ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
My first glimpse of the menu at Kingfish made me think that its owners–who operate eight restaurants in the French Quarter, all of them targeted for the visitor trade–had forced Chef Greg Sonnier to abandon his own style for a gimmicky cliche version of Louisiana food. That idea was rendered implausible when I discovered how difficult it was to get a reservation at Kingfish. Three times over a period of a month, we failed to get a table. After one of those, we were told that many weekend nights were sold out months in advance. Clearly there was something going on at this place. When we finally penetrated the fastness, we found out what: the best new restaurant of 2013, whose uniqueness was exceeded by the kitchen’s skills.
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
From the outside, Kingfish looks like a dozen other busy bars full of young customers along Chartres Street. The narrow, long dining room–also busy, with a casual, no-tablecloth look–suggests the kind of place where you’d have a burger or pizza or maybe fried seafood platters. The menu tips you off to the contrary. The style of the servers–every one of whom has an interesting life story–also sets the place apart. And the photos and memorabilia of Huey P. Long, the Kingfish himself, applies a final stamp of localism.
Going over the menu, you find that almost everything engenders recognition and a mouth-watering reaction. Yet some two-thirds of the dishes depart from the familiar to a degree great enough to have you talking with dining partners about particulars, not just the goodness in the eating. The freshness and quality of the groceries are obvious.
Greg and Mary Sonnier gathered a strong regular clientele and national recognition for their Esplanade restaurant Gabrielle in the decade before Katrina. Greg had come up through K-Paul’s and Brigtsen’s, and his command of real cooking (as opposed to buying expensive ingredients and throwing them on the grill) was strong. Damage to Gabrielle from Katrina made the Sonniers look uptown, where they bought a longtime reception hall. They were never able to open, however, due to objections from politically well-connected neighbors. Greg’s short interim as chef at the Windsor Court didn’t go well. The gig at Kingfish looked like a last chance, but now it’s clear that Greg never lost any of his moves.
The bar stretches way back from the corner of Conti and Chartres. It’s usually full, with a fine cocktail program as the draw. An excellent jazz pianist adds to the fun. The dining room is also narrow and long, and even though no tablecloths are in sight, the ambient sound doesn’t rise to disagreeable levels.
»Smoked rabbit gumbo, sorrel sausage, dirty brown basmati rice
»Butternut squash lobster bisque
Hollygrove market salad
Hoppin’ John crawfish salad, fried green tomato and remoulade
»Golden beet salad, satori cheese, pea shoots, sherry vinaigrette
Crab chop, maque choux sauce
»Barbecue shrimp, sweet potato waffle pirogue
Cajun farmhouse sausage wonton, cheese grits
Jumbo pork, duck and chicken cracklings
Alligator wings comfit, smoked tomato gastrique
»Shrimp Prima, lump crab meat, prosciutto, candied pecan slaw
Bacon-wrapped stuffed jalapeno, garlic cheese chorizo
»»”Every man a king” fish (Himalayan salt brick-seared pompano, pecan butter, red onion marmalade)
Honey crab-boiled, boneless duck, ramen noodles, roasted peppers, mushrooms
»Rib-eye steak, horseradish creme fraiche, guava butter garlic fries
»Cajun injected chicken, herbs de Provence, bacon, cebollitas
»Seared sea scallops, stone-ground grits, bacon, ginger tomato compote, basil oil.
»Grilled boneless rabbit, spinach, Merlot reduction, blue cheese shoestring potatoes
»Seafood cassoulet (shrimp, fish, crawfish, alligator sausage, flageolet beans, cheese crust
Stuffed mirliton, cornbread dressing arugula, mushroom alfredo sauce
Cedar plank Gulf fish, strawberry salad, charred Meyer lemon vinaigrette
Cochon de lait pot pie, crab boil potatoes, peas and carrots
FOR BEST RESULTS
Let the server rattle on about his or her life. This is part of the entertainment. Any claims that a dish is Cajun can be taken seriously. Specials have been excellent.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The kitchen puts out the food before you’re really expecting it.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +1
- Value +2
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +3
- Hipness +2
- Local Color
- Live music some nights
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open after 10 p.m.
- Reservations recommended