It's a welcome thing that chef Greg Sonnier is back in action in the kitchen. After a protracted battle with the city left Sonnier and his wife Mary unable to reopen their beloved neighborhood restaurant Gabrielle for years following its destruction after the levee failures. Sonnier eventually found himself at the helm of Kingfish.
Kingfish is a fine place to eat, and it has many of the hallmarks locals remembered fondly from Gabrielle, including the chef's signature duck dish. Kingfish is a different restaurant; it recently expanded its operation with a lunch counter next door, simply labeled Counter.
Once it might have seemed strange for a fine dining operation to start selling sandwiches and salads for wandering tourists and locals on the go, but any doubts went out the window with the success of Donald Link's Cochon Butcher. Counter is looking to get in on some of that action.
Counter is a modest affair, with a few simple tables and chairs in a cozy room dominated by a long counter. The first thing patrons notice when entering is likely the make-your-own bloody mary bar. Counter has clearly put thought and effort into it, starting with its own vodka slowly infused atop the bar with pickled vegetables, including cocktail onions, spicy green beans and plenty of garlic. One can add tomato juice and a multitude of sauces, spices (everything from file powder to Swamp Dust seasoning blend), and an impressive array of garnishes. If you take advantage of the full range of options (garlic-stuffed olives, celery, cucumber, pepperoncini, pickled okra and more) you wouldn't need to order one of Counter's salads. Be forewarned: There's enough garlic in the house vodka to ward off a dozen vampires. It's tasty, but pungent.
If Counter is looking to give Butcher a run for its money in the sandwich game, it's doing a fine job. The Red Eye Gator Boy, a hearty po-boy featuring alligator meatballs braised in red gravy and topped with melted provolone, is a satisfying sandwich. Clearly, this one takes its cues from Sonnier's shakshuka alligator dish next door at Kingfish. Another winner is the "D.A.T.," a combination of coffee-cured duck bacon with tomato, arugula and aioli on rye bread. Counter's sliced Cuban, filled with mojo-marinated pork, sliced ham, pickles and mustard, is terrific, easily one of the best versions of that sandwich in town. Even a vegetable wrap, the saddest sandwich on many menus, was surprisingly hearty and filling.
There are a few soups available, including smoked rabbit gumbo and a decadently rich crab soup that's well worth a try. Among the salads, the succotash — loaded with black-eyed peas, flambeau beans, corn, carrots and red peppers — wasn't particularly flavorful, but Sonnier's combination of duck and soba noodles makes up for that. It's a bold, meaty salad, albeit on the oily side.
Despite being a humble lunch counter and take-out joint (many cold offerings are available to "grab and go"), Counter service is friendly and helpful, eager to answer questions and extol the virtues of the menu. There are plenty of virtues to extol. Those dropping in for a quick bite in the Quarter should find it to be a satisfying encounter.