La Petite Grocery
4238 Magazine St
New Orleans, LA 70115
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
The tag "contemporary Creole bistro" is applied to a lot of different restaurants around town, but few live up to each part of that billing like La Petite Grocery. It's unmistakably a bistro, from its urbane, yet not uptight, appearance to its devotion to a few classic French bistro dishes. The lavish use of local seafood and robust seasoning fulfills the Creole part. And, most importantly, the approach of executive chef Justin Devillier is decidedly contemporary, one that infuses new interest and new ideas without delving too far from the fundamentals that make this cuisine great.
This is a place that seems to keep going and going. The building was once a grocery (hence the name) and from the street it still retains the shape of an old corner store. The large, attractive, wooden bar is up front, and some people make a night of it here, dining at the bar or just socializing over drinks and appetizers. Keep going and you're in the much larger main dining room, where a long red banquette of padded leather runs the length of one wall and bentwood chairs stalk the tiled floor. The lighting is sensuous but not too dark. The crowd always feels predominantly local. Lunch sees a mix of suits talking business over their binders and entrees, four-tops of ladies catching up and older couples on daytime dates. The sidewalk seating can be attractive in nice weather, so long as you don't mind the periodic city bus blowing past
Service is reliably on the ball. Many on the staff seem to have worked here and with each other for some time and they know the menu, the wines, the specials and the way to read a table's mood.
A few of the starters have been part of the line-up here long enough to qualify as La Petite standards by now. The beet and blue crab salad is among the best renditions of this modern classic in town now, and the crab and brie gratin is hard to resist no matter how rich it sounds. Here's a relatively new one that deserves to stay around for a while: beef tartare served with salty, house-made potato chips to serve as scoops.
For a concentrated dose of Devillier's style, order and examine the redfish courtboullion.
It's not quite a deconstruction of the classic, but it is a dish that makes the concept all its own. Roasted pieces of fish are sculpturally stacked and coated by the herb-flecked, tomato-based sauce, while popcorn rice bulks it up and a crab beignet provides a crowning flourish on top.
Veal flank steak has had a place on La Petite's menu for years, and it's still here with the tenderness of veal, the presence of flank steak and a finishing touch of deep dark marrow demi glace. The roasted chicken is just right. The skin is taut, the flesh is juicy, the jus is augmented with truffles and the savory bread pudding makes an offbeat stuffing. You can go relatively light with a bundle of house-made spaghetti tossed with spinach, olives, cheese and chives, too.
Plenty of upscale bistros like this now make a big deal over their burger at lunch, but La Petite went ahead and added its own to the dinner menu too. It's an impressive burger, but I don't come here at dinnertime for a sandwich.
The dessert list is short but always has an option or two that stand out. The goat cheese mousse has more mature tang than simple sweet, for instance while the s'mores tart is spread across a long, narrow platter with chocolate bread pudding, browned marshmallow, ice cream and syrup all waiting for you to combine them.
The bartenders will mix some beautiful cocktails, including a list of creative house specialties. The wine list is impressive, heavily weighted to the French and decidedly the wrong place to look for many bargains. The same holds for the extensive but pricey by-the-glass list.
A surprisingly high proportion of entrees are kept below the $20 mark here, though the marquee dishes are higher and most of the appetizers are over $10. Wine and cocktails ensure this won't be an inexpensive outing. A couple should expect to spend at least $130 here for a full meal with wine - in other words, in line with the local fine-dining standard. Naturally, lunch is a more affordable option and quite a few of the dinner entrees repeat here at lower prices.
La Petite Grocery is an exceptionally satisfying restaurant, and a surprisingly versatile one too. It can be the romantic neighborhood place, the bustling, urbane hotspot, the warm den for gathering a diverse table or the adventurous culinary destination -- all depending on when you decide to visit and how you choose to use it. Most of all, it comes across as the contemporary Creole bistro at its fullest.