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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Friday, July 23, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Bayona


For well over twenty years, I have been unsuccessfully trying to describe Susan Spicer, the celebrated owner/chef of Bayona in the French Quarter – and that’s precisely how I’ve described her. It’s as futile as trying to describe a chameleon by using only one color.

The problem is, just when I think I have her pegged, she changes and what was once a concise assessment is hopelessly out of date. This has been going on for almost a quarter century, during which I have been regally fed in her restaurants, charmed during our brief howdy-shakes when she makes her rounds, and exasperated when I’ve tried and failed to replicate her signature pepper jelly glazed duck breast in my own kitchen, armed with her recipe but handicapped by my own talent.

Not too long ago, I was looking for something to cook and started thumbing through her superb Crescent City Cooking, a cookbook I thought was never going to come out. In her opening paragraph, she reminisces about a warm spring evening in 1979 when she walked in front of the restaurant on Dauphine Street that would ultimately become Bayona. She was on her way to her first cooking job.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I was sitting in the restaurant that evening. The restaurant was Maison Pierre, where Cajun/French chef Pierre Lacoste was making a big noise putting out classic French food with Louisiana ingredients. I remember the place as being appropriately fussy and French, but not much else beyond it being the first restaurant where I ever saw a $5,000 bottle on the wine list. (I asked the waiter if anyone had ever bought one and he imperiously told me that the house had sold two – to the same table in one evening, to two Texans celebrating a rather substantial oil strike.)

Spicer’s rise through the ranks in kitchens was rapid. In 1986, after a couple of stints in New Orleans and Paris, some extensive traveling and a first executive chef gig at a now defunct restaurant called Savoir Faire, she opened the 40-seat Bistro at Maison de Ville, the French Quarter jewel box of a hotel where Tennessee Williams is said to have drafted the greater part of A Streetcar Named Desire. To a kitchen so small it included only one oven, four burners and a refrigerator in the alley, Spicer brought her seven short years of experience to a city with a centuries old reputation as one of America’s centers of fine cuisine.

From that point forward, it’s been pretty much a Cinderella story for Spicer, minus the cruel stepmother, the glass slipper and the coach that turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.

The Bistro at Maison de Ville was a success from the beginning, and it was there where Spicer developed such signature dishes as her Cream of Garlic Soup, Grilled Shrimp with Black Bean Cakes and her Seared Duck Breast with Pepper Jelly Glaze. Through the pass-through window opening up to the postage stamp of a kitchen, Chef Spicer could watch people react to the food, which helped her refine current dishes and fine-tune new ones.

It was during her years at Maison De Ville when her original cooking (which she dubbed “New World” cuisine) was wrongly labeled as nouvelle cuisine and she became falsely typecast as a practitioner of nouvelle (which was once described by a comedian as “I just paid $94 for what?”). This was at a time when nouvelle cuisine was the darling of New York culinary/media circles, and almost any type of cooking using an unusual ingredient was hailed as an innovative example.

Despite the runaway success of both the cuisine and Spicer’s reputation, the Bistro at Maison de Ville was owned by the hotel, and entrepreneurial fires were beginning to burn in its headline chef. One of Spicer’s regular customers, Regina Keever offered to back her in a restaurant of her own, and on April Fool’s night of 1990, the building which had once housed Maison Pierre opened its doors as Bayona, which was the name of Dauphine Street when New Orleans was under its original Spanish rule. It had been ten-and-one-half years since Susan Spicer admired the building on the way to her first kitchen job.

With a ready-built fan base from her years at Bistro, a site that had already been a headline restaurant and a chef with a penchant for experimentation and invention, it took little time for Bayona to grow into one of New Orleans’ most beloved restaurants, a reputation corroborated when Spicer was named Best Chef, South in the 1997 James Beard Awards, the top accolades in the American restaurant industry. By this time, Chef Spicer had become a permanent fixture in discussions of the city’s new guard of chefs along with Frank Brigtsen, Emeril Lagasse and other rising stars opening their own restaurants within a few years of each other.

Despite Spicer’s success and the attention paid to her cuisine, a clear label for it remained elusive. The “New World” designation gained some traction, but no one could adequately say what it meant. Due to the excesses of self-promoting chefs more concerned with an ingredient’s eccentricity than its flavor, the nouvelle cuisine moniker was losing its cachet. Complicating the process was the fact that Spicer was (and remains) an inveterate tinkerer whose cuisine kept evolving as she continued learning.

And perhaps that’s the most appropriate name for Spicer’s style of cooking – evolutionary. With life changes come cooking changes. Her later in life marriage and instant family of two children started bringing elements of traditional “home cooking” more to the forefront in her recipe development.

Through her collaboration with former partner Donald Link in their very successful restaurant Herbsaint, a new depth and rusticity came into her repertoire. In 2010, she opened another new restaurant, Mondo, in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood as a casual alternative to the more formal Bayona. If history serves as any guide, expect further changes in Bayona’s menus to reflect the new discoveries Spicer makes in her constantly evolving whirlwind of a life.

A look at the Bayona menu, which changes regularly to take advantage of the seasonal freshness of regionally produced ingredients, and her cookbook gives me the impression that, in most cases, Louisiana is the source of a recipe’s central ingredient and the rest of the world is her spice cabinet. This can be found in such dishes as Indian-spiced Turkey Breast with Creamy Red Lentils, Mediterranean Roasted Shrimp with Crispy Risotto Cakes or Shrimp Salad with Fennel and Herbed Cream Cheese on Brioche.

There’s also a playful side to Spicer, one of whose most often ordered lunch items is Smoked Duck “PBJ” with Casher Butter, Pepper Jelly, and Apple-Celery Salad, a gourmet take on the old favorite childhood finger food.

Both Bayona’s lunch and dinner menus always feature several of the chef’s established signature dishes, and fresh-from-market items that have been the beneficiaries of Spicer’s dazzling technical skills, intuitiveness and imagination.

The three smallish rooms and the private patio of the 200 year-old Creole cottage that house Bayona are conducive to civilized conversation without being stuffy. With apricot walls and a profusion of flowers, the white tablecloth restaurant has a formal look, but an unexpectedly informal feel to it. It is not uncommon, late in the evening shift when the kitchen becomes less frenetic, to see Spicer talking to customers and collecting opinions or enjoying a glass of white wine with old friends. The restaurant is very much “home” to Susan Spicer, and she goes out of her way to make you feel like it’s yours as well.

After twenty years of success, the very notion of failure at Bayona is dismissed as preposterous, at least for as long as its energetic chef stays at the helm. But watching Susan Spicer work, as I have since her earliest days at the Bistro at Maison de Ville, one gets the feeling that one of her eyes will be as open to future opportunity as her heart has always been.

For the time being, at least, it’s business as usual at Bayona, and business is booming. As for tomorrow or next week or next year, who knows? It’s a constantly changing world for Chef Spicer, but there’s one thing you can be sure of. If you want a seat at one of her tables, you might want to make reservations several weeks in advance. Because time waits for nobody.


Bayona, 430 Dauphine Street (between Conti & St. Louis Streets)
Lunch served Wednesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m.
Dinner served Monday through Saturday starting at 6 p.m.
Dark on Sunday
All major credit cards accepted and reservations are essential
Telephone: 504-525-4455
Website: www.bayona.com

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