Willa Jean, Y’all.
One of the many ways the New Orleans dining scene has changed in the last few years is that we now have excellent bread. When I was a wee bairn, bread was either very white and very soft or “French,” (at least as we understand the term when applied to bread here.) I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Leidenheimer’s, Reising’s or Binder’s, but these days you can find a baguette in New Orleans that’s damn near as good as you can France.
My wife and I have many things in common. We are witty, erudite and oddly beautiful, and we both love good bread. We also sometimes run a bit short on lucre towards the end of the month, and for the last year or so have been enjoying lunch at home a few days each week. If my beloved had her way, we’d eat bread, cheese and a little cured meat each time. I don’t put up much of a fight; though I do like to throw a few pickles and olives into the mix.
The whole thing would be wasted without good bread, though. I know some people have given up on bread, pasta and starches generally. I pity those people. It may be true that abstaining from wheat is healthier, but “healthier” has to be understood in the context of one’s overall health, including mental. I do not think I would enjoy my new, healthy lifestyle if it meant foregoing pasta, bread, potatoes and God forbid, rice.
That was a long-winded introduction to a relatively short piece about the newest Besh Restaurant Group operation, Willa Jean.
The gist on Willa Jean is that it is a joint venture between chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White, both pastry chefs with the Besh Restaurant Group. (Chef Fields is the Group’s executive pastry chef, and chef White has been doing bang-up work at Domenica and Pizza Domenica). Chef Besh, of course, is also involved, and that should surprise no-one, because he’s a savvy enough businessman to know that the best way to keep talented folks in the fold is to give them room to grow.
When I heard about Willa Jean, I suppose I assumed the place would be a glorified coffee shop, with pastries and maybe a few sandwiches. That’s far from the case; there’s coffee (Intelligentsia, which I gather means something to people who know something about coffee), yes, and there are pastries, desserts and sandwiches. But there are also cocktails, and corn and crab fritters with a crab boil aioli that comes out of a soda siphon and is delicious.
There are pickled shrimp that are served with pickled vegetables, gribiche sauce (think the best tartar sauce you’ve ever tasted) and, reportedly, crackers. I didn’t realize until I had eaten most of the dish that I hadn’t gotten the crackers. I was still thinking about the fritters.
This is the sort of place where you see the menu and think, “eventually, I’ll end up trying all of this.” Maybe that’s just me; I don’t know. I do tend to have that reaction from time to time. But look at the lunch/dinner menu (Go here and click on “Dinner & Supper, Y’all”) and tell me which of the appetizers you wouldn’t order. There’s only one in that category for me. I have not yet tried the pigs in a blanket, or the pimento cheese, or the grilled okra. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “yet.” I’ll let someone else order the “crostini party,” because I’m a serious man, and have no truck with whimsical names.
I’m also not a huge fan of sandwiches at restaurants, on the theory that I can generally do better at home. There are exceptions; banh mi, most of the menu at The Sammich, and anyplace that serves either a lobster roll or, more relevantly to this article, a crab roll such as made at Willa Jean.
There are other sandwiches, and 4 entrees, and you can follow the link to the menu just as easily as you followed the link here. What you want to know is how the food is, and I’m not really in a position to tell you any more than I have about that. All I an say is that the plates I’ve seen have looked good, the place has been moderately full but not packed, and based on what I’ve tasted (I am still thinking about the crab fritters) I’ll eventually be able to tell you first-hand about most of the menu.
One final comment; I have now walked twice from my office at Poydras and Camp to Willa Jean. This is not a long walk, admittedly, but that walk was undertaken around noon, with a heat index somewhere between 105 and “Gehenna.” I look forward to making the trip in cooler times, but in all likelihood I’ll be back before then.
Willa Jean is located in the “South Market District,” or “SOMAD,” a portmanteau I have possibly just invented, at 611 O’Keefe Avenue, and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., (10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). The phone number is 509 7334.