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The Bywater is Chef David Kinch's newest venture bringing Big Easy flavors to Los Gatos. Last month my brother and I tried our hand at securing a table. No reservations here, and war stories abound on trying to get a seat in the early going.
We arrived at 5:45 on a Thursday. Just in time to miss the first wave of seating when the last seats at the bar were taken. The hostess gave us an estimated wait time of an hour. Looking over her shoulder at the seat map, the screen display estimated 25 to 35 minutes, which made me more willing to stick around.
We staked out two spots to stand at the counter in front of the kitchen and oyster station to grab a couple appetizers while we waited for a table. The full menu is available at the bar.
Without purse hooks under the counter top, I had to juggle my handbag. However, my drinking hand was free to try one of the re-imagined classics. This is the Nitro Pimms Cup, $12, made more festive with a creamy head on it. So refreshing, perfectly balanced. And sparkling or still filtered tap water is complimentary.
Chef Kinch manned the raw bar station himself in the early part of the shift. In his interview with Eater.com, he said, "I can go there and mindlessly shuck oysters for a couple hours and be the happiest guy in the world." He looked pretty happy to us.
[Disclaimer: We are acquainted.]
We had ordered the Chicken liver mousse and tomatillo jam, $12, and it was kind of cool to watch some of the prep work for the next batch right in front of us.
The tomatillo jam was on the mellow side, yet delivered just the right note of tartness to compliment the rich mousse. The chicken liver mousse had a more airy and lighter texture than Julia Childs' classic recipe that has inspired so many, tasting less like butterfat and more like, well, chicken liver. Accompanied by four slices of toasted and buttered (on both sides!) Manresa bread, this is too much for only two people to share. I asked our server for a box to take the two pieces of bread home because "Manresa bread is a precious commodity". He smiled in agreement.
Our table was ready for us about 6:30pm, right when the Oysters Rock-a-fella, $24, was served. The hostess and waiter picked up our food and drinks to move us. These huge bivalves are Flapjack Point mediums from Washington State. Cooked to custardy tenderness, these had not a bit of overcooked rubber about them. The bright green creamed spinach was so vivid, the color almost seemed artificial. The natural sweetness sans any bitter or metallic notes of the greens attest to their freshness. And not just a skimpy dab of hollandaise sauce for color, these babies were blanketed in a thick golden layer that filled in every nook and cranny with lusciousness. Then a turn in the salamander mottled them with golden brown. My favorite dish of the meal.
Salad for 2, $12, presented vibrant, baby lettuces that tasted like they'd been picked within hours. When ordering, I had asked the server to have the kitchen forego any added finishing salt. None seemed to be present, yet the dressing itself was ultra-salty. Too salty to be enjoyable.
We inquired what might be in the Gumbo Ya Ya, $18, of the day. Our server said that it always has meat in it, and the seafood will vary. This portion featured boudin noir, andouille, a species of white fish from the Gulf, a whole grilled prawn on top, and some crawfish salad perched on the croute. A little bit of kick and underneath it all, some steamed white rice. Deep and complex in flavor, each distinct ingredient burst out with freshness and held its own in the dark and robust juices. Nothing pasty, overcooked or muddy about this bowl.
To finish, Butterscotch pot de creme, $11, came with a pair of pecan sandies. Real butterscotch with a smoky aroma and just barely sweet with a hint of salt had a mouth-coating velvety body that took some effort actually to swallow. It was beautifully set off by the sheer plainness of the unsweetened creme fraiche quenelle. As good as the pudding was, the pecan sandies will be long remembered as the best icebox cookies I've ever run across. So fragile and crumbly to the slightest touch, these resonated with roasted pecans and a brown buttery richness.
The noise level in the room quieted down considerably by the time we were ready to leave around 7:30pm. And at no time was The Bywater as loud as the popular San Francisco spots. The crowd standing in the bar had cleared out and there were seats available at the bar too. No one was waiting at the front for a table, so perhaps going later in the evening is a better strategy than early.
Behind the restaurant, looks like there's some work going on for a patio and bar. And we spotted a smoker and some almond and oak fuel in the parking lot. This might be the place to be come summer.
The tab clocked in at what I'd call mid-range, a little higher than expected. Yet, except for the salad, every dish was executed perfectly and made with impeccable ingredients. If I lived in the area, this might be on the regular rotation for cocktails and oysters or a favorite place for lunch.
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