Born on the Bayou

Remember the legendary white chocolate bread pudding at the late, lamented Bayou Bar and Grill? Well, it's back, and so is the man who brought the recipe here from his native New Orleans. Bud Deslattes, the Bayou's original chef-owner, has returned to San Diego after nine years in the north, and he is again behind the stove at Bud's.

His new eatery is a bright little storefront next to the Waterfront Bar & Grill on Kettner. You'll know it by the red banners out front, the red umbrellas shading tables for two on the dining patio, and the strings of beads (in Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and yellow) hanging from the patio fence. Inside, you'll find a casual café. There's an open kitchen, eight tables, and a counter for placing orders. A fridge behind the counter holds beer, soda, and for-sale packages of tasso (Cajun peppered smoked ham) and Cajun Prairie-style boudin (pork and rice sausage). Vibrant posters for Louisiana musical events and sepia-toned paintings of New Orleans restaurant scenes decorate the multicolored wainscoted walls. You can eat here, but you're also welcome to get your food "to geaux" (as in "beau"). If you call in the order about 15 minutes ahead, they'll have it ready when you arrive.

The menu is concise: two soups, one salad, six entrées, four po' boys, two desserts, plus one or two daily specials. This covers the basics, but not all the bases, of Louisiana cooking. There is no dirty rice or barbecued shrimp, for instance, but the owners do plan to introduce more dishes over time. (The joint just opened last October -- and, remember, it's small.)

Bud's offers a crazy-wonderful "seafood bisque." Not exactly a bisque -- in this case, that's not bad! -- it's a creamy sweet-corn chowder with shrimp, crab, and crawfish meat, flavored with tomato, sherry, and hot pepper. Don't miss this.

A clever option called "cupa-cupa-cupa" gives you one cup each of jambalaya, gumbo, and red beans and rice. The jambalaya is an unusual version with no seafood or tomato. House-smoked chicken, andouille, and tasso are the proteins; the "holy trinity" (sautéed minced onions, green peppers, and celery) and raw scallions are the garnishes. The dish is tightly constructed and dryer than norm, though a tomato-based hot sauce comes on the side for you to stir in to taste and heat tolerance. It's not just a moistener, but completes the flavors of the dish, lending balance to the smoky meats. (In your takeout bag, it'll be a fiery orange colloid in a ramekin-sized container labeled "JAM." Don't mistake it for a fruit spread -- you won't want this on your morning toast unless you're crazy for the heat.)

The New Orleans-style okra gumbo is a light version. It starts with a "red" roux (the long-stirred thickening mixture of flour and oil) and is spiced to a just-right slow burn. Brimming with shrimp, crawfish, and smoky andouille, it arrived with a scoop of rice already mixed in and has a nice ratio of rice to liquid.

But I'm sorry to say that our first "cupa" of red beans and rice was more than three-quarters rice to a scant quarter of beans. Cooked with ham hocks and amended with andouille, the beans seemed delicious -- from what we could taste of them. The next time we ordered, I invoked the Atkins diet and asked for the rice on the side. That proved the way to go. The beans were now perfect, the ham hock giving its all to turn them creamy and smoky. Understand that if your takeout order follows this strategy, the bean container won't be quite full -- but it's plenty of food.

Excessive rice and a skimpy topping also wrecked my first to-go order of crawfish étouffée (which means "smothered"). I want flavor, not size, and a mountain of boiled white rice that smothers the "smother" sauce won't fit the bill. Again, ordering the rice on the side brought a generous portion of rich stew that showcased the flavor of a belle roux -- the Cajun name for the stuff when it comes out a perfect shade of mahogany. Although the frozen Chinese crawfish tails don't have the same earthy undertones as Louisiana-born mudbugs, anything you dump in that sauce would taste great.

Po' boy sandwiches occupy a quarter of the menu, and they're served on baguettes "fully dressed" with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade sauce. I went straight for the fried oyster, which is my favorite at Uglesich's in New Orleans. The heavily battered oysters were hacked into pieces, with a few oyster halves. They're Apalachicolas, Louisiana's briny bivalves. Bud has them shipped, already shucked, from the homeland. These were strangely neutral in flavor, with tough streaks. (Do bivalves have sinews?) The coral-pink remoulade resembled Russian or Louis dressing with a lash of sharpness from Zatarain's Creole mustard (a brand you'll find in every southern Louisiana kitchen). I enjoyed the sauce, but the sandwich had little seafood and too much bread and dressing -- a po' boy from Poverty Row.

