Tuesday, August 12, 2014
La Petite Grocery: New Orleans, LA
We weren’t entirely sure what we were in store for when we crossed the bustling intersection of Magazine Street and General Pershing in New Orleans. It was our first visit to La Petite Grocery. We had done our research on Executive Chef Justin Devillier and studied the menu the night before. I secretly expected a grand foyer lined with white gloved workers standing at attention. I was worried I had underdressed and would have to wear the restaurant's jacket for gentlemen who don't meet the dress code. I was pleasently surprised when I saw the quaint yellow building on the corner. We walked in to a warm and inviting building that was flooded with charm.
Flowers were placed in mason jars atop a dividing wall. The hostess greeted us, confirmed our reservation and promptly seated us along the row of windows that line Magazine Street.
La Petite Grocery is draped in history. Established in the late 1800s, the Creole-style cottage on the corner of Magazine and (then) Berlin Street quickly became a specialty grocery store selling coffees, teas and butter that was not easily accessible to most New Orleans residents.
Although it changed hands many times, the building remained a staple in the Uptown area until it closed just after the turn of the millennium. Then in March 2004, La Petite Grocery reopened its doors with the intent of evoking a dining experience that is as classic and timeless as New Orleans itself.
Serving fresh local ingredients is a concept that is close to home for Executive Chef and Owner Justin Devillier. The Dana Point, California transplant spent most of his youth fishing and diving for lobsters.
His love and passion for local flavors inspired him to begin his career in the culinary world. Returning in 2003 to a state that his family called home for over 100 years, Chef Devillier set his hooks into New Orleans and has yet to look back. After working in the kitchens of Bacco, Stella and Peristyle Chef Devillier joined the culinary team of La Petite Grocery in 2004. Playing an influential role in the restructuring of the restaurant post Katrina, he was promoted to Executive Chef in 2007. He and his wife took over ownership of La Petite Grocery in 2010 and has been a James Beard Award Finalist for Best Chef in the South 2012, 2013 and 2014. Clearly he has some serious culinary chops and used them as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef New Orleans and has been featured on Cooking Channel’s Chuck Eats the Street. Look for him next on Esquire Network's Knife Fight where he'll battle a well-known chef from Los Angeles.
The professionalism of the staff of La Petite Grocery is out of this world. They are constantly moving to ensure your seamless and comfortable dining experience, but don’t be intimidated by the white tablecloths and fancy table setting.
Directly across the street is a mom-and-pop grocery store with a flashing neon sign called Vicky’s Supermarket; and next to that is a dry cleaners. Like most of New Orleans, Magazine Street is a fusion of culture. While people in Lafayette have been able to categorize restaurants as either fine dining or casual, there seems to be a blurred line in the cuisine and culinary borders of New Orleans. Embrace it.
La Petite Grocery serves the food that makes Louisiana great and different from the rest of the country. Dishes that would seem exotic in other places seem to fit in perfectly, and unapologetically on the menu . Without batting an eye you are reading about the Braised Beef Short Rib, and then studying the ingredients of the Turtle Bolognese.
With his commitment to cooking fresh local food, Chef Devilier and his team grow many of the fruits and vegetables needed for the restaurant at St. Stephen Catholic Church on Napoleon. The patina covered steeple, which can be seen from the front door of the restaurant, aids as a reminder that some of the freshest ingredients are right outside the doors.
Before we could order our entrees, my wife and I were quite surprised when Chef Devillier sent out a first course: compressed watermelon with finger lime, sea salt and mint. Light, delicate and refreshing, this small plate offered a respite from the New Orleans heat.
The tiny, uniform watermelon blocks were not only a reflection of Chef’s knife skills, but also of how quality ingredients play a major role in the development of a dish. I had never tried finger lime pulp (or juice vesicles) before, but was familiar with them thanks to a handful of cooking shows. Often called “lime caviar”, the bead-like pulp of a finger lime has an acidic tangy flavor and bursts in your mouth like Pop Rocks. It gave the sensation of eating a tiny lime with every bite. The salt and mint rounded out the dish with freshness and brightness that made each bite taste better than the last.
We shared the Blue Crab Beignet appetizer on recommendation of our server, “It’s hard to come here and NOT get the beignets.” Each beignet was deliciously savory and perfectly fried.
Unlike some beignets, the batter was light, almost like a cream puff. This could be the result of the beignet not being a solid ball of dough, but being stuffed with a crab meat/cream/cheese mixture. The filling, similar to that of an au gratin, was warm and gently seasoned. The sweetness of the crab meat was the star and paired perfectly with the malt vinegar aioli. You could dip anything or nothing in that aioli.
Chef Devillier surprised us again by sending out the Braised Beef Short Rib for us to sample. The only thing that could make this dish better is if it were offered as an entree and not just an appetizer. It is an absolute must when you visit La Petite. The fork tender beef melts in your mouth while still having texture thanks to a perfectly seared crust and sprinkling of fried peanuts. The flavor combination almost comes across as peanut butter and chocolate, but it still holds its savory notes and doesn't read like a dessert. The spicy cucumbers underneath bring a little heat, but do not overpower the overall flavor of the dish.
It was difficult to narrow it down, but we were able to decide on two entrees for lunch. The first, Panéed Rabbit, came with spaetzle, wilted greens and sauce grenobloise. The breaded, or panéed, rabbit cutlets were tender and well seasoned. Fried to golden perfection, the breading kept its form after each cut. The spaetzle, an egg noodle usually pushed through a colander, hopper or potato ricer into boiling water, giving the noodle its short, raindrop shape, seemed to be fried in this case.
These crunchy little noodles added texture and were addictive! The wilted greens were fresh and had just the right amount of bitterness to them. You could taste the care and timing put in to prepare them and to preserve their natural flavor. The sauce grenobloise, a sauce originating in the French city of Grenoble, is a butter based sauce featuring capers, parsley and lemon. It is classic French cuisine and it highlights all the flavors of this fantastic entree.
La Petite Grocery makes delicious fresh pasta. A true labor of love, you can almost taste the hard work that is put in with each bite. The pasta in the Turtle Bolognese, bucatini; also known as perciatelli, is a thick spaghetti like pasta with a hole running through the center. It is the perfect pasta for the sherry based Bolognese sauce. Each bite of the al dente noodle is coated inside and out with flavor and the ground turtle's consistency is tender and full of disctinct flavor. It is garnished with a fried, soft boiled egg.
Cutting into the egg allows the yolk to ooze out acting as a rich second sauce. This plate is decadent and full of character and depth.
We finished our meal with a dessert created by Pastry Chef Bronwen Wyatt. Coriander ice cream puffs with peach butter, poached blueberries and toasted almonds. These elegant ice cream sandwiches were a special on the day we visited. Each puff is delicately split in half, exposing its airy center. A perfectly round scoop of ice cream lay between the halves. This is heaven on a plate.
Light and refreshing, this dessert is only made better by the peach butter that is spread beneath the puffs. The peach flavor that Chef Wyatt is able to extract is extraordinary! Each scrape of the plate transports you to being a little kid, eating a peach with reckless abandon, juice dripping down your chin. This was quite a finale to a perfect meal.
With a second restaurant opening in the fall of 2014, Chef Justin Devillier plans to bring his take on traditional New Orleans food to Carondelet Street. The restaurant will be more causual than La Petite Grocery, and it will be a great new venue for Louisianians to celebrate the wins of their beloved Saints.
You can visit La Petite Grocery on Facebook to view more information.
Visit their website to read more of their history and to make a reservation.
La Petite Grocery
4238 Magazine St.
New Orleans, LA 70115