3201 Esplanade Avenue
From BBQ shrimp pie to orange pound cake, the food at Gabrielle Restaurant has always been a religious experience for devotees of this small, unassuming treasure tucked into New Orleans's Mid-City neighborhood. But they'll have to wait a while for chef Greg Sonnier and his wife, pastry chef Mary to resume turning out their marvelous homespun creations.
Hurricane winds punched huge holes in the restaurant's roof and blew off a hood fan. Then the levees broke and turned the neighborhood into a lake. "The water was waist high," Greg says. "People were in boats all around." Now drained, most of the area is still without electricity, telephones, or gas.
The Sonniers spent eight weeks waiting out the disaster in a Memphis hotel room with a broken stove. During their exile, Mary kept thinking about the Meyer lemon tree that stood outside Gabrielle's windows. Homesick, she craved the lemon cake she used to serve to customers, piling their plates with big spoonfuls of whipped cream. "It's real yummy, easy, and homey," she says of the custardy dessert.
When the Sonniers returned to New Orleans, they found their lemon tree so heavy with fruit that its branches nearly dragged the ground—a small miracle, given the force of Katrina's brutality. "The building must have protected it from the wind," Mary says. "And the neighborhood kids who usually pick our lemons and oranges are gone because there's only one public school open." She gathered all the fruit she could carry and carted it to her mother-in-law's house. There she cooked up fragrant batches of cake to celebrate their bittersweet return.
Help for Hurricane Victims
Months after Katrina and Rita, thousands of people in the Gulf Coast states are still going hungry. If you want to help, you can make a donation to America's Second Harvest (second harvest.org), which brings extra food from restaurants and grocers to local shelters.
The Matriarch Leah Chase
Dooky Chase's Restaurant
2301 Orleans Avenue
Leah Chase rode out the Hurricane at a relative's two-bedroom house in Baton Rouge along with a lot of other displaced family. "Honey, it was like the Underground Railroad—20 people [living there] at once. But it was a house," says the 83-year-old owner of the city's beloved soul food landmark Dooky Chase's. "Of course I cooked for everyone. Sweetheart, who else?"
An earthy grande dame with a snowy mane and radiant smile, Chase made generous pots of jambalaya for her family. But if she'd had the proper ingredients, the stew would have been a deep, dusky gumbo—the world's best medicine when New Orleans people are feeling homesick, Chase says. "Around here, we can go a mile on a bowl of it."
Chase should know. She's been cooking Creole classics since 1946, when she and her husband, Dooky, turned her mother-in-law's po'boy shop into the first place in New Orleans where African-Americans could sit down to a well- prepared meal in elegant surroundings. Her baked chicken with oyster dressing attracted everyone in town. Sarah Vaughn loved Chase's stuffed crabs; Louis Armstrong used to drop by for red beans and rice.
After the storm, three feet of water engulfed Dooky Chase's art-filled dining rooms. But Chase doesn't doubt that she'll return to her kitchen once again. Somebody's got to keep up the old Louisiana traditions—like serving fried rice cakes on Mardi Gras morning and green gumbo on the Thursday before Easter. Sweetheart, who else?