A satisfying "sloppy roast beef" po' boy was more generously filled with tender, pink-centered sliced deli beef. Garlic mayonnaise replaced remoulade on both bread halves, with a splash of au jus gravy.

With any sandwich or entrée, you can order a side of Caesar salad for $3. The mediocre Parmesan is thickly grated; otherwise, it's a standard version. Jalapeño cornbread is another inexpensive option for mouth fun, but the day we tried it, the underbaked batter was mushy.

Every day brings a special or two, though I was less impressed with these than with the regular menu items. Mondays and Tuesdays, the special is BBQ ribs -- St. Louis-cut pork baby-back ribs, smoked for six hours over hickory in the kitchen's electric smoker. (Bud does them on Sunday, when there are no customers to inhale the fumes.) The ribs are tender, mild in flavor, and almost fatless. They're mopped at reheating with an outsourced red barbecue sauce that's pleasant but not particularly Louisianan. (At the restaurant, you'll also get a ramekin of Randy Jones's barbecue sauce, served at Petco Park.) Wednesday and Thursday, the special is a plate of fried Louisiana catfish with a side of Caesar salad, or a catfish po' boy. (I didn't get a chance to try the cats.) The week closes with Friday's specials of shrimp remoulade and Cajun shrimp cocktail. The remoulade had chopped romaine lettuce, sliced cukes, a quarter of a hard-cooked egg, and a quarter of a turnip-hard winter tomato, all surrounding several medium-large shrimp sleeked with the same dressing as the oyster po' boy. The texture of the seafood was mealy, hinting that they were probably low-priced frozen tiger shrimp farmed in warm waters (e.g., Indonesia or Bangladesh).

There are only two desserts, one a masterpiece. The extraordinary bread pudding features baguettes soaked to angelic softness in egg custard, with a white chocolate Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) sauce to pour on at will. The dessert was invented at NOLA's famed Commander's Palace. Luckily for us, a New Orleans newspaper published the recipe and Bud kept it. The lesser dessert is a "Creole pecan pie," a wedge of cheesecake topped with pecan pie. It's a traditional dish and a nice idea (cheesecake being lighter, hence less sickening than a wedge of nut-flecked corn syrup). The pecans, however, tasted like nuts in bulk supermarket bins -- not yet rancid, but flavorless were it not for the added sugars.

With the bread pudding earning five stars out of five, the average rating for the food at Bud's came to three stars. Before I discovered the secret of asking for rice on the side, I was tempted to cut half a star for the sins of serving occasionally second-rate seafood and overwhelming good dishes with excess starch. Bud knows his Louisiana cooking, but he needs to recapture the Louisiana spirit of "lagniappe," the hospitality that gives "a little extra." I wouldn't want to hear from readers who arrive home with their takeout to find they've bought a whole heap of rice and just a tablespoon of flavor. So watch it, Bud.

San Diego loves an excuse for a party and has embraced Mardi Gras (February 8 this year) as a native holiday. Bud expects his tiny eatery to be slamming that day. Other restaurants where you can enjoy Mardi Gras-style dining:

Chateau Orleans, 926 Turquoise Street (at Mission Boulevard), Pacific Beach, 858-488-6744. Their version of Cajun-Creole food bears only a coincidental resemblance to anything you'd eat in Louisiana, but the Southern dishes are decent and their party rocks.

Gulf Coast Grill, 4130 Park Boulevard (between University and El Cajon), Hillcrest, 619-295-2244. Another cool party scene, with some good Southern dishes.

Huffman's Barbeque, 5039 Imperial Avenue (at Euclid Avenue), Lincoln Park, 619-264-

3115. The soul-food menu includes Louisiana Creole-style gumbo and red beans and rice.

Magnolias, Market Creek Square, 342 Euclid Avenue (off Market Street), Lincoln Park, 619-262-6005. (Reviewed last week.) Authentic south Louisiana cooking in a comfortable atmosphere. Try the crabcakes, BBQ shrimp, fried chicken wings, jambalaya.

Mardi Gras Cafe, 3185 Midway Drive (near Rosecrans and East Street, in the mini-mall with a 7-Eleven), Loma Portal, 619-223-5501. If you can cook it, this place has the ingredients from Louisiana, whether you need bottled roux, boudin blanc, or frozen crawfish tails. If you can't cook, they have the major regional dishes to eat there for lunch or take home for a party. If you take home a muffalletta, wrap it in foil and put a weight on it (a skillet or brick) for four hours (the way they do at Central Grocery) to let the flavors meld.

