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This may or may not come as a surprise, but a lot of restaurateurs hate labels. Once something has a name, it also has a definition that people more or less hold it to. So if you own a Cajun restaurant, your place sure as hell better be what people expect a Cajun restaurant to […]

This may or may not come as a surprise, but a lot of restaurateurs hate labels. Once something has a name, it also has a definition that people more or less hold it to. So if you own a Cajun restaurant, your place sure as hell better be what people expect a Cajun restaurant to be.

Last September, Bayou had its first days in business. It’s a stylish East Side joint, filling 5,000 square feet of a new multi-use building on Humboldt Avenue along the Milwaukee River (in the area once housing Melanec’s Wheelhouse dinner theater). The interior looks like an ad for a contemporary furniture store – all clean lines and warm color with minimal use of bric-a-brac. At the helm are twin brothers Rob and Bill Jenkins. Bill owns the North Avenue lounge Cush. Bayou is the brothers’ first restaurant, and they’re using the hazy words “soulful Cajun and international cuisine” to describe and promote it.

Over the last several months, I’ve seen online message boards where people have taken Bayou to task for not being Cajun enough – not enough like the Cajun food they know or think they know. To me, the mistake is in giving Bayou a label at all. Why can’t a restaurant just open, with no description whatsoever of the menu, and diners experience it without preconceived notions about the food? That, I guess, would happen only in a perfect world.

Leaving behind any Big Easy sensibilities, the menu is an eclectic setup with several good choices. The obligatory crab cake appetizer is on par with good crab cakes, not great ones. The brown, crisp exterior hides a delicate, tangy interior flecked with onion and minced red bell pepper ($8). The popcorn crawfishtails ($6)taste a lot like popcorn shrimp or some other crustacean. Those crisp fried nibbles virtually jump out of their bowl, into the creamy-coolrémoulade sauce and into your mouth. It’s shrimp – unmistakably shrimp – in the hot and cold shrimp cocktail ($11). Half are pale-pink and cool, and the others are blackened and delectably peppery.

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The only thing that really mars the butter-poached lobster tacos ($12) is the breading, which is mushy on a few of the tail meat pieces. The others have a light texture and crunch reminiscent of tempura batter. Fresh mango and arugula add sweetness and a radish-like sharpness to the tacos, while the Vampire Blood sauce (made with ancho chile, chocolate and strawberries, it’s one of chef Bayard Michael’s six homemade “hot” sauces) is no hot sauce. It’s total sweetness.

With more heat than other dishes I’ve eaten here, the etouffée ($10), topped with a moist corn pancake, has a respectable dark-brown roux swimming with duck meatand tiny crawfish tails.

It’s the roux – the mix of cooked flour and fat used to thicken sauces – in Bayou’s seafood gumbo ($24) that underwhelms. The scallops, shrimp, catfish, crawfish and pair of mussels in the dish are tender but firm, smacking of their aquatic past but still subtly flavored. But the gumbo’s light roux is just too weak. Generally, the darker the roux, the richer the flavor.

Bayou’s jambalaya ($21) is, again, a somewhat loose interpretation of the Creole rice dish. Here, the light, broth-soaked rice is topped with rich, moist duck; half a link of smoky andouille sausage; four taut shrimp; and a school of crawfish. I never find the chicken the menu tells me is in this dish, but it’s hearty nonetheless, with a restrained kick.

“Hearty” isn’t a strong enough word to suggest the mixed grill – the meats and side dishes are piled in a “Hungryman” dinner of sorts, with red beans and rice and cornbread on the side. The jerk chicken is tender and thyme-y, while the brisket is dry and dense and the duck sausage rich and smoky ($21). For dipping, I have two homemade sauces – Vampire Blood and Hoodoo Voodoo, which I’m told is the hottest. But there isn’t much of a bite to it at all.

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How often do you see a savory sweet potato pie entrée?It comes in two versions – vegetarian ($15) or with crawfish sausage and smoked duck ($19). My vegetarian is a dandy medley dish that includes maque choux (corn casserole), sautéed mushrooms (the menu says “wild” mushrooms; I say “baby Portobello”), grilled eggplant and zucchini and the spicy, surprisingly satisfying puff pastry pie ($15). I like it almost as much as the blackened redfish, which is neither bland nor overly blackened to the color of a cast-iron skillet ($16). The mild heat that’s there is cooled by the mango salsa.

The aroma of warm, ripe banana wafts from the bread pudding, a maelstrom of fruit flavor and intense sweetness ($6). Lime zest covers the top of the key lime pie, whose only offense is its stingy size ($6). And the lemon cheesecake is pleasantly but dramatically puckery ($6).

It’s ironic that the most assertive flavors are saved for desserts. Or is that me bringing my own expectations to the table? It’s hard in a culture of information overload not to expect a tidy genre for every restaurant we visit. But forget the labels this time. Approach this restaurant – and others – with an open mind.

Bayou, 2060 N. Humboldt Ave., 431-1511.
Hours: Sun, Tues-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat-Sun brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: appetizers $6-$12; entrées $15-$29; desserts $5-$7.
Service: friendly, for the most part; still learning about the cuisine.
Dress: more fashionably than me. I’m never fashionable enough.
Nonsmoking section:
smoking allowed in the lounge only after 10 p.m.
Credit cards: M V A DS.
Handicap access: ramp in front and elevator access in the parking lot under the restaurant.
Reservations: four or more.

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