When it comes to dining, Washington’s embracing the Southern half of its DNA—specifically, the New Orleans gene. In the last six months, Louisiana-focused kitchens have opened in DC’s Woodley Park (Hot N Juicy Crawfish) and Dupont Circle (the Cajun Experience) and in Arlington’s Courthouse (Bayou Bakery). Then there’s Bayou, in DC’s West End, the latest from restaurateur Bo Blair (Surfside, Jetties, Smith Point). He’s turned his bilevel private club, the Rookery, into a restaurant—purple walls, Crystal hot sauce on the tables, zydeco on weekends.
While chef Rusty Holman, a North Carolina native, draws on traditional recipes for some dishes—including good oysters Rockefeller and barbecue shrimp—he does best with creative takes. Crawfish and andouille sausage make their way into a quiche-like “cheesecake” with cream cheese, smoked Gouda, and peppers. The least conventional appetizer, it’s also the best. Barbecue-pork “drumsticks”—slathered with a thick sauce made with reduced red-hot jelly—come on a bed of creamy coleslaw, a riff on the pepper-jelly-and-cream-cheese duo.
Fiery blackened catfish is set off by vinegary collards and a sweet green-tomato chutney: an imaginative rejiggering of Southern flavors. But the garnishes—Meyer-lemon vinaigrette, chive oil—on a piece of pan-seared rockfish seemed too refined. Crawfish carbonara, a meeting of Louisiana and Little Italy, ended up a mess, the shellfish tails cooked to oblivion, the pasta stuck in a mud of garlic cream.
Missteps aside, it’s nice to visit Bayou when the tables outside are jammed with Sazerac-fueled customers and dinner starts with complimentary soft biscuits. And if you’re not transported from Pennsylvania Avenue to Bourbon Street, it’s still a fun place to eat.
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.