Decorative windowpanes inside Gamay Bistro are still etched with slim-wristed hands tilting glasses of bubbly. The dining room still has the complexion of green olives. Locating either one of the restaurant's entrances still requires a combination of foreknowledge and fortitude. By all appearances, when Matt Caldwell and Claudia Trius acquired Gamay last May, they prioritized by sidestepping the ego-gratifying urge to redecorate and setting straight to work in the kitchen. Most of their food indeed proves that they've been cooking fools. When the Atlanta transplants took over, I wondered how they dared try to fill the shoes, or chef's coat, of Greg Sonnier, who sold Gamay to distill his energies into his original restaurant, Gabrielle.
There's no replacement for Sonnier -- a man whose culinary morals allow the marriage of rabbit, sesame seeds and tomatillo in a single dish -- but there is, the new owners demonstrate, a way to pick up gracefully where he left off.
Gamay's new flavor is enthusiastic and robust, not unlike Sonnier's style, and simultaneously unique in its measure of restraint. Caldwell and Trius dabble in unusual, gutsy ingredients, mixing and matching them in unexpectedly sensible combinations. The ribeye of buffalo -- salted, peppered and grilled -- may be the first cut of meat I ever threw down $30 for while maintaining peace of mind. The satin meat was intensely marbled, its juices sweet and buttery (experts say buffalo is leaner than beef, but they must be forgetting about the ribeye). A dry "ragout" of black, white and kidney beans cuts the steak's richness; wild rice in a mushroom cream sauce enhanced it. Like at a cookout, meat, beans and sauce profited from a three-way collision halfway through the meal.
These days most fish at Gamay are served "encrusted" or "crusted," a fashionable culinary technique that entails fusing the fish with other crunch-promising ingredients by broiling, baking or searing. There's an aggressiveness to encrusting that's highly addictive; chefs who encrust also tend to fill the remainder of their plates with flashy, competitive side dishes, altogether distracting from the fish. Not so at Gamay, where entrees are generally well balanced in their immensity. Mahi mahi encrusted with tacky sweet corn kernels and breadcrumbs comes with rough-mashed purple potatoes. The dyed violet look is novel, but the potatoes' earthy flavor -- part corn, part sweet potato -- flatters the sturdy fish. In another dish, the moist meatiness of grouper cuts through its spiced andouille crust; the accompanying Creole mustard cream sauce and crisp roasted potato "jambalaya" (sadly containing over-tired crawfish) work with the fish and sausage in an Old World way that calls Germany to mind.
The present clientele seems to be primarily of the conventioneer and tourist variety, which is not for Gamay's lack of local flavor. The new menu is a 50-50 split of contemporary creativity and Louisiana pride; the latter may relate to sous-chef Henry Newton, who stayed on at Gamay when Sonnier left. At $15, a buttermilk-battered and fried whole breast of chicken drizzled with a sort of onion remoulade and served with spiced red beans might be the best fine-dining deal going in the Quarter; that it's delicious is a windfall. Barbecue shrimp are served over mashed sweet potatoes and jalapeno cheese biscuits -- a massive first course brought together by the synergistic powers of Worcestershire, rosemary and orange. Crabcakes served as an appetizer are mostly filler, but at least the filler is tangy-sweet bell peppers rather than breading.
Gamay does have an Achilles heel: the soup and salad course. A warm Brie cheese dressing cooled into a floury glop of white (where's the Brie?), failing to wilt the salad's baby spinach. Maple vinaigrette and room-temperature Stilton cheese dressed another salad well -- too bad for the composting mixed greens. Butternut squash soup was heavier than cream, if that's possible, and tasted oddly like my mom's cheddar cheese soup -- not a travesty but certainly a disappointment considering the options. And a single entree didn't mesh: Slow-roasted duck removed from its bones and crowned with its own cracklin' was luscious but mired in a sauce that, though deep brown in color, was too syrupy, like raspberry preserves at a Continental breakfast.
Save room instead for rum raisin ice cream melting alongside hot apple-pecan fritters -- what waif can resist cinnamon-sugar dusted doughnut holes? Warm chocolate whisky cake is soft as pudding and pugnacious as a shot. Pumpkin creme brulee has the unfortunate consistency of canned pumpkin, but the flavor is clean, not cloying, and you can smell its freshly burnt sugar from across the room.
The playful staff matches Gamay's menu: happy, fun, primed to charm out-of-towners and prepared to feed the natives. Linen napkins spread along the bar welcome solo diners. This is where I met two traveling couples, both of whom disclosed that they had eaten at Gamay more than once during their stays. They had made the French Quarter restaurant rounds but had to return one last time for the barbecue shrimp, the buffalo ribeye, the apple fritters ... Gamay isn't the same high-caliber restaurant it once was. It's a different high-caliber restaurant.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Co-owner Matt Caldwell had his hands full when he and partner Claudia Truis took over GAMAY BISTRO from the Sonniers. In the changeover, they focused on the menu and not the room.