The air is thick with smoke, the bar crowd five-deep, the blues pulsing on the jukebox. The hostess, puffing a cigarette, calls the name of the next party to get a table. It's not your name, and you wonder whether you can hold out for the next hour. But, this is, after all, the Bayou on a Saturday night, and even though it's only 6:30, you can't say you didn't know what was in store. With a no-reservations policy for parties of fewer than six, the only quick table is on a weeknight.
Even with a new chef in the kitchen, is the same quirky, wonderful dive it always was. The menu (both the printed version and the one on the blackboard) is perhaps a trifle more in line with current concerns for healthful eating. Heck, you can even get a salad. But chef Jeanne Cairns knows that the Bayou's forte is Cajun fare, unabashedly rich and full of fire.
Your server will explain the items on the blackboard, rattling off a long list of ingredients for each. Memorable starters include "chocolate" ribs, coated with a velvet-textured chile-spiked sauce, lush, high-voltage mixed-meat gumbo and immensely satisfying crawfish cakes with a chile-spiked dipping sauce.
A longtime favorite remains crayfish diavolo, out-of-the-shell pieces of shellfish in a coffee-colored sauce somewhere between hot and blistering, served over rice. Blackened rib-eye steak may be chewy, but it's grand; it comes with fab sweet-potato fries, which you must remember to order with gravy on the side, not on top. Blackened fish emanates a slow, sweet, steady heat.
For milder palates, there's Mimi's chicken, grilled cutlets over rice blanketed in a fabulous peanut sauce. Penne with shrimp, smoked chicken and crawfish in a sweet-potato sauce is a seductive success. You can't go wrong with stuffed catfish either.
Desserts are undermined by aerosol whipped cream. Tops among finales is the silky fudge pie called "chocolate mojo."
Nearly two decades after its opening, the Bayou still has its "mojo working." ---Joan Reminick