Justin Devillier and his wife and business partner Mia are in the midst of renovating a historic building in the Central Business District to open a new restaurant there. Devillier says that it should be opening before the end of the year, but was justifiably hesitant to be more specific than that. As one of New Orleans' most anticipated openings, Eater tracked down the busy chef, catching him right after returning from vacation.
Devillier shares the thought process of choosing the name of the new restaurant (Balise), gives an exclusive sneak peek at the first draft of the menu, and discusses how he plans on bringing crudite back as the new sexy beast of the local dining scene.
What inspired you to go down this path of opening up a second restaurant?
We weren't necessarily looking for a space for a restaurant. I had been in that space before, and the thing that intrigued me about it, when it got put on the market, was the age. When Mia and I walked through for the first time, it really evoked an old New Orleans kind of feel. We immediately looked at each other and just knew, we could have this very cool, old school New Orleans-feeling place.
I think that it's something that New Orleans is actually lacking in some regard. Obviously there are a lot of cool historic places in the Quarter, places like Lafitte's or Napoleon House… but as far as modern interpretations of it, there's not a whole lot. By no means do we think we'll be the only ones to do that, we just thought it was a really cool thing. We're both really suckers for old stuff - I'm way more of a vinyl record and antique motorcycle kind of guy than a modern sportscar kind of guy. I really appreciate history and tradition and heritage a lot, so we had a really good feeling about the space.
Which could be dangerous as well, with old stuff, because old stuff is always harder to fix. (Laughs)
How do you envision the space looking and feeling?
The building already gave us an identity, and we want to build on that identity. We don't want to take that building and turn it into something that it's not. From day one our renovation plans have been, let's not try turn this building into something, let's peel back the layers and get it to be what it originally was, or is.
When it really came down to thinking of the concept and the name, the stuff that comes to mind is like, old school boozy drinks, this indigenous and historic flavors of Creole Louisiana and early French and Spanish colonization. Obviously, it's not really our style to make Eggs Sardou and Bananas Foster, but use for inspiration those flavors and that mentality. What Louisiana's version of Southern food has been throughout history.
How did you come up with the name?
There was a lot of discussion about names. We looked into family names, my family's been in Louisiana since the late 1700s, so there's a history with that with different last names, and branches of my family. So I looked into a lot of those - though, my dad told me I couldn't name it one particular thing because that side of the family was too crazy. I think Devillier is a cool name, but at the same time, it's my last name so it's kind of - it could be a distraction.
We really looked into geography, you always want to look into some sort of story, some sort of history of the building you're in, or history of the region. And we really fell in love with the name Balise - it was the name of the first French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi River and it was kind of like a fort that would get ships through the sandbar - ships going through the southwest pass - to start their route up to New Orleans and beyond. Way before any hurricane protection, it was sticking out at the edge of the river, and it just kept getting hammered with storms.
I thought that was a cool story, even in modern times, a representation of the people of this region still - a determination and perseverance that little fort represented. And it's long since gone, so it pays homage to that era. The [restaurant] building was built in 1832, which was around the time when that settlement was on its way out. And it's also a really pretty name.
Balise has been described as "more casual" than La Petite Grocery. How will that manifest in the design and the vibe?
Casual is a tricky word, because it could mean so many things. You could say something is "more casual" or you can say something IS casual, so it's tough. I feel like La Petite Grocery is more casual for lunch than it is for dinner, for example. It's subjective. I think that Balise is going to be more casual, not necessarily like a cafe though, it'll definitely be a restaurant, like a parlor and tavern kind of feel to it.
My goal is to have anybody who wants to come, have a good time and really enjoy themselves. I think that different days will dictate different feelings. Especially being downtown, we're going to have to adapt. Some days, people will be having business meetings, and on other days, there might be a Pelicans game or Mardi Gras or something like that, so it's going to be a whole different feel. I think on a busy Sunday, we might take out all the barstools and have a raucous party in there. But then you come by the following Thursday, and people are going to be sitting down in suits, having lunch or late afternoon cocktails. I could be totally wrong though, this is all speculation.
Just like the space dictated to us what we thought it would look like, I think that it will be doing that during its lifetime as well.
Can you talk a little bit about your menu, and menu concept?
One thing that is influencing the menu is, we're not changing the kitchen layout that was already there. And that was something we decided from day one, because that allowed us to expedite some things. So we have a really small kitchen, which is fine, we have a really small kitchen at La Petite as well. In order to alleviate some of the space issues and volume issues out of the kitchen, we're actually going to move a station to the end of the bar.
A lot of people have been throwing the words "oyster bar" around, and I don't think that's necessarily what it's going to be. I think that's an easy way through this process to be able to talk about that space by calling it that, but I'm envisioning it being a garde manger station, a cold station. We might have a couple types of oysters at different times of the year, this and that, but there might be nights where we don't have any. We'll always have an array of different things, whether its brandade or pates or rillettes or crudite. That's one thing I really want to focus on coming off this garde manger station, some very cool, new, different versions of crudite, cold vegetable stuff. Maybe some escabeche, just some things that are unique and delicious and fitting along the same casual vibe but very elegant and executed really well.
We've been messing around with doing a version of a roasted and chilled broccoli Caesar salad, or we'll smoke a catfish and serve it with cauliflower and aioli. Just small dishes like that, vegetable-centric, shared plate type stuff coming off that bar. With a lot of strong flavors, like lemon, garlic, parsley, fish sauce, anchovy, things that cold vegetables really benefit from.
So that's going to be a big part of a program, that garde manger. That's going to be a really strong part of the restaurant, it's really going to dictate part of the identity. When people think of Balise, they're going to think about that. If we're able to execute it the way that I feel about it, the way that I know it can be done, I think it could be a really important part of the restaurant.
Besides that, part of the thing in the back of the house, we have such a small space, I wanted to get some really strong equipment. So I have a lot of stuff I don't have at La Petite, but it enables me to cook in a small kitchen very efficiently.
I hear you have an early draft of the menu - care to share anything on it?
Frisee and string bean salad with smoked oyster and buttermilk dressing - that'll be an emulsified dressing with the oysters and buttermilk - and dill. Collard green salad with meyer lemon, ginger, and pistachio. Roasted carrots with turmeric, cashews and blood orange. Pappardelle with lobster, trout roe, chive, and goats milk. Pork shoulder pastrami sandwich with pickled cabbage and Thomasville tomme.
These items are not necessarily going to be on the menu, but they capture the feel of what we're trying to do.
What about desserts?
Bronwen will be leading the dessert program. I don't want to get too far into it, because it's still very much a work in progress, but there's gonna be a lot of cool new stuff It's not gonna be like La Petite Grocery 2.0.
How do you envision splitting your time between the two restaurants?
I have a really good team of people, so it'll be nice for me to go between the two and not have to worry about anything. While I'm at one, I won't be worrying about the other. I've got a really great crew who have been with me for a really long time. This isn't something where I'm at La Petite Grocery every waking moment. If that was the case, I wouldn't be opening another restaurant. A big part of opening a second place is being 100% confident that you don't need to be everywhere. If I thought there was any danger in me leaving La Petite Grocery, I'd be stupid to do this.
You're only as successful as the people you surround yourself with. These are all guys I have a lot of trust. I feel like they feel the same way as me, and about the goals we're trying to accomplish.