French Renaissance

Classical French fare is booming in Nouvelle Orleans.
Illustration by Tony Healey
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

 

For over a century, New Orleans restaurant menus often required translation. Offerings of fruit de mer, poisson and viandes sauced with béarnaise, bordelaise and marchand du vin were commonplace in this Francophone city. Today, only Antoine’s menu items retain their original French names, but brush up on your culinary French, as 2019 heralds the return of classical French fare.

 

Couvant | The first glimmer of nouveau New Orleans brasseries arrived in late summer 2018, when Couvant debuted in the Eliza Jane Hotel on Magazine Street. After time spent in the kitchens of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, Chef Brad McDonald is uniquely suited to execute the classics to perfection. A Yazoo City, Mississippi, native, McDonald relocated to New Orleans after several years abroad, enticed by the opportunity to cook classical French dishes in such a French city.

His goal, “to cook the ordinary extraordinarily,” is evident from escargot, which is marinated and braised before receiving a warm bath of garlic butter. In McDonald’s hands, what might seem like a simple dish of mashed potatoes becomes a silky puree mounted with an impossibly high potato-to-butter ratio in the style of Joel Robuchon. A lofty puff pastry dome crowns the duck and truffle consomme en croute while a perfectly executed

Paris-Brest awaits for dessert.

 

Justine | Chef Justin Devillier’s French Creole-inspired menus at La Petit Grocery and Balise garnered him great acclaim. But Creole takes a backseat to the flavors of an authentic Parisian brasserie at Justine, his latest restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Filled with mementoes of trips to France, Justine has all the hallmarks of traditional brasseries, from the long zinc bar and banquettes to the pressed tin marquee which once graced an early 20th-century butcher’s shop.

That butcher would approve of Justine’s cote de boeuf, sliced tableside, sauced with béarnaise, as well as the petite filet de poivre. While raclette, gougere and pommes frites all make appearances on the menu,

Chef Devillier believes the true test of a brasserie is in the onion soup. While remaining traditional in presentation, Justine’s version delivers big flavor.

Both Couvant and Justine are big-budget projects, filled with brass, bright lights and dramatic ornamentation typical of brasseries, but down St. Claude Avenue a charming DIY version quietly opened at the close of 2018.

 

Saint-Germain | Saint-Germain is the passion project of millennials Drew Delaughter, Trey Smith and Blake Aguillard, whose paths crossed several times; first at culinary school, then at Restaurant August and MoPho before the three decided to pursue the dream of opening their own authentic French eatery.

Inspired by Parisian chef Yves Cambeborde, who left behind the Michelin-starred Hotel de Crillon to create a more accessible cuisine some have dubbed “bistronomy,” the ambitious three set out to offer New Orleans something they felt was lacking. “We want to offer high-end cuisine at affordable price points,” said Smith.

An extreme work ethic combined with lots of elbow grease have clearly been employed to accomplish that goal at Saint-Germain. From the hand-hammered zinc bar to the repurposed Coke machine, where house-made charcuterie hangs, no job seems insurmountable.

Saint-Germain’s menu is just as aspirational. To manage costs, virtually everything is done in-house, from bread and pasta to experimental lacto-fermentation. Everything in the kitchen is utilized. Hard bread-crust edges that might normally be discarded are soaked for 24 hours in cognac, and then cooked slowly with fennel creating a sauce that mimics beurre blanc but is much lighter when used to sauce grilled fish.

Why are all of these talented, bright young chefs refocusing on classics from their formative days in culinary school? Devillier pointed out that classical French cooking is technique driven.

“Basic skills, once acquired, must be practiced like martial arts,” said McDonald, who added that as a chef there’s a “desire to cook this food that feels like a mother’s love.” Whatever the reason, it’s a lot easier to eat like a Parisian in 2019 and never leave the Crescent City.


Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.


 

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