In a sea of diverse dining concepts, a small current of new eateries are dialing back to a much older model of New Orleans flavor.
Fifteen years working in fine-dining kitchens around New Orleans and Chicago gave Justin LeBlanc the experience, confidence and drive to start his own restaurant. If that sounds like a familiar career path for ambitious young chefs, what’s different in this case is where LeBlanc’s own trajectory led. Today, the 33 year old isn’t running a hip new bistro, but rather tending the boiling pots and muscling sacks of oysters around his own seafood market and po-boy shop on Airline Drive in Metairie.
Late last year, LeBlanc left his job as executive chef at the Southern Yacht Club and, along with his wife Katherine, opened Bevi Seafood Company. The name is a combination of their children’s names, Benjamin and Violet.
Here they serve po-boys, plate lunches and boiled crawfish, they sell live and fresh seafood from a retail counter, and, in the process, they join a small current of new eateries that dial back to a very old model of New Orleans flavor.
There’s plenty to distinguish the food at Bevi, from the caramelized onions that dress the roast beef po-boys to LeBlanc’s insistence that oysters should only join his seafood gumbo just before he serves a bowl. He sorts crawfish by hand and his small, counter-service eatery boasts a selection of local craft beers to wash the spicy shellfish down. Most of all what shines through are the New Orleans standards, updated just a bit for a new generation.
As the local restaurant scene has grown rapidly in recent years, it has also added unprecedented diversity. For people looking to dine out, it’s been an exciting time as chefs tackle global cuisines and restaurateurs mine the hottest national trends for new concepts. Meanwhile, others here are making the case for new restaurants that can stand apart by standing up for food New Orleans already knows by heart.
For instance, the Uptown corner joint Freret Street Po-Boy & Donut Shop, the Mid-City restaurant Neyow’s Creole Cuisine and Porter & Luke’s Restaurant in Old Metairie all took the instantly-recognizable standards of New Orleans neighborhood eateries as their starting points when they opened over the past few years.
The approach can reach far beyond the menu and marketing of a restaurant to shape the way its kitchen hires and trains staff. The new Blue Crab Restaurant & Oyster Bar on the lakefront is another good example. Here the owners decided that instead of an executive chef to create new dishes what they needed most was a team of veteran New Orleans cooks with the timing, intuition and technique to make great gumbo and fried seafood consistently.
Still, old habits endure, and some fundamentals of the fine-dining world do penetrate the way LeBlanc runs Bevi Seafood Company. He whips up charred onion mayo, for instance, and he makes a special fried oyster po-boy dressed with smoked Gouda and pastrami bacon. Behind the scenes, where the heavy lifting of this hard-working seafood operation happens, the basics of the boil are arranged with an eye for order that any trained chef would recognize as the well-prepped mise en place — only here, that takes the shape of lemons by the crate, celery by the box and cayenne pepper by the 40-gallon barrel.
Five spots for old-school flavor:
Bevi Seafood Co.
4701 Airline Dr., Metairie, (504) 885-5003; beviseafoodco.com
The Blue Crab Restaurant & Oyster Bar
7900 Lakeshore Dr., (504) 284-2898; thebluecrabnola.com
Freret Street Po-Boys & Donuts
4701 Freret St., (504) 872-9676; freretstreetpoboys.com
Neyow's Creole Café
3340 Bienville St., (504) 827-5474; neyowscreolecafe.net
Porter & Luke’s
1517 Metairie Rd., Metairie, (504) 875-4555; porterandlukes.com