A big part of the local dining equation is place. New Orleans’ French Quarter manages to feel singular and also like one of the countries that influenced its topography, architecture and food: France. The Quarter looks and feels very French, and grande dame dining is rooted in French cuisine with some Louisiana swagger.
There has always been what locals call “French French” (versus Cajun French) restaurants offering dishes that pay strict homage to the classic cuisine: salade compose, fish en papillote, gratin, bisque, “mother sauces” (hollandaise, béchamel, velouté, espangole and tomato) and crème caramel, to name a few. Take a seat in the historic dining rooms of Antoine’s, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s and be transported to France via decor, food and flavor, never losing sight of being in New Orleans, her street sounds serving as a reminder.
It’s stunning to be in one place that feels and tastes like itself and another—a delicious and soulful harmonic convergence. New Orleans’ unique, Old World backdrop brings it all together. French French food is both a constant classic and, as they say, “a la mode” (of the moment), with culinary New Orleans revisiting the cuisine through a more contemporary lens, peeking over the shoulder to nod respectfully at the grandes dames while forging chic-ly forward.
Chef Justin Devillier and wife Mia began their journey with their first restaurant, La Petite Grocery, in 2004. The Uptown restaurant is known for its French style with a soupçon of indigenous Louisiana—blue crab beignets, gnocchi Parisienne, steak tartare, panéed rabbit—that is very popular. That popularity, and a desire to do more, helped birth a second restaurant, Balise Tavern, in Central Business District in 2015.
A recent reboot of Balise Tavern’s lunch and dinner menu loudly displays a notable undercurrent of similarity between the two restaurants, which Devillier declares is him “settling into his style.” The new menu takes that “style” and gives it a cozy French pub vibe with Chicken Liver Mousse and jam to spread on biscuits, crabmeat gratin rich with Brie cream and Crispy Chicken Confit with warm kale and a Tabasco-honey-dressed potato salad.
Toward the end of 2018, keep a watchful eye and fork at the ready for the Devilliers’ new French Quarter restaurant, Justine. So named for the way some French pronounce the chef’s first name, Justine is a bold project, a complete reimagining of a former furniture store on the 200 block of Chartres Street, bringing pops of bright pink, texture, mod furnishings and neon art.
“There’s an old payphone on the wall near the bathrooms that we’re leaving in place,” Devillier says, talking about the quirk of the place. “You might want to pick up the handset; you never know what you might hear.” Describing the restaurant itself he says, “Justine is a very Parisienne French-inspired brasserie. We want it to be a playful place for people to sink into and enjoy.” As for the menu, “Expect the unexpected,” he jokes. “Actually, it’s really cool but I’m not telling...yet.”
Also very French French and new to the landscape is Couvant, located in the recently opened Eliza Jane hotel (a Hyatt flag). On the “American” side of Canal Street (as opposed to the French Quarter side) in the Central Business District, Couvant is a slick contemporary French bistro helmed by chef Brad McDonald, a Mississippi native with strong cooking chops, having worked for star chefs Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller.
In the short time Couvant has been open it has garnered a lot of “oui, chef.” The menu reads like it comes direct from a Parisian bistro. There are classic starters like the Verrine of Chicken Liver Mousse with a sweet bite of caramelized onion aspic—the works to be slathered on grilled country bread. Couvant’s tasty version of pissaladière veers from tradition by using a slice of bread as a base for caramelized onions and anchovy fillet, oddly omitting black olives, one of the dish’s three main ingredients. A standout dish is the English Peas à la Francaise, which combines dusky peas, duck egg, lardons (wide-cut bacon), mint and the licorice hit of tarragon.
There are classic salads of frilly frisee and tender butter lettuce, three choices of cut for steak frites and three versions of moules frites (mussels and fries). A red-wine rich sauce surrounds the Hanger Steak Bordelaise, a plate of juicy, deep ruby-colored meat slices. The Mussels à la Normande pairs cider and crème fraîche with butter and shallots for depth, tartness and zing. Frites are crisp, neither too skinny nor thick, and they hold up well dragged through the mussel broth you’ll want to guzzle.
Say yes to any of the desserts, and do not skip the dark chocolate-draped profiteroles or the creamy, earthy Pistachio Crème Brûlée with accompanying brown butter madeleines. Specialty cocktails have an interesting Francophile flair, too.
It’s easy to lose track of time and place in New Orleans’ French food menagerie, as both old-line and “jeune-gens” restaurants evoke an otherworldliness with true taste of place amid the European-style backdrop of the Crescent city. Listen close for the specials sounds only New Orleans offers to know precisely where you are. What you're eating might be found in Paris or New Orleans. C’est la vie en la Nouvelle Orleans.