ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Susan Spicer is rare among chefs of her caliber. She’s affected neither by the river of her celebrity nor the drift of culinary fashion. Her career path always has been charted by her own curiosities. Not a hint of commercialism or voguishness about it.
Her restaurant Bayona celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last week. It’s a lovely, understated place, reflecting her personality and style. Its main room feels generous and comfortable. The other, smaller rooms are intimate but in a cool way. When the weather is decent, you can dine outside.
If a measure of a restaurant is the number of its former cooks who have gone on to open their own good restaurants, then Bayona ranks high. Its most celebrated alumnus is Donald Link, who owns Herbsaint, Cochon and Peche. Other former Bayona hands are scattered throughout the country. Meanwhile, Susan keeps encouraging the careers of everyone who works with her, while keeping a solid base of local and visiting customers happy.
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The personal restaurant of Susan Spicer, Bayona is for those who like to think about what they eat. The ingredients stand up to the closest scrutiny. The cooking style beyond category: Susan and her chefs (who are allowed to express themselves fully) take cues from every known cuisine. It may be too subtle for some people. Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2015, Bayona is as good as its ever been, and just as low-key. And it’s one of the outstanding values on the gourmet side of the dining scene.
The ingredients are carefully sourced, with an emphasis on locally-produced, wild-caught, artisanal, and organic foodstuffs. The menu lets you know all that; it was one of the first to abandon dish names in favor of descriptive ones. All of this is prevented from becoming mere posturing by Susan’s unerring, well-educated taste. She presents two complete menus: one of the long-running signature dishes, the other changing daily with ingredients from the current markets. One is as good as the other.
Susan Spicer came to restaurant cooking in the late 1970s, working at Louis XVI with the brilliant French chef Daniel Bonnot. That association led to her fronting her first restaurant, Savoir-Faire, in the early days of the New Orleans gourmet bistro revolution in 1983. She cooked around France for awhile, and returned to New Orleans in 1986 to head the kitchen at the new Bistro at the Maison de Ville. In 1990, she partnered with Regina and Ron Keever to open Bayona, in an old French Quarter building that formerly housed several restaurants–Maison Pierre most memorable among them. The building’s wall sported one of the many tile signs around the French Quarter telling of the city’s Spanish past. It notes that the Spanish name for Dauphine Street was Calle de Bayona–hence the name of the restaurant.
The restaurant has a decidedly Mediterranean look. The entrance through the carriageway is charming. The main dining room has low ceilings, brick arches, and many windows, most of which are shuttered on the outside but allow light to filter in. Flowers are profuse enough to create opulence. The small “lizard room” (puzzle: sit in there and figure out why it’s called that) is a bit quieter than the sometimes noisy main room. The upstairs dining room is claustrophobic and to be avoided. In nice weather, they serve in a small courtyard. The entire restaurant is compact, with not quite enough space anywhere.
FULL ONLINE MENU
Eggplant caviar and tapenade, herb croutons
Goat cheese crouton, mushrooms in Madeira cream sauce
Grilled shrimp, black bean cake, coriander sauce
Veal sweetbreads, lemon caper or sherry mustard butter
Cream of garlic soup
Crispy smoked quail salad, pears, bourbon molasses dressing
Fried duck livers, pumpkin-hazelnut brown butter, roasted acorn squash
Wild Alaskan salmon, choucroute and Gewurztraminer sauce
Chile-dusted duck breast and tamale, Oaxacan mole
Peppered lamb loin, goat cheese, Zinfandel sauce
Duxelles-stuffed rabbit roulade, porcini-dusted leg, celery root, hen of the woods mushrooms
Pork chop, parmesan polenta, rapini
Grapefruit panna cotta, toasted meringue, cornmeal cookies
Truffle of peanut butter, black currant tea, chocolate
Chef’s daily artisanal cheese selection
Chocolate custard tart, dulce de leche, espresso ice cream, and almond nougatine
Honey-caramelized pear with creme fraiche, pear salad, and candied walnuts
FOR BEST RESULTS
When full, the noise level can be very high. It’s a good idea to avoid the weekends and when many visitors are in town.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The menu descriptions never have done justice to the food, which is always better than it sounds. The service staff can get a shade too full of praise of the chef and her food–even though the praise is deserved. Susan is famous for her sweetbreads, but they clean them a bit too assiduously and they fall apart into too-small morsels.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +3
- Value +2
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +2
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +3
- Courtyard or deck dining
- Good for business meetings
- Open Monday dinner
- Open some holidays
- Reservations recommended