In Bethesda, the Bayou Is Back
By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
At a glance: When it opened in October, Louisiana Kitchen & Bayou Bar enjoyed a luxury most restaurants do not: a built-in fan base.
The eatery is a descendant of the late Louisiana Express Company, a beloved Bethesda fixture that closed in March 2008. Before Louisiana Express owner Peter Finkhauser passed away in June of that year, he entrusted his recipes to longtime employees Carlos Arana and Jose Blanco and helped them scout out a new space for a Cajun-Creole restaurant of their own.
The duo ended up on the other side of Bethesda, and according to Arana, regulars from the old place have followed. They're greeted with a dining room that's slightly better appointed than the old joint was. New Orleans-themed posters line cheery yellow walls, and Bayou music rings softly from the speakers. Aside from a few Mardi Gras masks, the decor doesn't scream "Laissez les bon temps roulez!" It's casual, pleasant and well suited for a weeknight dinner.
On the menu: Just as it was at Louisiana Express, this kitchen's menu is more customizable than most. Order the etouffee, jambalaya, stir fry and creole dishes, and you decide which ingredients perk up your selection, be it andouille sausage, chicken, seafood or "the works."
Opt for the sausage. In all the dishes I tried, that ingredient brought the snappiest flavor to the plate. Jambalaya with the works tosses shrimp, scallops, sausage and other items into a delicious jumble, but the chicken on top felt like a latecomer to the party. It lacked the seasoning that the other ingredients shared.
Main courses come in large and small portions. I found the small size sufficient for a meal, particularly if you want to add a cup of smoky gumbo, a starter of crispy crab balls or a side of cool, minced coleslaw. All meals come with fluffy fist-size biscuits perfect for soaking up extra sauce.
Po'boys (oyster, catfish, shrimp or scallop) are big sellers, and it's easy to see why. The restaurant's version of the New Orleans classic oyster sandwich is as good as any I've had locally, made with crispy-fried bivalves, a zippy remoulade and a generous French loaf.
Brunch is worth trying, but stick to egg dishes. Spicy Cajun-Creole sauces and seasonings add zest to traditional Benedicts and omelets. The sweet Louisiana French toast was tasty in a funnel-cake kind of way, but even for a dedicated sweet tooth, it was too heavy for the first meal of the day.
Beignets, on the other hand, are great anytime. Covered in powdered sugar, they deliver just a hint of sweetness within their light, fluffy shells.
At your service: While Blanco works in the kitchen, Arana often stays in the front of the house, waiting on customers. Should you draw his table, you'll be in good hands. He pointed me toward the small portion when I wavered between sizes. One of my companions has a gluten allergy, and he helped her navigate the appetizer menu for flour-dredged pitfalls. Even without Arana at your table, water and coffee are refilled promptly and with a smile.
What to avoid: A few dishes miss the mark. The thick wrapper that encased the Cajun egg roll didn't do the dish any favors. It lent the appetizer a heft that called to mind a convenience store's leaden burrito. The sauce on the red beans and rice side dish could have benefited from the seasoning so prevalent in other dishes.
Wet your whistle: Cocktails, most notably the Hurricane, make fun accompaniments to dinner, as does the Louisiana-based brew, Abita. For brunch, opt for a Cajun bloody mary, served with a garnish of pickled okra. The restaurant also offers sodas, milk and a wide variety of juices.
Bottom line: With this new venture, Arana and Blanco bring much-missed Cajun-Creole cuisine back to the neighborhood and a offer pleasant space in which to enjoy it.