Three years ago, when Bayou debuted in Harlem, I’d just returned from a New Orleans binge and was in no mood to tolerate mediocrity. After downing plump raw oysters and green-tomato remoulade at Uglesich’s, behemoth barbecued shrimp at Mosco’s, and crawfish by the dozen at Paul’s Pirogue, I was nonplussed by Bayou’s too sweet and too mild approach, though their turtle soup—oily, filled with rubbery meat and perfumed with sherry—made me smack my lips. Still, the food wasn’t good enough for me to return, no matter how much Bill Clinton was rumored to adore the place.
Then a friend in the music biz started hectoring me, so once again I made the long climb to the second-floor loft. The decor remained the same: a bare-brick room with a scatter of black-and-white snapshots of fishing boats and hunting parties on the bayou. The best tables are by the windows, looking down on Malcolm X Boulevard—the rollicking Lenox Avenue of yore. But now, instead of Harlem’s craggy old buildings, the view sadly takes in a Staples and a CVS. Does Bayou belong here, or is it part of the problem?
But the first fried oyster ($10.95 for four) dispelled my apprehensions. Cradled in a nest of spinach and topped with melted brie, the flavor was voluptuous, briny, and funky. The ungainly juxtaposition seemed like something you might find at the venerable Galatoire’s in the French Quarter. Though still tasty, the turtle soup was not as good as it had been, marred by a wobbly thickness that suggested too much cornstarch. The gumbo ($4.95), though, was on the money, miring shrimp and smoky tasso ham in a righteously dark roux, the browned combo of butter and flour whose color adjustment is the heart of Creole cooking. A handful of rice tossed on top added a welcome element of chaos. There was also a decent version of barbecued shrimp and a tasty sauté of chicken livers—though the soggy croutons were a drag. Strangely successful was a basket of fried eggplant, which came with powdered sugar for dipping like so many linear donuts.
While the appetizers remained a mixed bag, the entrées triumphed. The crawfish étouffée amazed me—a substantial quantity of curly tails bathed in a midnight roux, ringed with rice and sprinkled with chopped scallions. Memorable, too, was the catfish platter ($15.95), as good as any I’ve had in Mississippi. The fillets were thickly corn crusted and seemingly greaseless, a triumph of the fryer’s art. Even though the whiskered critters were doubtlessly farm raised, there was a hint of mud in the mix. The fries were fabulous—skin on, slightly limp, adequately salted. Most elegant, and once again reminding me of Galatoire’s, was a shrimp and crabmeat “ensemble” ($20.95): a seafood softball tossed into a simple saffron cream sauce garnished with chopped tomato. There were only a couple of duds, including a too sweet and too green-peppery shrimp creole, and a duck breast painted with a cloying sauce that revealed a thick layer of fat beneath the skin. The garlic mashed potatoes, however, were spectacular.
After three years, Bayou has settled in to become a neighborhood institution, with a loyal constituency of diverse age, gender, and race. But does it belong in Harlem? As if the excellence of its Louisiana standards weren’t enough, I discovered further confirmation. Leafing through a ’40s Amsterdam News, I came across a good-sized display ad for Pete’s Creole Restaurant, which proudly proclaimed: “Home of Louisiana Gumbo.” At long last, gumbo’s found a new home in Harlem.