At the new bakery and cafe Willa Jean (611 O'Keefe Ave., 504-509-7344; www.willajean.com), Kelly Fields' childhood memories find their way to the plate. In a reimagined milk and cookies dessert, chocolate chip cookies are served with a glass of Tahitian vanilla milk and a beater of fresh cookie dough.
"When I was baking cookies growing up, the experience was never as fun if you didn't get to have a little dough straight off the cookie beater," says Fields, who is the restaurant's executive chef and named the space after her grandmother.
Fields is partners with Besh Restaurant Group chefs Lisa White, Brian Landry of Borgne and John Besh in the venture. Fields and White come from extensive tenures at Besh restaurants: Fields is the executive pastry chef for the Besh Restaurant Group, and White is the pastry chef at Domenica and its Uptown spinoff, Pizza Domenica.
Willa Jean has a warm, welcoming feel: high ceilings meet exposed brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows provide an airy and bright atmosphere, and finishing touches include wiry kitchen whisks, which serve as encasements for the lighting fixtures. A full-service coffee and pastry bar greets diners who can opt to carry out a quick breakfast or lunch or linger at one of the tables or bar stools in the 80-seat dining space.
The sprawling pastry bar features banana bread, blueberry-ginger muffins, pecan sticky buns, andouille breakfast tarts topped with sunny-side up eggs, flaky ham and cheese croissants and freshly made baguette sandwiches. Breads include crusty ciabatta, sourdough pumpernickel, semolina and seeded whole wheat bread made with locally milled flour, among others. The menu features a buttermilk and honey biscuit topped with fried chicken and jalapeno relish, and roasted lamb served with minted peas and arugula on an onion roll.
Full dinner service includes hanger steak with a fried egg and potatoes; kale ravioli tossed with cheese, tomatoes and pine nuts; and roasted yardbird atop crusty panzanella with fresh greens.
Chicago's Intelligentsia Coffee company supplies Willa Jean with a signature blend. The brew comes into play at the full-service bar and in playful coffee-based cocktails.
Willa Jean is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.