by Ian McNulty
The name Kingfish leaves little doubt that the fare at this new French Quarter restaurant will have a Louisiana focus, and indeed the menu is full of local seafood, andouille and cochon de lait. Yet none of the dishes are standards.
The crawfish salad is crossed with hoppin’ John, the BBQ shrimp is ladled over a crunchy sweet potato waffle shaped like a pirogue, the pompano is both cooked and served on a block of Himalayan salt and even the gumbo has smoked rabbit, French sorrel sausage and “dirty” basmati rice.
The direction here is somewhat less surprising when you learn the chef at Kingfish is Greg Sonnier, a veteran New Orleans chef with a long track record for robust and creative reinterpretations of Louisiana flavors. An early protégé of chef Paul Prudhomme, Sonnier and his wife Mary ran the Esplanade Avenue restaurant Gabrielle for 13 years before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Kingfish was opened last week by Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, a company that runs a string of bars and restaurants around the French Quarter. This is easily the company’s most ambitious project. The building, which was previously used as a pizza parlor, has been renovated with exposed brickwork and dark colors for a vintage feel. Sonnier works from a glass-in kitchen while the large bar is overseen by Chris McMillian, a noted leader in the city’s classic cocktail revival. There’s a piano in the bar for live music Thursday through Saturday eveings.
Kingfish marks a return of sorts for Sonnier. For the past few years, the chef has been trying to reopen Gabrielle in an Uptown neighborhood, though that effort ultimately foundered in the face of determined opposition from some neighbors and an exceptionally high level of dysfunction from City Hall’s zoning and permitting apparatus. Sonnier says his plans for Gabrielle are off, the building he purchased for it is up for sale and that he’s excited to get back into a restaurant kitchen full time.
He and sous chef Dan Dowdy built the Kingfish menu through an extensive run of pitching and testing ideas together. The results are appetizers like buffalo sliders, fried deviled duck eggs and alligator sauce piquant reworked as the traditional North African egg dish shakshouka and entrees like seafood cassoulet, a deboned, stuffed and fried whole fish with chow chow and pickled mirliton and the reprise of the duck dish that Sonnier’s fans may recognize from past menus, here tweaked with ramen noodles.
“I wanted this menu to be fun,” Sonnier says. “I wanted every dish to be unique. So that when someone takes a bite, they get a whole bunch of layered flavors.”
Kingfish now serves dinner nightly and will add lunch in a few weeks. Sonnier says the restaurant will also soon open a take-out shop called Kingfish Counter with a separate entrance along Chartres Street.
“It will be all to-go, so sandwiches, but also some of the sausages we’re making in house here,” he says.
337 Chartres St., (504) 598-5005