Thursday, June 23, 2011
"Our restaurant gives you New Orleans. Our menu gives you the world."
Long before Chris DeBarr introduced far out foods like huitlacoche and uthappam at The Green Goddess, fans of Chef Susan Spicer had eaten around the world more times than Jules Verne. At a time when stalwarts of creole cuisine are fearful of pho and barbacoa tacos surpassing gumbo and po-boys in terms of popularity, no one seems to acknowledge that Chef Spicer has been successfully integrating foreign cuisines into the local repetoire for over 20 years.
Bayona (pronounced "BYE-own-uh") reflects a lifetime devotion to great food from both near and far. Paris, Acadiana, Alsace, the Mid-East, and the Far East are all represented on the menu, which is divided into two sections: "Bayona Signatures" on the left and the nightly specials on the right. In an era where bistros have cut the number of appetizer and entree selections down to 7 or fewer, Bayona usually offers double digit choices in both categories.
But before you make it to your table, you first need to get in the door. Reservations at Bayona have been tough to come by in the past few months, even on Monday nights. Walk-ins are for the most part non-existent, and I counted no less than 10 parties who were turned away while we sat in the lounge for 5 minutes waiting for our table on a Thursday night.
It's tough to veer away from beginning a meal with the garlic soup or goat cheese crouton whose foundation is softened by a madeira cream sauce and earthy mushrooms which can make you swear off the slimy steakhouse versions forever. But I always tell myself, "I can order those any time I come here." So instead I opt for specials like lengua pupusas with a flaky exterior that had the texture and taste of grandma's pie crust made with lard (which is to say that it was delicious). The dish was completed with an earthy mole and wedges of tomatillo whose tartness cut the richness of the rest of the dish.
But even though I can order the sweetbreads any time I come to Bayona, I'll be damned if they don't make an appearance at some point on my table. For every time that La Boca persuades me that grilling sweetbreads is the best way to go, Bayona's classic version sways me back the other way with its lemon caper butter, slices of carrot, and diced beets. Rabbit is a mainstay on the nightly special menu. On my last visit it was a roulade stuffed with chorizo and paired with a deboned frog leg that was chicken fried perfection, with vinegary collard greens and thick-cut sweet potatoes with a sticky-sweet molasses glaze completing the dish. Steaks are always available as a special, but the standard cut of red meat is a crusty lamb loin served with a winy zinfandel sauce.
Usually by the time that dessert rolls around, I am struggling to overcome my satiation. But that hasn't stopped me from sampling a rich chocolate torte with caramel or black forest cake layered with vanilla and a spike of kirsch. I've tried both lemon and almond versions of the semifreddo, and while the texture of both were initially brittle, they melted away into creaminess just from the heat of the tongue.
During my last 3 visits, there has only been one disappointment in service and one on the menu. If I am spending $70 on a bottle of wine, I don't think it's asking much for it to be served at the proper temperature. Not one bottle of red wine that I ordered came out of temperature controlled storage. The lone culinary misstep was a "shaved" squash salad sliced much too thick and tasting overwhelmingly bitter flavor. Donald Link executes a much more successful version of this dish at Cochon, leaving you to wonder if the student has surpassed the teacher?
Bayona - Birdie, after missing a putt for Eagle by two feet
430 Dauphine Street