Friday lunch traditions in New Orleans can reflect how the week unfolded. Some restaurants offer fried catfish, in case you're feeling penitent; day-ending gumbos are plentiful in restaurants that serve red beans on Monday and spaghetti on Wednesday, if you just need to slow down. And then there's the Friday Lunch, tantalizing whatever transpired during the previous four-and-a-half days. Dedicated locals award this ritual the respect of a sacrament; participating in the institution is more blissful than a Saints victory, more precious than a necklace from Mignon Faget. In deference to the longstanding Friday Lunches at Galatoire's, certain worshipers still pay in stacks of crisp bills. At Peristyle, the secret to obtaining a Friday Lunch table is so guarded that few have uncovered what brotherhood controls the reservation book.
The customary etiquette of restaurant dining slackens on Friday afternoons; it's fashionable to wear hats (while eating), it's acceptable to linger (for hours) and it's expected that you'll drink (quite a lot). On Gabrielle's Friday Lunch menu -- the only lunch menu offered all week -- cocktail options outnumber appetizers and entrees combined. I hosted Californians unfamiliar with this prioritization. Two Cosmopolitans in broad daylight? Creme brulee and a snifter of cognac? My word, there must be a circle in Hell for such behavior. They could, however, recognize a good time, which is the real reason so many New Orleanians play hooky in restaurants on Friday afternoons while the rest of the country golfs.
Settled into a squat building where the former owners slung burgers, Gabrielle is notorious for Chef Greg Sonnier's powerful cuisine rather than for its appearance; squeezed onto a triangular median, the building -- like the chef -- stands alone. Despite its architectural shortcomings, the interior is as cheerful as a sun porch at lunch, with natural light seeping through white lace curtains to radiate off of white walls, white linens and yellow cala lilies in glass vases. Flowering chives, lemon verbena and fennel fronds painted in one room seem to wander in from the live herb garden outside, and the setting includes the kind of spine-bruising, metal-backed chairs you find in a garden patio.
Sonnier apprenticed under Paul Prudhomme during the 1980s, followed by a stint as Frank Brigtsen's sous-chef. While their influences still simmer in his handiwork, he long ago developed a distinctive, generous style of his own, distributing flavors like the French dole out kisses -- thus making himself their peer. Sonnier has a fondness for rabbit and duck, for rich sauces and soups made with full-bodied stocks, for layer upon layer of seasonings and for Louisiana products of a quality to match his talents. His wife, Mary, Gabrielle's original pastry chef, set a precedent for desserts so altogether warming that you might consider burglarizing the place with a fork in one hand and a glass of cold milk in the other. All of this is obtainable on Friday afternoons: three robust courses for $16.95.
A typical selection off the always-changing menu began with sesame-crusted rabbit tenderloin and a complex, cumin-spiced tomatillo sauce I would love to eat by the bowl. Next, redfish courtbouillon; the pleasantly bitter edge of lemon rind replaced tomato's acidity in the brick-red sauce, and a patty of oyster dressing heavy with crabmeat came on the side. For dessert, lemony pie filling and slices of fresh mango spilled from a crust that was thick and sweet like biscuit dough.
Baffled by their marvelous girth, one of my Californian guests tried to cut the Gulf oysters in his creamy spinach-fennel soup; the other wished that chefs in his own state would garnish balsamic-dressed salads like Sonnier does: with delicate, just-blackened redfish. Both chose the leg of lamb entree, moist and gamy in its well-doneness and served with a meaty Merlot sauce and whole red grapes. Lemon fluff filled the white dessert crepes, and the Californians recovered from cappuccino withdrawal thanks to sips of Gabrielle's wonderful cafe au lait with chicory.
The restaurant is less luminous at dinnertime, and the waitstaff -- like at lunch -- isn't well-versed in the subtleties of Sonnier's cuisine. Nevertheless, the kitchen crew realizes his culinary visions with near-perfect results (mealy shrimp and woody snap peas are the only offenses I ever tasted), and stepping up to the median's urban island of cement always feels like a special occasion.
The Sonnier's ran Gamay Bistro in the French Quarter for a few years before resuming life as a one-restaurant family last spring; 10-year-old Gabrielle is again the only place to appraise their enduring signature dishes. White, peppery rabbit sausage and smoke-filled andouille hearken to the early 1980s when the young couple together produced 500 pounds of sausage a week as K-Paul's apprentices.
There's still magic in each link. The legendary roasted duck comes awash in an Asian-inspired orange-sherry broth with oyster mushrooms, rice noodles and a leaf of its own cracklin'; thick, herbaceous She-Crab Soup is garnished with the female crab's bright orange roe. And the Peppermint Patty is a killer: pink, tongue-tingling peppermint ice cream melting over a gooey brownie bound by chocolate chips.
Perhaps the best argument for dinner at Gabrielle: there's no need to wait until Friday.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Their fling with Gamay Bistro now over, Mary and Greg Sonnier have turned all of their focus back to their 10-year-old darling, GABRIELLE.