By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 6, 2011; W31
Let me play design critic for a few paragraphs to tell you why I like hanging out in Bayou Bakery, the happy new self-service restaurant whipped up by pastry chef and cookbook author David Guas.
The Louisiana native, 35, plays zydeco alternating with Harry Connick Jr. and Louis Armstrong on the sound system. The music is just loud enough to help set the proper stage for a breakfast of beignets and chickory coffee or a dinner of gumbo and red wine.
Guas, whose partner in the project is the local Passion Food Hospitality collection of restaurants, with whom he got his start 13 years ago at DC Coast, appears to be a devoted and romantic recycler. The lights above the airy dining room are fashioned from old Mason jars, and colorful, slightly weathered wooden shutters dress up the wall above the front counter, where a sign on a string tells customers, "Ya order here!" (The chow later appears a few feet away, under a second sign that reads, "Food Up!")
Ceiling fans revolve overhead, and in the rear is a lounge with a TV, milk can, church pew, alligator head and books that together suggest the studio apartment of a country mouse. The relaxed style extends to the restrooms, where an observant visitor can learn how to pronounce lagniappe (say lan-YAP) and make garlic grits, thanks to walls that have been papered with recipes and writings from old cookbooks. Guas did a lot of the work on his eatery himself, a detail that lends Bayou Bakery a homespun, rather than corporate, look.
So far, so sweet.
Now, let me put on my food hat and tell you why I have trouble warming up to much of what comes out of the kitchen at Bayou Bakery. The Southern dishes in particular lack the spunky charm I tend to associate with, say, a great gumbo. The one this kitchen is dishing out, flat and revealing only a peep of heat, suggests Fargo rather than New Orleans. Its thinness made me wonder whether a roux had been part of the equation, roux being the essential thickener of fat and flour that imparts a somewhat nutty note to whatever it goes into. Supposedly "blackened" turkey meatballs in a cover of roasted tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese are pretty tame, too. Even the snack of "spiced" pecans, a lagniappe (a little something extra for a customer) that can also be bought by the jar, wimps out on heat seekers. Every night brings a hot-plate special supposedly celebrating New Orleans, although the ones I've tried made me wish I'd ordered something else. A bowl of shrimp Creole staged with a raft of toasted bread was most interesting for the tender, sweet shrimp; their base of rice and bell peppers was a whisper of what it tastes like in the best places on its native soil.
The pressed-cane tabletops are set with bottles of hot sauce. Chances are good you'll be reaching for them.
Bayou Bakery makes some appealing sandwiches. One, the Arm Drip, lives up to its description; bite into the combination of bread, roast beef, gravy, onions, Swiss cheese and mayonnaise, and out spurts something that merits its own Tide commercial. The mess will have you reaching for, then cursing, the too-thin napkins. Or maybe you won't care, because the eating is so pleasurable. Less messy but just as much fun is the Muff-a-lotta, stacked with mortadella, salami, provolone and house-made olive salad. For this sandwich, Guas uses a terrific sesame-seed roll from the French Bread Factory in Vienna. There's an all-beef hot dog, too, but it's so dense and dry that a wiener from one of the District's sad street carts is preferable.
Other nibbles include a chopped salad ramped up with oven-cured tomatoes and a mustard vinaigrette, and a trio of deviled eggs served on a nest of shredded lettuce. They're agreeable.
The bakery's buttermilk biscuits are caky rather than flaky. I happen to like the texture, but purists might get all hot and bothered to see crumbs rather than flakes on their plates. My suggestion is to slather the morning staple (biscuits are available only till 11 a.m. weekdays) with one of Guas's very good toppings, my favorite being his biting jalapeño pepper jelly. The biscuits are less interesting as part of a breakfast sandwich, no thanks to the rubbery egg and fried-till-it's-toast bacon that smack of something from the Golden Arches. Don't wear black if you're planning to breakfast on the bakery's beignets, three to an order and heavily dusted with powdered sugar. These are tender and yeasty pillows best consumed with a pot of excellent French-press coffee. The four-or-so-minute wait for the eye-opener to brew to full strength is worth it.
Guas, the photogenic author of "DamGoodSweet," is best known for his finales, and I have to confess that the desserts I boxed up after dinner one night didn't make it until morning. A red velvet cupcake capped with cream cheese frosting has that kind of pull on a guy. So does a big chocolate chip cookie, which manages to be crisp and chewy and tastes as much of brown sugar as it does chocolate. And let's not forget Porkorn, which patrons of Ceiba, another Passion Food Hospitality restaurant, should recognize. The caramel corn -- spiked with cayenne and smoky with bacon and its drippings -- originated as a gratis send-off at the Latin American establishment in the District. At Bayou Bakery, the vice is sold by the bag for $4. (Warning: The fistful goes fast.)
There's not much to say about the young staff behind the counter; once customers have their food, they are tasked with collecting their own utensils and napkins.
Bayou Bakery stocks plenty of good ideas. It's fun, for instance, to have the chef himself let you know your order is ready by calling out the name of the Louisiana parish ("DeSoto, your food is ready!") you've been assigned rather than a number.
The look at Bayou Bakery is right. So's the feel. Much of the food, on the other hand, needs to catch up. At one of my last meals, Satchmo was crooning "When You're Smiling." But only by glancing up from my plate was I able to grin.
One and a half stars (Satisfactory/Good)
Bayou Bakery Coffee Bar & Eatery
1515 N. Courthouse Rd., Arlington. 703-243-2410. bayoubakeryva.com.
Open: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Soups and sandwiches $3 to $7, meat and cheese $5 to $8.
Sound check: 66 decibels/Conversation is easy.