For Justus Jagger and his partner and chef, Jonathan Lestingi, the decision to open La Fin Du Monde, on Magazine Street in the Garden District, was made with almost shocking swiftness.
“This place kind of fell into our laps,” said Jagger. “The previous owners of Cafe Rani are friends of mine, and I just heard one afternoon that they were going to put it on the market. We decided in literally a week to go ahead and take it over.
“Jonathan was really the catalyst. If I hadn’t convinced him to come over, there was no way that I could have done this.”
Jagger met Lestingi at Bar Tonique, where Jagger was a manager and bartender, when the chef would come in for a drink after working in the kitchen at Stella! (and also for a time at Root).
The two hit it off, and when the opportunity arose to open their own eatery featuring a gorgeous courtyard in a coveted neighborhood, there was no hesitation.
Said Jagger, “We didn’t have a lot of time to really discuss anything. I found out about it on a Tuesday, and I was trying to convince him by the end of the week to quit his job and come into the great abyss with me. It was wild.”
After hand-renovating the sleek, modern interior space themselves, the pair decided to initially focus on attracting neighborhood residents, as well as members of the local service industry. Their hook: introducing a brunch menu available every day of the week, paired with a strong cocktail list.
The menu — dinner as well as brunch — veers unselfconsciously from American to French to Asian influences, and you’ll find everything from cheesy Louisiana grits to crispy duck breast, Canadian-style poutine and Korean kimchi right next to one another.
“I would describe the cuisine as ‘modern American’ or ‘New American,’ ” Lestingi said. “I’ve never worked at any restaurant that specialized in one specific kind of food, so I learned to do a lot of different things. And because of that, I don’t feel like I have to stick to the confines of any one particular style of cuisine. The core is definitely French, and on top of that it’s mostly about everywhere I’ve been, because I’ve cooked in six different states and two different countries, and I wanted to reflect that.”
Although the restaurant launched quickly, thoughtfulness and skillful execution have not been sacrificed.
A recent meal at La Fin Du Monde began with a salad of pickled beets, local tomatoes, cucumbers, and creamy goat cheese dusted with citrus powder ($10), a simple but refined starter.
Not to be satisfied with vegetables alone, next came the “bo ssam,” a Korean dish comprised of glazed pork belly — dry-cured overnight, then slowly roasted in the oven — served atop a butter lettuce wrap with radishes, pickles and a side of the chef’s beloved kimchi ($12).
Two arrive per order, and while it’s a healthy appetizer, the compulsion to order another was powerful. And this was a dish the chef invented off the cuff.
“I didn’t even really have a frame of reference for that, I just kind of made it up,” said Lestingi. “It was one of those things that I took a shot at, and the first time I tried it, we were like, ‘This is it! Drop the mic and walk away!’ ”
But does the much talked about brunch at La Fin Du Monde deserve the hype?
The answer came definitively with a plate of steak and grits, a thin-sliced, butter-seared hanger steak paired with Louisiana cheese grits, pickled shallots, cane syrup bernaise sauce and, the coup de grace, a slow-poached egg ($17).
Cooked sous-vide, the egg had a marvelously creamy texture, the yolk remaining soft but never gooey, a testament to the wonders of modern kitchen science. All elements came together perfectly.
On the sweeter side is the chef’s favorite French toast, fashioned from challah bread and served with rum-infused cane syrup, walnuts and seasonal fruits, in this case blueberries ($10).
Dinner options are similarly elegant, including a dry-aged, pan-seared duck breast with braised red cabbage, baby carrots and chili flake butter ($23).
The dry-aging is a novel approach, generally reserved for prime cuts of beef, but it works beautifully here, resulting in a crispy skin and juicy breast meat with a more concentrated duck flavor.
The cocktail program also deserves attention. New Orleans classics like the Ramos Fizz and Pimm’s Cup are excellently executed and served in antique stemware, as is the Aviation cocktail and the “4 bucks,” a ginger beer-based cocktail.
Also of note is the restaurant’s “Affogato,” a decadent dessert/cocktail fashioned from house-made ice cream, brandy and espresso.
At meal’s close, it was clear that the quick decision by Jagger and Lestingi to open their restaurant was a good one, and not just for them, but for hungry New Orleanians as well. Just hope the world doesn’t actually end before you get a taste of those grits.
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