The new French brasserie Justine is an enveloping environment, with its mix of sultry curves and smooth contours, its zinc bar and pink tile kitchen, its smoked glass mirrors and its dashes of neon.
A key inspiration for the new restaurant, however, comes from what is just outside: the French Quarter.
Specifically, it’s the sense of the irreverent revelry that New Orleans brings to its celebrations in the French Quarter and its old-line restaurants. Justine is out to add a younger voice to the party.
Justine opened in late January at 225 Chartres St. after months of quiet build up and mounting speculation about what was taking shape within.
Even as new restaurants keep opening at a wild clip around New Orleans, Justine was bound to turn heads.
At 200 seats, this large new restaurant might be the most ambitious opening in New Orleans since the modern Brennan’s debuted in 2014.
Scan the menu (see below) and Justine looks textbook French. To Devillier, though, it is a vehicle for straight-ahead decadence.
It’s about the lavish stretch of cheese pulled from a French onion soup or undulating off the blade from a traditional raclette service. It’s mussels bathing in broth and terraced towers of chilled seafood. Most of all, it’s about steak and the French way with it, in a range of cuts, always with frites and classic sauces.
The restaurant’s attitude is worked into its design and operation. Components of this new restaurant look like they could have been in place for a century. But then there’s also a DJ stand situated by the main dining room to set the soundtrack for the night.
An antique statue of a woman stands over the bar (the staff call her Justine), while Trixie Minx, the modern burlesque queen of New Orleans, is working with the restaurant on a schedule of performers, like fan girls, drag queens and dancers.
“It’s about the way New Orleans really gets into it, that rambunctious spirit they bring where the restaurant might be upscale but they are partying,” said Devillier. “Nobody should be falling asleep in their soup here.”
A progression of styles
Justine is not much to look at from outside. That changes the moment you walk inside.
Blue French doors swing in from the street, creating a tucked-away nook up front that feels as casual as a sidewalk cafe, and where a smaller cafe menu is served.
From here, the restaurant vaults upscale, extending past a marble-topped reception stand through a progression of distinct areas. There’s a formal front dining room by the bar (and that DJ station), then an area that feels like an extension of the kitchen, with box seats and bar-height tables giving a view of dishes coming through the pass.
Tall curtains frame the back dining room, where the walls are flanked by murals mapping Paris and New Orleans by local artist Ellen Macomber. Just beyond, a snug patio has candles flickering against old brick and a fountain that resembles a traditional absinthe spout.
“We want people to be able to come here for different kinds of visits and I think the room lends itself to that,” said Freiberger-Devillier.
Until recently, this block of Chartres Street had been largely lifeless, despite its proximity to some of the city’s largest hotels and the natural flow of foot traffic drawing people deeper into the Quarter.
Justine is a major addition here, joining a French Truck coffee bar next door. Certainly, its proprietors’ track record is bound to draw attention.
Since taking the helm at La Petite Grocery in 2010, the couple have made it into one of the city’s top-tier restaurants. Devillier competed on “Top Chef” in 2013 and in 2015 he won a James Beard Award for best chef in the South.
Justine takes its name from the French pronunciation of Devillier’s first name. Its menu is more traditionally French than the contemporary flavors at La Petite Grocery or Balise. That does not mean it’s predictable.
There’s tuna Niçoise salad, duck confit and shrimp en papillote. But then the oysters are cooked like escargot, in the dimpled iron trays filled with herb butter, and a Paris-Brest, the classic dessert, is made with peanut butter pastry crust and a jelly filling for a PB&J idea.
The grilled tuna is glazed with Bordelaise, the wine-dark French kind (not the garlicky New Orleans kind). The trout amandine, under piles and piles of butter almonds, gives hints of Devillier’s early days working at Peristyle, the long-gone, but still-discussed French Quarter restaurant.
Beef is a specific fixation. Coté de boeuf, a bone-in rib chop, is a 40-oz. monster served as a shared dish, the entrecôte is a (relatively) more modest cut. Among other beef dishes, there’s the Justine burger, crusted with peppercorns and served with a wide-mouth iron crook of brandy butter sauce for burger dunking.
Daniel Causgrove, Justine’s executive chef, and previously of Seaworthy, said he was excited to be working closer to a classic culinary mode.
“For a lot of chefs, French cooking is one of your first loves,” Causgrove said. “Then you go on your career and do different things. I’m glad you get a chance to come back to it with what I’ve learned since.”
225 Chartres St., 504-218-8533
Mon.: 5:30-11 p.m.; Tue.-Sun.: 11 a.m.-11 p.m., late-night menu served Fri., Sat. 11 p.m.-1 a.m.
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