337 Chartres St., New Orleans 504-598-5005
THREE STARS (out of four)
Kingfish is a new restaurant in the French Quarter that arrived with some pretty well established bona fides. The chef is Greg Sonnier, who ran the Mid-City restaurant Gabrielle for many years before Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, the bar is overseen by Chris McMillian, a well-known bartender about town and a historian of New Orleans cocktail culture.
Kingfish holds down a significant corner in the French Quarter, just across from the Supreme Court building and right in the heart of the action for this busy part of town. It’s an attractive place, with a big bar up front that stretches around to the adjacent dining room. The walls are bare brick, the lighting is dim, the décor is devoted mostly to a minimal installation of historic Louisianan photos (including a mural of “Kingfish” namesake Huey Long) and the feel of the restaurant is usually busy and bustling.
Kingfish didn’t come out of nowhere. The company that developed it has run tourist-oriented restaurants and bars across the Quarter for a while, and sometimes that DNA shows in the service. True, many of the customers coming in here are from out of town, but for a local it still rankles a bit to have a waiter assume you’ve never heard of andouille or roux when you sit down for dinner. The bar also tends to get slow when orders for the elaborate cocktails stack up.
If the waiters sometimes treat you like a tourist, the food zeros in on local flavors and then waltzes them around the kitchen, sometimes taking them for unexpected spins. The rabbit gumbo has the unusual twists of French sorrel, the “blue crab chop” is essentially a crab cake formed into a ball and fried with a crab claw protruding and the bacon-wrapped jalapeno peppers are set in a skillet of creamy, spicy cheese sauce with the consistency of queso. If you’re just popping in for a bar snack and a drink, I like the “buffalo Bill sliders,” which are small, four-bite burgers made from buffalo and pork and topped with buffalo mozzarella.
Local diners familiar with Sonnier’s past restaurants will recognize his roasted duck dish on the menu, even if it looks a bit different on the plate. He’s been serving it for many years, evolving as it goes. This time the bird shows up over a pile of ramen noodles, which soak up the citrus, soy and pepper flavors of the gravy it’s cooked with. As usual, a long duck cracklin’ crowns the dish. Another standout is the pompano, here dubbed the “every man a king fish.” Its’ a beautiful cut of the flavorful Gulf fish cooked on a big block of Himalayan salt, which acts both as the broiler and the plate for this unusual presentation. They bring it to the table on the sizzling hot block of salt, which keeps the fish warm as you work through it. The “junky chick rotisserie” involves another unusual presentation. This time a roasted chicken is stuck with an injector filled with jus, which the waitress administers tableside. It’s a bit gimmicky, but the chicken does taste especially juicy so maybe it works. Steak frites, seared scallops over grits and stuffed mirliton make conventional choices by comparison.
After the creative tour de force of the appetizers and entrees, the dessert menu plays it straight with a bread pudding, a pot de crème and similarly predictably finales. You’re not missing much if you skip this course.
Cocktails play a big role in the program here, and the menu begins with a long list of drinks inspired by historic recipes. They are solid, though as noted above sometimes they take too long to materialize when the bartenders are contending with avid cocktail hounds at the rail and a busy dining room. The wine list is basic at best.
Most appetizers are $8 to $12 and most entrees are in the mid-$20 range. With drinks, a couple should expect to spend $120 here for dinner.
Kingfish is an interesting new option in the French Quarter, serving a robust vision of Louisiana flavors. If it sometimes seems to be talking more to tourists than to locals, you can hardly fault the business case for that approach in this part of town. At the same time, however, when locals are out and about in the Quarter we can come here for original, creatively-wrought cuisine and first-class drinks in an attractive setting. It’s a nice addition to the increasingly legit French Quarter dining scene.