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Review: Gautreau’s 

The Uptown institution shines under its chef Baruch Rabasa

click to enlarge Gautreau's serves pan-roasted speckled trout
with citrus-Pommery
beurre blanc.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Gautreau's serves pan-roasted speckled trout with citrus-Pommery beurre blanc.

The marks of a timeless restaurant are manifold. There's the owner who doubles as the maitre d', greeting customers and answering phones. It's the lighting that stays perfect throughout the evening, dim without being too dark, romantic but not overtly so. It's a dining room alive with chatter — loud but not too boisterous. Then there's the food. It must be comforting, familiar, ambitious but not alienating, contemporary without straying into the avant-garde, classic but never stagnant.

  Gautreau's is such a restaurant.

  Enter the unmarked doors on Soniat Street and you're greeted by a welcoming hum, and more often than not by proprietor Patrick Singley, who exchanges pleasantries with guests as if everyone is an old friend.

  In 2016, longtime chef Sue Zemanick departed, and Singley tapped chef Baruch Rabasa to lead the kitchen. But he is not new to Gautreau's. In 2004, he worked alongside Zemanick as the restaurant's sous chef, and his return feels like a homecoming, a seamless transition for those familiar with the distinct vernacular of the place.

  Dishes are coiffed and carefully balanced, each ingredient on the plate speaking to the others. A French-inspired foie gras torchon follows the classic route only so far — flecked with pepper and fat salt crystals, served with brioche toast points — before deviating off course with the addition of a vanilla-scented pineapple chutney and a small bundle of endive for contrast and crunch.

  The menu carries a European theme throughout, though there is ample Gulf seafood and a nod to Rabasa's background — he has family from Mexico City and has spent time in Colombia. There's a delicate hamachi crudo, in which slices of fish are layered with mango, cucumber and avocado on top of a zesty green sauce. The emerald green color is derived from nopales, or prickly pear cactus, flavored with herbs and a touch of citrus.

  Then there are vegetarian empanadas, which may not seem like the most interesting entree but is one of the best dishes on the menu. With a masa made in house, each empanada is prepared to order, the golden dough arriving puffy and flaky, giving way to an earthy filling of Tuscan kale, poblano peppers and wild mushrooms. They're served with a smooth salsa roja that imparts slight heat and a shower of crumbly queso fresco, which adds a cooling, creamy finish to a flavorful, multidimensional dish.

  The menu changes, but some of Gautreau's mainstays such as duck confit and roasted chicken remain. Gulf seafood includes grouper, snapper and shrimp. A beautiful pan-roasted speckled trout arrives perched atop smoked porcini mushrooms and candylike sweet potato nibs under buttery Brussels sprouts leaves. A tart yet velvety citrus-Pommery beurre blanc ties together the elements, a winning interplay of acid and fat where the ingredients work in harmony.

  Service at Gautreau's functions like a well-oiled machine, unfolding like theater with the servers smoothly canvassing the dining room, aware of diners' needs and respectful of their space.

  On a recent evening, the crowd felt almost entirely local, but when a celebrity newsman from out of town popped in for dinner, it hardly made a blip, and he too became part of the restaurant's fabric.

  The show at Gautreau's went on, as it always does.

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