Dine + Design: Go Inside Justine, a New Orleans Restaurant That's Bringing French Style Back to the French Quarter
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They say the third time's a charm, and there's no shortage of charming elements inside Chef Justin Devillier's latest (and third) venture, Justine. Though the restaurant's French Quarter setting is winsome by nature, Justine's most endearing features are a collection of imports curated over the nearly three years since Devillier discovered the cavernous former furniture warehouse. This past January, he and his wife-turned-business partner, Mia Freiberger-Devillier, reopened the space as a French brasserie.
"You can open a brasserie in any building and call it a brasserie," Devillier says. "But what makes the really classic brasseries of the world super special is they all have that grand hall feel. There's a big space and lots of hustle and bustle."
"Classic" is the operative word in Devillier's recounting of how Justine came to be something of an anomaly in a part of town where French restaurants should be a dime a dozen. "I've felt a void for a long time in the French Quarter for something as traditional as Justine," Devillier told Food & Wine just before the restaurant's January debut. Instead of taking cues from New Orleans' creole-flavored haunts, the Devilliers headed to Paris alongside the husband and wife design team behind Farouki Farouki. There, they scoured flea markets and scrap yards on the hunt for architectural, design, and color inspiration, and, naturally, ate all the French onion soup Paris had to offer.
From brasseries preserved almost as if in a time capsule to some more modern, no-doubt Instagram-friendly takes, Freiberger-Devillier says their brasserie tour took them all over the City of Light. "It was interesting to see the universal draw to that type of concept but then see it in different ways and to bring back the elements that we really like."
"As far as onion soups in Paris go, I don't think I had one that was a total knockout," Devillier adds. "There are a lot of bad ones." What did resonate, however, eventually making its way back to New Orleans and into the brasserie experience at Justine, were a 20-foot zinc bar top, which the designers flanked with marble when it was installed, and a pressed-tin marquee that was placed over the restaurant's open kitchen. That piece, Freiberger-Devillier says, hung over a butcher shop at one point, and easily ranks among their favorite pieces from the trip. Behind the bar stands a six-foot tall statue of a lady nicknamed Justine (though Justin says he's the restaurant namesake, having been called Justine on many of his travels through France). "We got [the statue] from a gallery in New York, but it's originally from France by a well-known cast-iron artist," Freiberger-Devillier explains. "They had actually gotten it from an estate in New Orleans, so we felt like we were bringing her home."
While the décor-with its quintessential brasserie style of mirrors, bentwood chairs, and brass railings-did ultimately pepper in some nods to the historic French Quarter (there's a custom absinthe decanter-inspired fountain in the patio out back), the menu is as classic as it gets. "As far as the food menu goes, we wanted to create a Parisian-style brasserie using our local bounty of seafood when possible and local produce, but definitely not trying to cook the same food that a creole restaurant would be cooking," he notes. "We're focusing more on brasserie classics."
Among them: Onion soup, obviously. "That's one that will never leave the menu, it's the backbone of the concept and the cuisine," Devillier says. Then there's the beef tartare, made with egg yolks, mustard, cornichon, shallots and fresh herbs, and served with crispy fried gaufrettes chips. The slow-cooked octopus that's been chilled and marinated in a white wine vinaigrette, tossed with herbs, and garnished with roasted peppers, Louisiana citrus, mint, and basil is another favorite to date. The lobster tartine, Devillier jokes, "is kind of a fancy lobster roll dressed up in a French outfit." It's made with one slice of brioche, topped with lobster, tossed in an aioli with herbs, tarragon dressing, and then topped further with caviar.
But Devillier seems to hold a special place in his heart (and on his menu) for Justine's raclette. "We opened with this really awesome raclette broiler and realized right away that we couldn't do the service the way we originally anticipated," he explains. "So, we got a custom raclette cart built. We will be pushing the raclette broiler around the restaurant and doing it tableside, scraping off big broiled servings of [Livradoux] cheese onto plates of potatoes and cornichons," he says.
A moveable feast of cheese? It doesn't get more French than that.