The realm between tradition and creative expression is reliably fertile territory for chefs to find inspiration. At La Petite Grocery, chef Justin Devillier works this area on more levels than most, balancing classic and innovative bistro cuisine and also the restaurant's own past and future.
The result is a place where it feels perfectly natural to spoon textbook-tender beef tartare onto salty potato chips and where the roasted chicken has bread pudding for stuffing, kale for greens and truffles running through an exceptional sticky-as-honey gravy. It's also a place where the vestiges of an earlier chef, and even another restaurant, endure — and where, at the same time, Devillier is making his own indelible mark.
That's a product of the pedigree shared by the chef and the restaurant. A California native, Devillier's first cooking job in New Orleans was at Peristyle under Anton Schulte, then chef de cuisine at that fabled but now-folded French Quarter restaurant. Schulte opened La Petite Grocery in 2004 with partners, including current owner Joel Dondis, and Devillier soon joined him. After Schulte left to open Bistro Daisy, Devillier took his place as La Petite Grocery's executive chef.
The restaurant has gone a step more casual since then, a move clearly signaled with the addition of a cheeseburger to the dinner menu. But La Petite Grocery's essential character remains as a contemporary bistro mixing its own history with Devillier's forward-looking culinary approach.
Some dishes evoke Peristyle, like the beet and blue crab salad arranged with a jeweler's precision, and some are holdovers from Schulte's tenure, like veal flank steak, an unusual cut with veal's gentle mouth feel but with more beef flavor, accentuated by dollops of marrow demi-glace.
Devillier often uses sauces and sculptural presentations to remake otherwise familiar dishes. For instance, the Gulf fish (usually redfish) gets a roasted tomato, herb-rich rendition of courtboullion, though now it's a sauce clinging to the neatly stacked cuts of fish rather than a stew in which they would sit.
The menu favors meat, but it's possible to build a relatively light meal. The spaghetti is a bundle of house-made al dente noodles with spinach, olives, cheese and chives that somehow transcends that plain-sounding list of ingredients to stir cravings in its wake. Oysters on the half shell are grilled so lightly that the delicate, shaved topping of Piave cheese only partially melts, and each oyster's full dose of buttered, pearly liquor remains cupped there for slurping.
The most exciting desserts tend toward the some-assembly-required trend, like the riff on rocky road with chocolate bread pudding and toasty, browned marshmallow holding down one end of a long, narrow plate and a scoop of ice cream waiting on the other.
The restaurant's home started life as Van der Haar's grocery more than a century ago. It's hard to get a sense of its size until you step inside, pass the stately, columned bar and enter the soaring main dining room. A long, red banquette, bentwood chairs and mellow colors give the space a classic bistro feel, even as the best dishes seem to gallop ahead boldly.