Downstairs, in the lobby of the British-themed Windsor Court Hotel, guests have high tea nibbles like scones with Devonshire cream or cucumber sandwiches with the crusts removed. Upstairs in the flagship restaurant, a New Orleans native son is throwing around the rabbit tenderloin, black pepper and whole Gulf fish like he's been given the keys to the king's own larder.
Sonnier belongs to a school of modern New Orleans chefs who balance the visceral, belly-rubbing exuberance of Cajun cooking with contemporary Creole execution. He was taught by the best, after all, getting his start under Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in the early '80s and later working as sous chef to Frank Brigsten, also a Prudhomme protégé. Sonnier worked a brief stint at the Windsor Court, but it was at Gabrielle Restaurant, which he and wife Mary opened in 1992, where he made his name.
After Katrina, the Sonniers decided to move Gabrielle from its modest Esplanade Avenue address to a larger, more elegant building they bought near their home on Henry Clay Avenue. A group of neighbors successfully blocked those plans, though, and Sonnier says today the Uptown building is for sale and there is no chance he'll try to open a restaurant there again.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Grill was having its own problems. The restaurant reopened early after Katrina, as did the Windsor Court, but without its chef, who left after the storm. His replacement was introduced about a year later, but he lasted only a few months. Then the hotel called Sonnier, a chef with a devoted local following and no kitchen to call his own.
Sonnier's food is much different from the modern, haute French cuisine for which the New Orleans Grill has long been known, and the prices have changed as well. It remains a very expensive restaurant, but now at least most of the entrees are below the $30 threshold, the inverse of its earlier menus. It's still possible to get normal hotel food, like the baked chicken or the $13 club sandwich at lunch, but the real highlights of the menu are the dishes Sonnier perfected at Gabrielle and transported pretty much in tact to the Windsor Court.
One example is the excellent barbecue shrimp pie. Think of a sweet potato pie topped with gorgeous New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. The butter and black pepper sauce transforms the sweet potato filling into something totally savory and irresistible. Here, too, is Sonnier's version of the South Carolina specialty she-crab soup " velvety and creamy with tiny bubble-pops of bright smelt roe and very large knuckles of crabmeat. His smoked chicken gumbo has a fantastic roux that is thin and the color of dark chocolate and comes garnished with tiny chips of cracklin's. One nicely composed appetizer paired seared foie gras with buttery, sweet disks of pastry glistening with demi-glace. A collection of berries add bright blasts of freshness although on one visit a piece of foie gras was badly overcooked.
A four-bone rack of lamb is clearly the restaurant's showboat dish and has a uniquely rich, slightly sour crust of Creole cream cheese. For those familiar with Sonnier's cooking, the real star of the menu is his roasted duck, surrounded with an intense, dark sauce flavored with wild mushrooms, roasted red peppers, orange and sherry and then draped with a crisp coat of its skin.
Fish skin " fried to the consistency of jerky " makes a quizzical side dish of sorts for a filet of redfish that is lightly grilled and aggressively peppered. My favorite of all the fish I tried was the whole tripletail, skinned, de-boned and salt baked with lemon, garlic and herbs de Provence. Simple and elegant, the fish comes out fully cooked, yet each forkful seems as delicate as a morsel of fine sashimi. The pork rib chop, another Gabrielle favorite, is deeply marinated with rum, lime and mint, which sounds enticingly tropical but unfortunately gives the dish a wintergreen aftertaste.
For a dessert to share and linger over, the fondue with both chocolate and sea salt caramel sauces is playful and perfect.
The waiters are courteous and professional when you see them, but they usually aren't around enough to provide a high level of service, much less the luxury experience promised by the Windsor Court brand. This is a persistent problem at the New Orleans Grill that predates Katrina. When Sonnier's specialties do arrive, however, they can pack enough reminiscence of antediluvian days at Gabrielle to put it all in perspective.