From the moment you step into the Bayou, the new Cajun and Creole spot on South Butler Street, it's clear that owner Dale Beck has worked very hard to create a New Orleans-in-Madison feel.
The interior mimics an open-air courtyard in the Big Easy. With a concrete floor, patio-like wrought-iron furniture and twinkling "stars" embedded in the ceiling, the place spares no effort to make you forget you're only a few blocks from the Capitol and drab state office buildings. And did I mention the giant jester statue and murals of revelers?
While all of this could be deemed a little gaudy, the Bayou pulls it off. Billing itself as a "New Orleans-style tavern," the place seems relaxed and unpretentious, rather than a labored attempt to be something it's not.
Of course, all the enjoyably kitschy décor in the world couldn't save a place with bad food, so it's a relief that the Bayou is a success.
Our meal began with raw oysters on the half-shell. They're offered by the dozen or half-dozen, and there were two choices the night we visited: Blue Points from Galveston, Texas, or Malpeque oysters from Canada. We chose the latter and, while they were a pricey treat and a few could have been plumper, they were clean and slightly briny tasting. Served with a lemon wedge and Bloody Mary sauce (imagine the flavor of a Virgin Mary), the oysters needed no dolling up. I preferred their delicate flavor as is.
The crabcake appetizer, which arrived on a bed of field greens and black bean-corn salad, was moist and mildly seasoned. While I usually prefer a zippier version, they were crispy on the outside and tender inside, just as you'd hope.
Sandwiches and entrees cover all the Nawlins standards: a range of po'boys, muffulettas, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish etouffée and so forth. A cup of seafood gumbo had pleasingly large shrimp, crawfish tails and andouille sausage. The crawfish etouffée, anchored by its buttery roux, struck the right balance: rich, but not heavy. Diced bell peppers melded with tender crawfish and thin slices of okra. It's a dish that merits a return visit.
The menu touts the shrimp Creole as "very spicy," and it lived up to its billing, though it wasn't too hot for my comfort level. Too much salt, rather than heat, was the only drawback.
The Bourbon Street Special po'boy overflowed with a generous pile of fried but non-greasy shrimp and crawfish. The tangy remoulade was an apt accompaniment, though other sauces are available.
Next to the po'boy, a side of sweet potato fries worked some sort of quasi-tempura magic: tender-crisp, non-greasy and full of flavor. There were enough that three of us could share. Other side choices are baked beans, potato salad or regular fries.
The Bayou's vibe is informal, as you'd expect at a self-described tavern: waitstaff are clad in T-shirts, and our friendly server was happy to describe menu items. Food is served on colorful Melmac dishes. Even my martini came in a clear plastic glass. At first I didn't notice, but the giveaway was that it didn't hold a chill like real glass would have - a minor disappointment.
While there's no drink menu (I hope one is in the works), and the restaurant's signature "Voodoo Juice" won't be rolled out until later this month when the Bayou has its grand opening celebration, current drink options include the New Orleans beer Abita, other tap beers and a refreshing hurricane that, with its orange hue, was as lovely to look at as it was to sip.
Those craving authenticity will note that the Bayou offers several New Orleans products, including Leidenheimer bread and Community Coffee. Whether those products are truly better than what local vendors have to offer is a matter of preference; to me, the coffee with chicory wasn't noticeably different from the regular Community Coffee, and Wisconsin certainly has better beers than Abita.
But it's those Crescent City touches that give the Bayou a sense of place, even if that sense is as illusory as the courtyard. It's a pretty pleasant illusion, after all. As my friend summed it up, "This brings back fond memories of indulgent evenings in New Orleans."