If the original Bayou on Staten Island was an eclectic Bourbon Street bar, the newly renovated restaurant is now a stately, elegant French Quarter establishment. A mini Galatoire in New York City's southernmost borough.
Elegant mirrors and chandeliers, fleur-de-lis in relief, and framed jazz posters have replaced the stuffed alligators, hanging beads, and Louisiana license plates that adorned the walls of this restaurant and bar for its first six years. Exposed brick walls now include recessed cutouts, where masquerade masks are illuminated by candlelight. Thick red curtains separate the bar from the dining room.
As my waitress two weekends ago so succinctly put it: Bayou grew up.
Chef and owner Julian Gaxholli opened Bayou in the Rosebank section of Staten Island almost seven years ago. With alligator, crawfish tails, and Remoulade sauce on the menu, Gaxholli brought a bite of the Big Easy to Bay Street. And with rich sauces, Andouille sausage, caramelized onions and sharp blue cheese making frequent appearances on the menu, the flavors here are bold.
Last year, Gaxholli upgraded the menu, and after Christmas, he closed Bayou's doors for a five-week renovation. "Before it was a lot of hearty, heavy dishes, like Southern food," general manager Jay Larsen told me last week as he explained the changes to the restaurant. "Now he's getting into refined dishes using Southern flavors. The flavors are still there, but it's refined food for New York." In this corner of the city, customers are loving it.
On the eve of the Saints Super Bowl victory, I returned to Bayou, with a reservation, eager to see and taste the changes. Dimly lit and intimate, the restaurant keeps tables close enough to foster conversation between couples. The bluesy voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James complemented the elegance of the new space.
The new menu still includes many holdovers from the original. I was happy to see that the dish that I enjoyed on my last birthday was still there: The pork tenderloin medallions wrapped in bacon, seared and topped with stella bleu cheese au gratin, accompanied by dirty mashed potatoes and served with porcini mushroom broth—known as Elba Blues on the Bayou menu ($21)—was a perfect way to ring in my 30s. And that pork-wrapped-in-more-pork dish also strikes me as the ideal meal for Mardi Gras, a final celebration before forty days of Lenten fasting.
New items on the Bayou menu include the Huitres a la Rockefeller appetizer, oysters baked on the half-shell with sautéed spinach, bacon and a touch of Pernod ($9.95); and Napoleon's Sword, skewered chunks of beef, chicken, pork, onions and bell peppers, grilled and served over roasted potatoes and served with a semi-dulce chile sauce ($20).
I began my Super Bowl-eve meal with the alligator bites: Cajun-seasoned alligator patties grilled and served over ciabatta bread with stella bleu cheese and tomato salad ($9.50). No, the alligator didn't taste like chicken; more like venison meatballs. And for my entree, a Big Easy pork chop: a bone-in pork chop butterflied and stuffed with brie and crawfish tails, then oven-roasted, served over dirty rice and topped with Kalamata olive and spicy capicola salsa ($22).
Looking at my artfully designed plate, I saw French cheese, Greek olives, Italian meat and Louisiana shellfish—a dish that could only come from a port city that brought together a melange of native and European cultures and flavors. The cuisine of New Orleans is dominated by classic French techniques, drawing influences from the African-American, Spanish, Italian, German and Irish populations who settled there, as well as from the ingredients and flavors native to Louisiana and the Caribbean. I could taste that rich history in every bite.
My friend opted for the crab cakes Court Bullion, lump crab cakes seared and served with a court bouillon sauce of oysters, onions, and crab meat, accompanied by fried zucchini ($21). All crab, no filler, each topped with an oyster. The zucchini were piping hot, crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside—a pleasant surprise.
The dessert menu includes a New Orleans original: bananas foster. Created in 1951 at Brennan's restaurant, this dessert consists of bananas sautéed in banana liquor, rum, and brown sugar and served over vanilla ice cream. At Bayou, it arrives in a tall martini glass ($8). My friend went with the crème brulee flambe, served and then lit on fire at the table ($6).
The recent upgrades at Bayou have not brought with them a price increase. The most expensive entree is $24, and the most expensive bottle on the wine list is $34. Sundays through Wednesdays, a four-course pre-fixe dinner is available for $17.95. Other weekly specials include "Mystic Mondays" with free tarot card readings with dinner, and live music on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
So what's in store for tomorrow night? Well, every Tuesday is Mardi Gras at Bayou, with a two-piece band blues and rock band to entertain customers. Tomorrow, for the real thing, Bayou will up the ante with a 3-piece band. Beads may no longer adorn the light fixtures here, but they'll be handed out tonight—sans flashing, Larsen said—to celebrate Fat Tuesday.
"Mardi Gras is always a huge hit," he said. "We may be a little more upscale, but we're not trying to scare people off. We're trying to make people happy as well. We'll have a few specials on the Mardi Gras menu," he added. "But more than anything, the customers make Mardi Gras what it is."
1072 Bay Street, Staten Island NY 10305 (map)