The Corner Grocery
I thought of Justin Devillier recently when I was going through some pictures I’d taken at a James Beard Foundation event held last year at Kingsley House. It was a nasty day, cold and overcast, and I was in no mood to sample most of the food on offer. I was talking to another chef when Devillier popped up behind me and presented me with a beautifully composed plate of seafood boudin garnished with fresh herbs, pickled okra, cucumber, onion and flowers. It was as beautiful as it was delicious, and you can see a picture at my Web site, appetites.us. The dish was light, a little spicy and had contrasting textures from the pickles, the herb/flower salad and the boudin. It demonstrated polished technique that gave the local ingredients an imaginative twist.
La Petite Grocery opened in March of 2004, with Anton Schulte as the executive chef. When Schulte decided to open Bistro Daisy in early 2007, owner Joel Dondis chose Devillier to take his place. Devillier, who moved to New Orleans in 2003, worked at Bacco, Stella! and under chef Anne Kearney at Peristyle before joining the crew at La Petite Grocery in October 2005. Since taking the position of executive chef, Devillier has gradually made the menu his own.
The cooking at La Petite Grocery is largely French in technique but with local ingredients and a local flavor. Lobster beignets with a French rémoulade and cabbage slaw are a perfect example of how this works out on the plate. The beignet is a nod to New Orleans cuisine, but the rémoulade on the dish is not the Creole version with which most locals are familiar. Rather, it’s the more traditional French preparation, with a base of mayonnaise and flavored with a little mustard, chopped capers, pickles and usually herbs such as tarragon and chervil. It’s not as piquant as the Creole version, but it works with the beignets. Similarly, Devillier bakes lump blue crabmeat with brie and chives, and he grills Gulf oysters with fresh herbs and tops them with paive vecchio cheese; both dishes marry the bounty of our waters with classic execution.
There are items on the menu that are more purely French: the steak tartare is prepared in the classic manner, with the usual garnishes of chopped capers, onion and cornichons mixed into the raw meat and topped with a quail egg. The dinner menu features a beef filet that’s grilled and served with a potato gratin, sautéed spinach and a roasted shallot demi-glace. On the appetizer portions of both the lunch and dinner menus, there’s an apple and celery root salad, in which the main ingredients are cut into matchsticks and then dressed with a white wine vinaigrette and garnished with walnuts and blue cheese. The batons of apple are cut so that each end retains a bit of the red skin, giving the dish visual appeal. The kitchen at La Petite Grocery has a firm hand with the fryer; the hand-cut fries are excellent and come with the LPG cheeseburger and the grilled hanger steak. Along with smothered greens, grits, sautéed spinach and popcorn rice, the fries are also available on their own as a snack or a side dish.
Devillier is not limited to dishes influenced by France. The handmade spaghetti with blue crab, charred tomatoes, fresh herbs and saffron butter and the potato gnocchi with bacon, Parmesan, crème fraîche and chive are more Italian than French, but both dishes also effectively pair local ingredients with Continental methods of cooking.
The restaurant occupies a building at the corner of Magazine and General Pershing streets that was once, as suggested by the name, a corner grocery. A high pressed-tin ceiling covers the front half of the restaurant, which is occupied by the bar; wooden slats cap the more formal dining room in the rear. In both rooms the walls are painted mustard-yellow, and the ceilings and accents are brownish-red –– classic French bistro decor. There are a few tables along the large window that looks onto Magazine Street, and banquette seating along a low mirrored wall that faces the bar. The red leather banquettes show up along one wall of the dining room as well, backed by a larger mirror that reflects the tables which comprise the majority of the restaurant’s seating. Most of those tables are set for four, but a few can accommodate larger parties.
Service is excellent in my experience. The wait staff are professional and attentive, and they know the menu. La Petite Grocery is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner on the same days from 5:30 p.m. until the last customer leaves. The website actually says, “‘til,” but I’m guessing that you won’t find the place open at 3 a.m. I could be wrong. I’m usually working out around then. You know, like people do. If you want to make a reservation –– or just want to tell them what a wonderful person I am –– the phone number is 504/891-3377.
(Please do not call the restaurant to tell them what a wonderful person I am. I’m sure they already know.)