I normally would not post on a brand new place after just one meal, but Mardi Gras is upon us and the topic of NO food has been percolating here lately.
First, Blue Bayou is open, although the apparently large second floor dining room is not yet ready. According to the owners, they are planning many events for the week of Mardi Gras, although the "grand opening" will be in May sometime. Blue Bayou is on Southport just below Grace.
Anyone who has been to Cullen's accross the street (same owner) will have deja vu, since the new place is almost a perfect mirror image of the Irish pub in terms of layout and general decor. The focus, again, is a beautiful, huge, hand-carved bar. Lots of wood, faux tin ceiling, alcoves, more wood, and nice tile work here and there. One addition is a massive wooden staircase near the entrance that begs for a Blanche. The main difference in decor is in the details -- Louisiana folk art, gaudi chandeliers, glass beads, etc. substitute for the Auld Sod stuff accross the street. Disney or Vegas really could do no better in creating a New Orleans archetype that as far as I know does not actually exist in that city. (I really mean this in the best posible way -- the place loks like it has been there for a hundred years, albeit rehabbed last week.)
OK, the food. I expected the menu to be limited, since the place just opened. To the contrary, it is very large. One emphasis seems to be NO style sandwiches, including what looked like a textbook muffaletta, which we did not try. The oyster-loaf po' boy was simply terrific with tightly bundled, battered deep-fried oysters and spicy mayo on a dense, soft roll that is unlike any I've seen here.
The seafood gumbo was among the best I've had in Chicago, although gumbos are kind of idiosyncratic, so it's not that fair to compare. BB's was lightly colored (as opposed to the dark reddish brown roux based version, which I us. prefer)and file (as opposed to okra) based. For now, neither the the gumbo nor anything else was dumbed-down in terms of spice, richness, slimy-ness, etc. Other soups, including turtle soup and crab-corn bisque were good according to other diners.
The sampler platter for $10 was an easy call. Red beans and rice, greens, a scoop of jambalaya and a cup of crawfish etouffe'e. I can't rave enough about the greens. They are easily, far and away the best I've had in Chicago, and among the best I've had anywhere. For me, greens at a southern place are like miso soup at a Japanese place, black beans at a Cuban place, etc. -- simple, staple foods that always show up but are all too often treated as afterthoughts. These greens were perhaps a bit inauthentic in that they were not overcooked or watery. They were still firm and a little bitter, but well seasoned and loaded with pork flavor. The red beans, similarly humble, were also in the money. Jambalaya was damn good too, thick with crawfish tails, chicken, andouille, tasso, etc. Neither soupy nor gummy. The cup of etouffe'e was the also-ran, though it wasn't bad. The kitchen had more-or-less mixed the rice in with the smothered crawfish, making it too like the jambalaya.
I love raw oysters, but did not sample the Chesapeakes at $14 per dozen (actually from the Delaware Bay according to the menu, but I never noticed a difference). I had really hoped Cullen would have Gulfs, at least now in the middle of February while the water's cold. To be fair, raw oysters do not seem to be a focus.
Finally, I tried the bread pudding for dessert. Pretty good, not great. It was the soft, custard-like variety.
I should also mention the bar menu, since Blue Bayou really seems, like Cullen's, to be a bar first and a restaurant second; a tavern, I suppose. There is a huge list of the requisite silly NO style drinks. Surprisingly, however, they all seemed to be damn good and employed real fruit juices and decent liquor. I don't go in for hurricanes and such. I had the Sazerac, and it was dead-on perfect. The right stuff in the right proportions in the right glass. One of the best cocktails I've had in a while (at least since the ideal negroni I had at Bruna's last week).
Service was good for a new place, and above all friendly. The only odd thing -- I complemented Michael Cullen on the food when he very genuinely askeed how it was, but he would not tell us anything about the chef.
I don't want to oversell this place, but last night it was very good for the price -- about $80 for four with drinks and a shared dessert. I was impressed by the kitchen's technique with mundane but tricky items like the rice and the greens, and it's apparent devotion to authenticity. This is not pan-southern or Louisiana-inspired cooking; it is traditional Cajun with some Creole. The trick will be keeping the quality consistent when the crowds come, which they will.