Bakery Bolsters a Long-Neglected Corner of New Orleans

Can food evoke both tradition and bestow an identity upon a new New Orleans neighborhood, rising not from ashes but from asphalt parking lots?

That’s a lot of pressure to put on buttermilk honey biscuits, but Willa Jean, a bakery and café opened just a few steamy weeks ago (August 6) in the northern reaches of the Crescent City’s Central Business District (CBD), is aiming to try.  New Orleans’ restaurant emperor, chef John Besh, and his executive pastry chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White, have conspired to bring back the notion of the corner bakery to a corner that, two years ago, didn’t even exist. But it’s so much more than a bakery.

The area of the CBD, just below the Superdome, was once called South Rampart, or the “Black Storyville.” In the 1910s, it was a bustling, lively destination where Louis Armstrong roamed as a child. Packed with honky-tonks, saloons, and bordellos, the crowded streets were seminal in the creation of jazz before time and indifference led to the decay and destruction of the entire community.

Today, just a few landmarks from the old days remain, such as the Iroquois Theater, where legend has it that Armstrong (posing in whiteface) won a talent show.

South Rampart languished over the next few decades until the city’s post-Katrina pickup. It was then the Domain Companies, a New York City development group, repackaged the place as the South Market. District, infilling the blighted lots by erecting five mid-rise apartments and retail stores on the parking lots where tailgaters once gathered before Saints games. The 80-seat eatery Willa Jean occupies Domain’s first completed building, called the Paramount. It is, appropriately, on the corner, as Fields points out.

There are other restaurants on the block, like swanky Ursa Major and soon-to-open Magasin, a Vietnamese uptown transplant, but it’s only Willa Jean that opens early for breakfast at 7 a.m., providing the new neighbors with somewhere to go. The bakery goes 24/7 with Fields supervising the restaurant’s lunch and dinners. White comes in at 9 p.m. to bake the breads, rolls, and pastries that will be waiting for the next morning’s customers.

Photographer Martine Boyer lives over the shop and has been a dozen times since it opened. With other gathering spots—bars, parks, and retail stores—still to be built, Willa Jean, with its cleverly produced breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings, has become a must-stop social hub for a new community with little old to latch on to.

“It’s become a destination for the neighborhood,” Boyer says on a crowded Sunday brunch. “The food offers everything for everybody. You want to come and stay—even on a Friday night.”

The operation, manned by a youthful staff in blue gingham shirts, was designed to sell go-orders of Intelligensia coffee, fresh cherry scones, and blueberry ginger muffins to rushed office workers while catering to a sit-down breakfast, lunch and dinner crowd (there are five different menus). There’s even a bar where Fields’ cocktail program features coffee-infused drinks such as the Even Steven, a mix of Chivas scotch, coffee, Drambuie, and lemon.

But it’s White’s stacks of baguettes and piles of tarts, cookies, semolina, pumpernickel, and seeded wheat breads where Fields hopes to work wonders in a city just beginning to find an appreciation for artisanal breads, as evidenced by the appearance of new bakers like Leo’s Bread and Breads On Oak.

It’s not that New Orleans didn’t appreciate refined flours. Every Mardi Gras season, king cake, a doughy cinnamon-flavored sweet bread that honors the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus and is usually laced with fillings and slathered with icing in the holiday’s trademark hues of purple, green, and yellow, rises on grocery shelves and in the local bakeries. New Orleanians proclaim their favorites from Rouses to Randazzo’s, but when it comes to French bread, the New Orleans go-to has always been Leidenheimer’s – a soft, chewy stick that seems perfect for the fried oysters and shrimp that fill the city’s po’boys, or submarine sandwiches.

That’s not Fields’ way.

“French bread should be crusty enough to scrape the roof of your mouth,” she says.

In a city that habitually unbuttons its pants to make room for rich desserts, the two chefs did not ignore the confectionary. Their menu features a shifting assortment of calories. Today’s selection included peach and blackberry cobbler and warm chocolate pudding with coconut and pecan.

“The warm chocolate pudding,” says Boyer. “I haven’t died for it, but I’m willing to.”

But the bakery’s breakout hit are the cookies +milk—an $8 order of three chocolate chip cookies flavored with five different kinds of Valrhona chocolate and fresh whole milk from a small Mississippi dairy flavored with specks of Tahitian vanilla beans.

“I gave up halfway through my entree to save room for these,” says Luke Kinnard, visiting from Madisonville, Louisiana, eyeing the one remaining cookie.

Such responses are gratifying to Fields. She spent two years perfecting the cookie. Not that she thinks there will be too much competition.

“New Orleanians don’t like to bake,” she says. “Cause it’s too damn hot.”

Willa Jean, 611 O’Keefe Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, 504.509.7334. www.willajean.com

Andrew Nelson is a contributor to National Geographic Travel. You can follow his adventures in New Orleans and elsewhere @andrewnelson on Twitter or andrewtyrrellnelson on Instagram.

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