Charleston and New Orleans aren’t exactly the same, but when visitors who’ve been to The Big Easy first come to The Holy City, they’re apt to feel like they’ve found their friend’s straight-laced cousin who doesn’t cuss or fling his beer bottles on the sidewalk. The two places are united by architectural styles, humidity and a general sense of unease over all of the hotels rising on downtown streets.
One point of divergence is the traditional cuisine, which has a much thicker French accent in southern Louisiana. While 17th-century French refugees may have helped shape Charleston culture in their role as merchants and tastemakers, they didn’t radically sway Lowcountry cooking. Huguenots are probably best known today for sharing their name with an apple cake invented in Arkansas.
In New Orleans, though, the French influence on food is unmistakable, and chefs are generally expected to be familiar with the knife work and sauces it’s bequeathed. That’s made abundantly clear by the opening menu at Gabrielle, located on the first floor of the Hotel Bennett, one of those new hotels that provoked agita and legal battles by positioning itself hard by Marion Square.
Gabrielle’s dishes were developed by chef Michael Sichel, who last helmed the kitchen at Galatoire’s, a New Orleans institution that since Huey Long days has been serving crab au gratin and shrimp marguery (which calls for both hollandaise and bechamel sauces). Accordingly, much of what’s presented at Gabrielle is luxe and decadent in ways that modern gourmands like to mock when they dismiss previous generations’ fixation on French cooking. It’s also strikingly delicious.
Take, for instance, the escargot, a preparation more or less lifted from the Galatoire’s playbook. When one of Sichel’s predecessors cooked at the James Beard House in 2010, he plied guests with shucked snails bathed in a garlicky Herbsaint cream sauce, enhanced by white wine and butter. At Galatoire’s, each snail was seated in its own puff pastry shell. At Gabrielle, they’re tumbled together with just enough crushed tomatoes to break up the brownness, and spooned over a wedge of toast.
Herbsaint is more commonly seen in the company of oysters, thanks to the creation of oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, another storied restaurant just two blocks up from Galatoire’s. (Oysters Rockefeller are on the Gabrielle menu, too.)
But the liqueur’s complex anise flavor, which rams straight through the cream, is an almost better partner for a mollusk that doesn’t know the meaning of ethereal. About the only thing wrong with Gabrielle’s escargot is the stark white rectangular plate beneath it. Its earthy soul would be more at home on bistro china.
On the other end of the heaviness spectrum is a charmingly old-fashioned Cobb salad, a dish without a current Galatoire’s analogue (and pointedly without avocado.) But its components also reflect classical practice. The funky clumps of blue cheese are roughly the same size as the fatty strips of bacon, which share dimensions with the tangy pickled onions, which aren’t too much bigger than the crisp panes of lettuce.
In keeping with the chorus line effect, each ingredient is identically costumed in an equal amount of sheer shallot dressing. There’s beauty in that balance.
Yet if Sichel’s dishes are timeless, the setting is anything but. It’s hard to get a good read on the room because it’s so frequently underpopulated. I dined at Gabrielle on a weekday, a weeknight and a Saturday night on which there weren’t any reservations available between 5:15 p.m. and 9 p.m., and I’m not sure I ever saw more than one-quarter of the tables taken.
That doesn’t mean the hotel has gone unnoticed. Drinkers are flocking to a Champagne den on the opposite side of the lobby, and another bar just short of Gabrielle’s entryway. But those lively crowds, and the lobby piano player gamely accompanying their upbeat conversations, magnetize all of the energy out of the quiet dining room.
Still, even if the room was at full capacity, it would be hard to ignore the half-hearted decor, save for a bedazzled fishnet strung overhead. Sure, the tan curtains are heavy and the upholstered armchairs are sturdy, but there’s a flimsiness that arises when there aren’t any built-in booths or bars to be found. The room looks as though it could be converted into a private event space at the drop of a check.
And if tomorrow’s uncertain at Gabrielle, it’s painfully clear that the restaurant wasn’t here yesterday. It’s rare to encounter a service staff so openly competitive with more established local players. I was told on one occasion that the Gabrielle’s steaks were “better than Halls',” while a server on another night challenged a guest’s decision to stay at Charleston Place, predicting he’d book at the Bennett next time.
Service overall veers toward the undisciplined at Gabrielle, where a server once started to pour water for our table without asking if we preferred sparkling or still. That didn’t bother me one bit, but I will long cringe at the memory of a manager loudly correcting him in front of us.
Look, I’m a little worried about Gabrielle. It’s in some ways eerily reminiscent of Drawing Room and Henrietta’s, other downtown Charleston hotel restaurants that debuted with culinary talent to spare but had their early sparks smothered by their home properties’ other obligations. Running a successful restaurant is one of the toughest courses in the catalog of American capitalism. Running a successful restaurant and successful hotel simultaneously is even tougher.
For now, though, for eaters who can excuse service and design flaws in the name of excellent food, there is a fount of milk fat-enriched dishes to recommend Gabrielle. Mushroom bisque is glorious in its smooth simplicity, and a skilled cauliflower flan, eggy and tremulous, is made instantly sophisticated by golden raisins and brown butter.
Obligatory entrees are somewhat less successful. A pricey plate featuring three different lamb cuts needed something other than salt to distract from the fat, and a promising-sounding red snapper barigoule suffered from overcooking. The best bet in the main dish category is likely a steak, which in Gabrielle’s hands takes on a more feminine cast than it might elsewhere. Putting aside the question of which Charleston steak is best, know this one is tender and rich.
Baking tends to lag a beat behind cooking at Gabrielle. It’s awfully nice to see a bread basket, but none of the choices register as special. A house English muffin is the weak suit of an eggs Benedict interpretation that would otherwise make Gabrielle an ideal daytime destination. And of the available desserts, the only standout is a tight take on funfetti cake.
Here’s hoping Gabrielle has even more to celebrate when it reaches its first birthday in January 2020.