To the usual cues marking the redevelopment of downtown New Orleans — the traffic barriers, the construction equipment — there’s now a gentler, more enticing one: the aroma of fresh baked bread emanating from a new bakery and cafe, Willa Jean (611 O’Keefe Ave., 504-509-7334; willajean.com).
It pours from a kitchen vent onto a stretch of sidewalk now busier than ever with foot traffic, and on a block within a rising hub of residential addresses and retail amenities remaking what was once a barren plat of parking lots.
Willa Jean holds down one corner of the Paramount, the apartment complex that’s part of the larger South Market District development. It’s the latest from the Besh Restaurant Group, and it brings a casual, multifaceted, homey yet high-aiming approach from breakfast through dinner to a neighborhood newly abuzz with activity.
“This is everything I love about food,” said Kelly Fields, executive pastry chef for John Besh’s restaurant company and a partner in Willa Jean, which is named for her grandmother. “It’s about technique-driven comfort food.”
Willa Jean officially opens Thursday (Aug. 6), and will bring a lot to the plate. It’s a bakery with both an espresso bar serving a custom coffee blend (from Chicago’s Intelligentsia brand) and a full bar pouring specialty cocktails (including coffee-infused drinks). It’s an eatery designed for quick bites and workday lunches that’s also positioned as a dinner destination and brunch spot.
Turn one way at the door for the walk-up coffee bar and a counter of pastries and breads, where you’ll find grab-and-go meals and boxed lunches. Turn the other way, and you can request a table across the bright, window-lined dining room.
At breakfast, a tartine is covered with smoked salmon and ribbons of cucumber and radish, there are egg white omelets or avocado toast and fried boudin filling buttery biscuits. For lunch and dinner, there are sandwiches like fried chicken with a spicy, herb-laced slaw on a glistening brioche roll, and plates like grilled swordfish with basil pesto and kale-stuffed ravioli, and snacks like crab and corn beignets or pigs in a blanket made with andouille and croissant dough.
After lunch, by 2 p.m., the counter of breakfast pastries will turn into a display of small cakes, tarts and other sweets for a coffee break indulgence or dessert.
Some are Southern classics, like towering slices of 12-layer coconut cake; others are more modern renderings in single-serve portions.
Order a plate of chocolate chip cookies and they arrive with a glimmer of sea salt, a cup of vanilla-tinged milk and a steel beater carrying a gob of cookie dough, like a vignette of home cooking.
“Just having a cookie is never as satisfying as making the cookies, getting some batter off the beater, washing it down with a glass of milk,” Fields said. “Everything here from the space to the food is designed to evoke emotion.”
Bread as a basis
As head baker at Willa Jean, White directs its all-important bread component.
Willa Jean’s counters and racks are filled with sheaves of baguettes, stacks of ciabatta and lustrously dark pumpernickel loaves, next to boxy, golden sandwich loaves for slicing and seeded rounds of country bread. After the restaurant closes for the night, baking continues after-hours, making Willa Jean a 24/7 operation.
Bags of fresh loaves are dispatched to other Besh restaurants through the day.
Fields began talking about a bakery with Besh much earlier in her career, back in 2003 when she was pastry chef at Restaurant August. Those plans didn’t solidify until more recently, however, after Fields left to work and travel outside of New Orleans.
When she returned in 2010, she had grown professionally, and Besh’s empire had grown in scale and capacity, too.
The bakery project was within reach, and the more Fields and White worked together, the more ideas they shared for what Willa Jean could be.
“This place was built to highlight our passions and specialties,” White said. “We feel like we balance each other.”
Like many other Besh restaurants, Willa Jean will have a happy hour, which should begin in the next few weeks. Details are still taking shape, but these plans do bring up the prospect of a sweet tooth’s happy hour.
“What’s better than having a slice of pie and a glass of wine?” Fields asked.
Willa Jean opens at 7 a.m. daily, serving until 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are accepted.
Other eateries scheduled to open in the development include expansions of the Company Burger and the Vietnamese restaurant Magasin, which, like so much else downtown these days, remain under construction.
Note: this story has been edited to identify Lisa White as a partner in Willa Jean.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.