Monroe's, 7404 University Avenue (at Lowell), La Mesa, 619-464-7100. Under new management, the former Aswan offers an extensive menu of dishes from Louisiana and Jamaica (so you can have two nations' worth of Carnival on the same night). I haven't eaten there yet, but it's high on my list of places to try.

Popeye's Fried Chicken and Biscuits (many locations, check phone book). In the City That Care Forgot, some folks get so caught up in partying they give up cooking and live on Popeye's takeout all Mardi Gras week.

Sixth Avenue Bistro, 1165 Sixth Avenue (at B Street), downtown, 619-239-4194. Many Louisiana food choices, including the best oyster po' boy in town, in a location handy to the goings-on in the Gaslamp.

Voyage, 1845 India Street, Little Italy, 619-234-1344. Another new restaurant where I haven't yet eaten, but chef Andre Bellard (formerly at Sassafras) is from Lafayette, Louisiana. His regular menu includes a shrimp po' boy at lunch, jambalaya at any meal, and for Mardi Gras evening, he'll be cooking Louisiana specialties.

Let the bon temps rouler!

ABOUT THE CHEF

Bud Deslattes and his life-and-business partner Rob Adams are Bud's -- Bud cooks and Rob runs the front of the house. Bud was the original owner of Bayou Bar and Grill on Market Street. He and Rob recently returned from Portland, Oregon, and decided to open an eatery more casual than Bayou or any of their other restaurants. "Part of the experiment here is, I'm trying to semi-retire," Bud says. "I just hit my 65th birthday, and I told myself, 'Okay, cut back and don't try to do as much as you've been doing.' We've always done fine-dining restaurants, so we decided to do something casual, where I could cook more and manage less. The space is so small, we realized last week that we had to shut down between lunch and dinner. We don't have the storage space for a lot of things, so we have to keep cookin' it every day."

Most of Bud's Cajun-Creole dishes are spicy, but far from the "fiery food" that was so popular in the '80s and gave so many people the wrong concept of the cuisine. "Authentic Louisiana cooking has become sort of my crusade," he says. "I guess when Paul Prudhomme became so popular, everybody thought, 'Everything Cajun has got to be blackened and spicy hot.' But that's not what real Cajun cooking is like. I'm all about flavor. My mama didn't teach me to put all that hot stuff on the food. Cooking for as many people as we do, you just gotta stay true to yourself and what you do."

Bud was born in the Bayou St. John district of New Orleans and fell into cooking sideways. "I really didn't start cooking until I got a divorce, and I had to learn to do it to survive. But while I was in the corporate world I traveled and ate out all the time in nice restaurants, and I always tried to figure out what I was eating."

He first got into the restaurant business in New Orleans. "I owned another business and I sold it. I tried the corporate route again and I didn't like it," he recalls. "Some friends of mine said, 'You're a good cook, why don't you open a restaurant?' I thought, well, that's a good idea! I opened a little place called Feelings, in the Faubourg Marigny. We were the first ones back in the Marigny in 1979, and that started the renaissance in the neighborhood."

After 5 years, Bud got restless and sold Feelings to some of his employees, who still own it 25 years later. "I guess I enjoy new places," he says. "I enjoy the challenge of opening a restaurant. That's why I sell 'em, because after three or four years you basically become a babysitter, just trying to maintain the restaurant, not being creative anymore." He moved to Atlanta and opened A Taste of New Orleans, which Esquire magazine promptly named one of the 50 Best Restaurants in America. Simultaneously, he had his first experience running an eatery like Bud's, a casual-lunch and light-dinner spot called the French Quarter Food Shoppe, which is still open. But Bud got the wanderlust again.

"Two of my employees from New Orleans moved to San Diego, and when I came out to visit them, I just fell in love with it," he says. "I need to live near water, and when I moved to Atlanta I didn't realize I was going to be landlocked, six hours from the ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. So we sold out the Atlanta restaurants to one of our cooks and came out here and opened the Bayou Bar and Grill in '89."

Bud sold Bayou in '95, moved to the Bay Area, and opened Creola in San Carlos (south of San Francisco). Five years later he sold out again, moved up to Portland, and opened Arcadia. "After a couple of years," he says, "the rains got kind of depressing and I decided to come back to San Diego.

"We're here to stay now because my daughter's here, and my grandsons are here, and all three of them are helping out in the restaurant.... Now that my daughter's here with her family, that definitely establishes San Diego as home for me. I live in Point Loma, I walk my dog in Spanish Landing, it's just four miles to my restaurant without going on a freeway. I feel like I'm in heaven."

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