At Willa Jean (611 O'Keefe Ave.;
m), a bakery and cafe opening Aug. 6 in The Paramount building, Kelly Fields’ childhood memories find their way to the plate.
In a re-imagined cookies and milk dessert, chocolate chip cookies are served with a glass of Tahitian vanilla milk and a beater full of fresh cookie dough.
“For me, 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.
“It’s about who she encouraged me to be, which is why I am where I am now,” Fields says.
Fields is partnering with Besh Restaurant Group chefs Lisa White, Brian Landry (of Borgne) and John Besh in the venture, which aims to be a cafe, bakery, lunch and dinner spot all in one.
The space on the corner of O’Keefe Avenue has a warm, welcoming feel: high ceilings meet exposed brick walls, floor-to-ceiling windows provide an airy and light atmosphere, and finishing touches include wiry kitchen whisks, which serve as encasements for the lighting fixtures.
Enter through the main doors and the full-service coffee and pastry bar greets diners who can opt to carry out a quick breakfast or lunch or linger in one of the many tables or bar stools that fill out the 80-seat dining space.
White, Willa Jean’s pastry chef, is leading the bakery department.
The sprawling pastry bar features sweet confections sidled up to their savory counterparts. Banana bread, blueberry-ginger muffins and pecan sticky buns are nestled next to andouille breakfast tarts topped with sunny-side up eggs, flaky ham and cheese croissants and freshly made baguette sandwiches.
“I try to find a balance between stuff that evokes some sort of memory…and stuff that is just simply delicious,” White says.
Breads include crusty ciabatta, sourdough pumpernickel, semolina and seeded whole wheat bread made with locally milled flour, among others.
The breads and pastries are on White’s menu: a buttermilk and honey biscuit is topped with fried chicken and jalapeno relish; thick slices of roasted lamb are served with minted peas and arugula between two pillowy halves of an onion roll.
Full dinner service includes a hanger steak with a fried egg and potatoes; kale ravioli tossed with fresh cheese, tomatoes and pinenuts, and roasted yardbird atop crusty panzanella with fresh greens - a recipe Fields says was inspired by the iconic roasted chicken dish served at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe.
Chicago's popular Intelligentsia coffee company is supplying the restaurant and created a signature Willa Jean blend for the business. The brew comes into play at the full-service bar as well, popping up in playful coffee-based cocktails.
Both Fields and White come from extensive tenures at Besh restaurants – Fields is the executive pastry chef for the Besh Restaurant Group operation and White is the pastry chef at Domenica and its Uptown spinoff, Pizza Domenica.
Fields, who began working with Besh in 2002 and left to travel for several years following Hurricane Katrina, says the idea for the business was hatched more than a decade ago but took until now to reach fruition.
“When I came back, we picked up right off where we left,” Fields said. “We’re all a little older and smarter now, and everything just aligned itself just right.”
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.
For more information, visit the restaurant’s website here.