329 Market St.
I've been dying to get back to the Bayou, but its owners don't make it easy. They open daily 5 to 10 p.m. But who eats dinner before 8 p.m.? And the abbreviated “late-night” menu takes over at 9:30. Effectively, that leaves me about a one-hour window to enjoy this elusive little Cajun kitchen.
I called in the latest candidate for the role of Nutri-Girl. The best we would do was a 5 p.m. dinner. (I tried to think of it as a late lunch.)
A teenage guitarist named Anastasia was on stage, spouting trivial and idiotic chatter. (“I'm so glad it's cooling off outside. Although it's still not really that cool.”) No matter, the crowd consisted of her parents in one corner, and my date and me in the other. The chatter at our table was pretty trivial and idiotic, too.
“Do you like calamari?” I asked.
“I don't know. What is it?” asked my date.
To her credit, she likes calamari. To the Bayou's discredit, it is a little soggy, and served with an uninspired red pepper aioli. She took a little gerbil bite of the Shrimp Bourbon Street, an undistinguished fried shrimp with hot mustard sauce.
“It's OK,” said my new literary muse. She sat back, apparently done eating for the night.
I peeled one of the heads-on BBQ shrimp for her, and slathered it with the explosive hot sauce. Unfortunately, that heat was the exception, rather than the rule. Creole is all about rich sauces and bold flavors, and California is all about light and airy. Bayou tries to make Creole for the California crowd, but something was lost in translation. The sauces survived, but not the sauciness.
The grilled alligator sausage, however, was as Creole should be: juicy and unapologetic, with red pepper jelly on top and hot mustard on the bottom, served over a delicious fried red bean and rice cake. And cornmeal and jalapeño hushpuppies were a pretty standard Creole-to-Cali adaptation, so I forgive them. But the spicy gumbo lacked a certain meatiness. I moved on to entrées, or tried to.
“You don't like any fish?” I asked.
“Halibut,” she said, without a trace of irony.
Fantastic. We can call her the Bottom Feeder. (Or maybe that's me.)
The trés moist chicken in the Creole Cordon Bleu had a deep grilled flavor, but the rest of the plate couldn't keep up. The creamy tasso (spicy ham) sauce was more creamy than spicy, with a superficial hint of cayenne. And the big pile of white rice was, well, white rice.
I've seen alligator compared to shellfish or even beef, but the grilled alligator entrée struck me as somewhere between chicken (but richer) and pork (but meatier). The wild rice was a perfect accompaniment.
The next night, I got out of class at 9 p.m., and raced through the snarl of drunken pedestrians, lost tourists and pedi-cabs that is the Gaslamp Quarter for another shot at the Bayou dinner menu. I hadn't eaten all day, and I wanted to try the Caesar salad, blackened catfish, all the desserts-you name it. But by 9:30, most of the help had gone home. Sigh. Bring on the anemic late-night menu.
The late-night jambalaya is a tasty little side of red rice with onions, scallions, peppers and some wonderfully spicy andouille sausage. But a side of leftover rice and sausage for $8 seems a little steep. I covet the full menu, where jambalaya comes with a grilled skirt steak and shrimp.
Dessert that night was bread pudding or nothing. The bread was firm and boozy, and had a visual appeal, as well, a single-serve cake rather than the typical blob, giving the body a pleasant crust, and adding some needed chewiness. OK, I finally realized why some people love this stuff.
How frustrating when one of your favorite restaurants makes it so difficult for you to give them business. Of course, I still have a soft spot for the Bayou, mostly because this is where I had my first good dining experience in San Diego, many years ago. But I don't know how I managed to have the good luck to stumble in while the kitchen was still open. I guess my timing was better then.
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