Has anyone eaten at La Petite Grocery in New Orleans?
FROM Times Picayune.....................
Anyone who dines out regularly is familiar with the emotional fallout that accompanies the downward slide of a favorite restaurant.
First comes the realization that the initial bad meal was not the result of an "off night" but, in fact, the earliest signal of irreversible decline. Shared confessions ("It was literally inedible"; "I sent mine back") follow, along with smug message board declarations that the place was overrated in the first place. When you notice the For Lease sign in the window, you tell yourself you saw it coming. But memory of the restaurant's former glory still causes the end to sting like a wasted opportunity.
Share When Justin Devillier took over the kitchen at La Petite Grocery in 2007, the restaurant appeared vulnerable to the tug of this sad narrative. The chef fell into the job after Anton Schulte suddenly ended a successful run at the restaurant. Schulte, now the chef-owner of Bistro Daisy, was a tough act to follow. Devillier was green. Ownership had ideas about tweaking the restaurant's identity. Better restaurants have fallen prey to similarly choppy waters.
Not surprisingly, the quality of La Petite's food dipped during this transitional period, and the once reliable crowds thinned. But the dining room remained enchanting, and Devillier was cooking with too much confidence to write the place off. If the young chef wasn't exactly equal to the challenges he inherited, he did prove he would not be at fault if the restaurant failed.
Three years since moving into his current job, Devillier, together with his wife and business partner Mia Freiberger-Devillier, is on the verge of taking a controlling ownership stake in La Petite Grocery. It is a different restaurant than it was in 2007 or, for that matter, 2008, a function of Devillier's journey to becoming a markedly better chef than when he first took the job. Where the La Petite Grocery of the Schulte era thrived on the steady hand of proven professionals, the La Petite of the current era generates the excitement you only find when chefs are starting to hit their stride.
Devillier belongs to a generation of chefs intent on cooking food that conveys the hunger of its creator. The task is harder to accomplish than it sounds, as success isn't as easy as getting macho with portion sizes.
Take the appetizer Devillier reduced to an amuse bouche during a visit last week. A segment of root beer-braised beef short rib no bigger than my thumb arrived on a potato croquette the size of a Monopoly die. The audibly crunchy croquette amounted to the best tater tot of my life. A single house-made pickle slice and a few hair-thin slivers of red onion kept the beef's richness in check. The two bites ate like a meal.
Delivering the satisfaction bold ingredients promise without gilding the lily is a hallmark of Devillier's best creations. Sometimes he does it by focusing on the pleasure points in smaller dishes built to share, such as the custardy lobster beignets with cabbage slaw or the blue crab au gratin that derives its creaminess from melted brie.
Crisp, fibrous rapini provided balancing vegetal counterpoint to a juicy lamb sausage plated with saffron tagliatelle, an appetizer that appeared among one evening's list of specials. Such specials always seem to include something built around house-made pasta. On my most recent visit it was tagliatelle again, only this time it carried meaty crawfish tails, shiitake mushrooms and al dente black-eyed peas. Rounded out by a light application of green garlic beurre fondue, it was the equal of any pasta dish currently starring at the city's better Italian restaurants.
If unaware La Petite has been open for more than six years, a person could easily mistake it for brand new, and not just because of the interest the kitchen takes in handmade noodles. Devillier's desire to prove accessible food is worthy of his ambition is indicative of the type of fashionable restaurants making splashes across the country right now, as is the porkcentricity laid bare at La Petite by the wooden pig statue stationed to the right of the host stand. It almost goes without saying that special attention is paid to the cocktail program -- I'm partial to something called the Avenue -- or that the menu includes a cheeseburger that begs to be enjoyed with a hoppy microbrew or one of the medium-bodied reds from the short, tasteful wine list.
The youthful vigor in the kitchen is complemented by the history of the building itself. Devillier and Freiberger-Devillier appreciate the sense of old New Orleans conjured by the a gorgeous bistro conversion of the old Van der Haar's grocery, having even gone so far as to hang photographs taken during the store's nearly 70-year tenure at the address. The bar and dining room are equally inviting, united by a spare design and an expanse of pressed tin that, when illuminated by the night's soft light, projects a toasty-warm glow, making it appear as if even the restaurant's air were lightly caramelized.
Devillier was born in southern California, but his entire family is from Louisiana, and his effort to connect with his family's roots through food seems like an inspired exercise for this setting. The sweetbreads Devillier pan-roasts wrapped in country ham to plate with pickled cabbage and green tomato jam fulfills the high-brow potential he clearly sees in traditional Southern foodways. Same goes for the double-cut pork chop lavished with pot liquor "jus" and the startlingly clean-lined courtbouillon, an example of pot-cooking re-imagined for an age when culinary educations can be acquired in university settings.
Sometimes the chef will throw a curve at a classic that's so subtle -- the melted shiitakes that rub elbows with the bacon in his shrimp and grits, for instance -- it tastes like he's leaving well enough alone. Elsewhere, the small touches are more difficult to miss -- and in a good way. Is there a reason it has taken so long for someone to match-make steak tartare and house-made potato chips?
The kitchen can still be guilty of the carelessness that characterized too much of its output in the Devillier tenure's younger days. The handmade spaghetti with charred tomatoes and crab was overseasoned on a recent visit, and the amount of caramelized onions covering the hangar steak suggested a lack of awareness that a little caramelized onion goes a long way. Batter overwhelmed my fried quail, which also came undercooked.
La Petite's homespun, whimsical desserts often double as examples of the positive role savory flavors can play in satisfying a sweet tooth. The goat cheese mousse with marinated local fruit is the simplest and best, although the chocolate nougat tart kept my attention for longer than chocolate tends to, largely because of the way the salted peanuts matched with the dark chocolate ice cream.
Cracked pepper freckled the pool of caramel surrounding a square of sage-satsuma pound cake. The dessert had yet to make it onto either the regular menu or the list of daily specials when it was sent out to our table last week. In the minds of the chefs in the kitchen, the dish apparently could still have benefited from some tinkering. In the minds of at least one diner, it tasted like a new day rising.
We tried to eat there...we were seated and 5 minutes later Elvis Costello walked in. Our idiot server was only interested in Elvis' table and managment didn't give a crap that we'd been there for two hours and our food never showed up. It was a huge waste of time! Don't go there!!! EVER!
I've only had dinner here once, but I'll throw in a plug for their popular happy hour from 5:30 to 6:30, which I've attended many more times. They have $1 specials on certain vodka drinks, and other specials on wines by the glass and cocktails. They also have some reduced-price apps which are ok, but become excellent after numerous $1 cocktails.
Ate their several times when Schulte was at the helm; had been a fan of his since his days under Anne Kearney at Peristyle. Loved it. Since he left, I've only been three times, once for dinner, twice for lunch. Like other posters, I would say it was very good, but not great. In fairness, I haven't been since last November. That day I had a very nice salad, another tablemate had a very good burger, and I believe the other person had mussels. We had a lovely time. The time I went for dinner, I had fish of some kind, and DH had duck, I think. We had no complaints, and I certainly wouldn't make a point of not going, probably should make a point of giving it another shot. But there are places on Magazine St. I like a whole lot so usualy end up at one of those.