a reception hall, but in practice customers can use it like a normal restaurant. Chef and proprietor Greg Sonnier explains that when you make a reservation here you sign a contract for service, and that contract could stipulate dinner for one or dinner for 100.
“We tell people ‘you’re renting out this table and this little bit of the dining room,’” says Sonnier.
At that table, you can order dishes that fans of Gabrielle and Sonnier’s cooking will recognize at once – among them, roasted duck in orange-sherry sauce, BBQ shrimp pie and oysters Gabie, a version of Italian-style baked oysters.
That’s the latest in the long-running saga of plans by Sonnier and his wife Mary to reopen Gabrielle, closed since Hurricane Katrina, in the Uptown building they bought in 2006 for that purpose. The Sonniers’ earlier attempts to retool that property as the new Gabrielle ran into Kafkaesque zoning issues from City Hall and determined resistance from some neighbors (the Times Picayune’s Brett Anderson tells the tale here). The mess prompted Sonnier to make an unsuccessful run for City Council and later the couple tried to sell the building.
More recently, however, Sonnier has done some archival research that he says confirms his property has been operated as a business since at least 1890. He’s confident this gives it the status of a legal, nonconforming use so that he can operate it as a business in its otherwise residential neighborhood. With that, the Sonniers are now using the Gabrielle Restaurant name and serving dinner, albeit under some of the contractual trappings of an events hall.
“We have people sign contracts but what a lot of people don’t know is you can walk up in person to sign and make a reservation like that,” says Sonnier. “I answer the phone Gabrielle Restaurant now, but we still call it the Uptowner too because we’re not taking the reception business out of it.”
This incarnation of Gabrielle is now serving dinner Thursday through Saturday. Sonnier says he’s considering adding Friday lunch – which was very popular at the original Gabrielle – and possibly adding another night or two for dinner service later in the year.
Sonnier got his start working under Paul Prudhomme during the 1980s and later was sous chef for Frank Brigtsen. He and Mary, a pastry chef, opened Gabrielle in Faubourg St. John back in 1992, in the building that is now Santa Fe Restaurant.
After Katrina, Sonnier had a stint as executive chef at the Windsor Court’s Grill Room and has been doing catering work and other culinary gigs in the years since. The Sonniers are serving food at the Tuesday edition of the Crescent City Farmers Market for the rest of April, dishing up lunch at the market’s Green Plate Special tent.
Gabrielle Restaurant/the Uptowner
438 Henry Clay Ave., 899-6500