Nothing blue about this Bayou
Colorful setting, party mood, zesty food
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Rusty Holman is perhaps best known in Washington food circles for being the second choice to run the kitchen at Andy Shallal's Southern-inspired Eatonville in Shaw. The winner of a widely publicized contest two years ago was fired even before Eatonville opened; No. 2 finisher Holman, a native of North Carolina, was then promoted to top toque.
Holman, 37, left Eatonville in March of last year and eventually found his way to Bayou in Foggy Bottom, formerly the Rookery, an invitation-only club, both run by a team that owns half a dozen local eateries, (think Smith Point and Surfside). Bayou has evolved into a New Orleans-flavored restaurant that serves live music Wednesdays through Saturdays and dishes up a style of cooking that doesn't get as much respect as it deserves in this neck of the woods, despite an uptick in the number of sources.
Holman's po' boys are helping to change that picture. The sliced baguettes contain a choice of one of eight fillings, including fried catfish, barbecued shrimp, a vegetarian selection (made with fried green tomatoes) and juicy shaved roast beef with the customary "debris" and coleslaw, the last known as Magazine Street. I'm partial to the po' boy slathered with remoulade and packed with hot fried oysters, a.k.a. Frenchmen. Indecisive types should chill: Yet another option is Marigny, half-and-half of fish, oysters or shrimp.
If I spent more hours at the gym, I'd splurge more frequently on Holman's decadent crawfish cheesecake. It's a savory, spicy round of cream cheese swirled with smoked gouda, bell peppers, crawfish and more, set on a base of Parmesan and bread crumbs and baked in a water bath. A tangy tomato coulis helps cut the richness (and relieves some guilt in the eating).
The restaurant roams across two floors, each equipped with its own bar and dressed with colorful beads, old light fixtures and posters collected from flea markets. Tufted red booths add a jazzy touch. Even at lunch, a party mood prevails, yet everyone from the busboys to the servers to the manager goes about his or her tasks with easy grace. Yes, it's noisy upstairs on music nights, but who goes to a place celebrating New Orleans for quietude?
"First impressions?" a diligent server wants to know a few minutes after she has dropped off a plate of rockfish. I can only nod, because my mouth is full. Surely my smile signals pleasure with the meaty fish and the cubed sweet potatoes and sauteed spinach with which the entree is served. A bright hit of lemon pumps up the plate. It doesn't hurt that I'm on my second cocktail, a Hurricane that goes down smooth with rum and passion fruit. Served in a Mason jar, the drink keeps good company with the restaurant's well-made Sazeracs and Streetcars.
The kitchen fusses over the details. The butter with the tasty biscuits is scented with rosemary. Side dishes hit all the right notes: Collard greens are both smoky and tangy, while dirty rice, freckled with red pepper and fresh thyme, almost becomes a meal, given the pork sausage it includes. Order the spinach salad, and you get not only a hillock of greens arranged just so, glossed with a honey-kissed Creole dressing, but also pink bits of tasso playing peekaboo in the leaves. An old workhorse, tuna tartare, makes an appearance, but Holman gives the appetizer a spin with firm green tomato added to the diced raw fish, the mixture heaped on garlic toast.
A chalkboard on the ground floor announces the weekly specials, one of which is that New Orleans tradition of red beans and rice, served on Tuesdays rather than the customary Mondays, when Bayou is dark. For something so simple, it's a complex layering of accents, and prettily garnished with stripes of fiery red spices on its rim. One day's special of chicken breast stuffed with locally made boudin (sausage made with rice and pork) got the table talking. The bodacious centerpiece was served sliced on a pool of mustard sauce, alongside crisp green beans perked up with sauteed red onion and ruffled potatoes.
Holman nails a lot of the food, but not everything. The surprise clunker here is the gumbo. It has everything you expect of the dish except depth of flavor. (My search for a consistently brassy gumbo continues.) Bayou's jambalaya could be improved by withholding the salt shaker from the cook. As for the crawfish carbonara, be prepared to schedule a nap afterward: It's a rich and heavy bowl of seafood and cream-sauced noodles.
Every server I've encountered recommends the bread pudding for dessert. If you have room, give it a whirl. The payoff is a cup of soft, soothing pleasure. A glossy pool of caramel sauce covers the surface of custardy challah, seeping deeper into the bread with each spoonful.
Not so long ago, Holman was someone's second choice to pilot a kitchen. Right now, he's the first chef I think of when I want to visit New Orleans without hopping on a plane.
Snap to Attention: Wednesday is gator night at Bayou, where the chef has served the meat in chili, as an etouffee and with grits.