Designated Diner: Wesley Hodges, music writer for a number of web publications, including Relix and NolaVie, back in town after a year in Atlanta
Day job: Project Manager, Doyle Land Services
The restaurant: Willa Jean, 611 O’Keefe Ave.
Its MO: Bakery based, this Warehouse District newcomer has something baked at the heart of every dish, whether it’s bread dumplings beneath the roast chicken or homemade ciabatta supporting the crostini.
Why Wesley chose it: There’s a lot of buzz about Willa Jean — I’ve been told numerous times since I got back that I had to try it. But people aren’t quite sure what it is. A bakery? Coffee shop? Cafe?
What Wesley looks for in a restaurant: Presentation is cool but not that important to me. The food is always paramount. If it comes in a brown bag and tastes good, I’m down. And maybe it’s because my generation is always in a hurry, but I can’t put enough emphasis on good service. I’m not one to particularly enjoy the four-hour big-deal meal.
On local dining options: Of course I missed New Orleans food while I was in Atlanta, especially seafood. Rebellion on Camp Street is my new favorite, and I like Asian-fusion. I take visitors to Atchafalaya for brunch, went to The Joint my first day back, and plan to go to Adolfo’s as soon as I want to impress somebody with a more off-the-radar spot. Juan’s Flying Burrito is a once-a-week stop for me, as are the great new Vietnamese restaurants in town. I could probably eat Mexican and Vietnamese and nothing else. That said, I find that New Orleans tends to have great cheap lunch options, but until recently not so much in the two to three-star range for dinner. That’s my real wheelhouse. I’m looking forward to trying all the new places in the Warehouse District.
Worth shouting about at Willa Jean: The roasted chicken on a bed of arugula with tomatoes and bread and pan sauce is a hot plate standout.
Also: The avocado and salmon crostini, my two top choices of a quartet of open-faced sandwiches served as an appetizer, Crostini Party. In fact, the salmon crostini may be my favorite thing here. There’s lots of color to this food; it’s like they threw the whole produce section at it, and then artfully arranged the platter. Definitely worth an Instagram post.
And: The corn and crab fritters, kind of like hush puppies, but more awesome.
Sweet ending: Desserts often trend toward the comfort food of grandmother’s kitchen. Like cookies and milk, home-spun ice cream or chocolate pudding. I opted for the peach and blackberry cobbler — share it, because there’s a frying pan full. And it’s the old-fashioned Southern kind with fresh berries tucked under a thick latticework crust.
The space: This is the new New Orleans — open, lots of glass, beams, old brick. It’s nice to see progress, and it fits the Warehouse District atmosphere.
The bottom line: I can see why there’s all the hype. Dishes combine lots of interesting flavors into a complex whole. Sweet might be the main event at this restaurant started by two pastry chefs, but savory isn’t far behind.