At Kingfish, roasted duck collapses into an intense sauce of citrus, soy, sherry and red peppers, all draped with duck crackling and set over ramen noodles. It's a mashup of classic French cuisine, Cajun pot cooking and Japanese street food, which makes it all the more remarkable that this dish evokes such specific New Orleans memories.
Veteran New Orleans chef Greg Sonnier has been serving some version of this dish for years. It's now a bit different from the recipe that earned acclaim at his pre-Hurricane Katrina restaurant Gabrielle, but it still bears his distinct stamp. So does much of the menu at Kingfish, which opened in April inside a French Quarter building with exposed brick, pressed tin, low-watt lighting and a healthy bustle of customers. The bar stretches through two rooms and is overseen by Chris McMillian, a walking library of drinks history.
Sonnier belongs to a school of New Orleans chefs that came to the fore a generation ago by balancing the hearty exuberance of Cajun cooking with contemporary Creole execution. A hallmark of this approach, pioneered by Sonnier's mentor Paul Prudhomme, is the layering of flavors, which may sound like marketing speak until you actually taste it. One example at Kingfish is gumbo thick with smoked rabbit and pork sausage over the lemony bite of French sorrel.
The robust cooking style may be familiar to Sonnier's fans, and the ingredients are traditional Louisiana, but the Kingfish menu is still unconventional, especially the appetizers. A crab cake is engineered as a "crab chop," a crusty orb with a protruding claw, and deviled yolk is somehow piped back into a whole fried duck egg. Bread arrives with pimento cheese whipped into something like a spicy Southern aioli. But the photogenic shrimp gaufre, or barbecue shrimp, served with a sweet potato sauce over a waffle (an adaptation of Sonnier's beloved barbecue shrimp pie), was marred by a soft, stale waffle when I tried it.
If the duck entree steals the show, a close second is the fillet of pompano cooked and served on a monolith of Himalayan salt. The fish crackles as pecan butter oozes onto the shoebox-sized block, which sizzles throughout the meal, keeping the fish hot and diners captivated by the spectacle. The theatrics go further for "junkie chick rotisserie," an otherwise straightforward roasted chicken stuck with a syringe, which the server uses to inject the bird with a final dose of basting liquid. It may be unappetizing for someone squeamish about needles, but the chicken was perfectly cooked and bursting with juice throughout.
This is not a restaurant for subtlety. Sonnier had a long, frustrating slog through City Hall red tape during an ultimately unsuccessful bid to reopen Gabrielle. Now, with this new stage set at Kingfish, it's no surprise he's come out as strong as ever.