Brian Brother's Bayou is his best yet

New London chef/restauranteur Brian Brother is the culinary equivalent of a Canada Goose, often migrating in seasonal fashion to one of those California or Florida or Mexico places where he marinates in warmer climes and absorbs a variety of epicurean influences — of which, on his invariable return to New London, he infuses into his already impressive cooking skills.

Brother, of course, became popular in the late '80s for his popular Bayou BBQ & Grill restaurant, first on Connecticut Avenue and then on Bank Street — and in the new century at his Raiders Roost & Kitchen on Shaw Street by the roundabout, and even more recently with his off-and-on Snax Dragon taco truck.

Well, it looks like Brother is home to roost for a while. A new version of the Bayou BBQ & Grill is now open, in the old Roost location, and Brother has blended all his considerable charm, skill and vision — and everything he's learned on his journeys — into his best restaurant yet.

A caveat: This is a small town and, after being here 21 years, I know a lot of people. I was introduced to Brother within weeks of moving to New London — a lot of kind folks thought I should meet him at top speed, given my southern roots and his menu — and indeed it was a good thing. Still, back then, new to Connecticut and with the spices and nuances of Texas and Louisiana still strong in my mind, I was only marginally impressed by Brother's work. Over time, though, I began to realize that it wasn't a one-way street. I had to learn about the skills and flavors Brother had going for him as a regional chef in what for me was a strange new world. Over the years, my wife and I came to happily rely on Brother's kitchen and the warm collective personality of his staff.

All of this is to say that reviewing the new Bayou in anonymous fashion is impossible, as it is when I visit the restaurants of Jack Chaplin, Rod Cornish, Steve "Stash" Schiavone or virtually any other longtime restauranteur in the area. We all know one another and I'm aware and admiring of their collective support for each other. Given that, and with the help of a few clandestine "to go" orders carried out with CIA-style subterfuge to augment normal visits, let me say the Bayou is a consistent and creative winner pretty much across the board — one of the best dining experiences you'll find around here. 

And while the titular barbecue is certainly on the menu, along with Tex-Mex, I'd say the emphasis is more on Cajun/Creole. The important thing is that Brother does it all very well — which is a helluva good thing.

Those who remember Brother's Raiders Roost will see similarities in the new joint. The small place is split by a fencing-plank divider into a dining room and a bar area. It's a rustic feel, with a lot of wood and exposed brick and a gallery's worth of canvases and murals by local artists on the walls. The staff, led by longtime Stash's bartender Jenn Lepore, exudes charm and familial warmth, and the Bayou has the spirit of an ongoing homecoming weekend.

To me, Brother has always done pretty well with the Tex-Mex and barbecue, and the work has only improved with time. On the new menu, the former is represented by an Enchiladas Plate ($9.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) and a Chimilada Plate ($10.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner). Both are available with a choice of root vegetable, chicken, pork, beef or shrimp filling — and the non-meat version was a Christmas present to my wife that Santa can never equal.

Sayeth she: "I think this is Brian's invention. It's part chimichanga, part enchilada and a bit crispy on the outside and softer on the inside. Huge and stuffed with a tasty combo of rice, beans and tomatoes and the roasted root veggies: Brussels sprouts, Korean white sweet potatoes, squash, golden beets and carrots. The whole thing is topped with a very Texan chili gravy, cheese and crema sauce. Thank you, Brian, for not falling victim to the hoax that vegetarian options must only be zucchini, squash and bell peppers."

She also enjoyed numerous possibilitites from the side dishes. In particular, the garlic string beans ($4) were tasty and retained that resonant snap to each bite. The cheese grits ($3) had a sharp flavor to blend with a properly gritty corn texture, and the red beans and rice ($3), prepared in vegan fashion, weren't at all mushy; rather, there's a nice give and take between the legumes and the rice.

My favorites:

Roast Beef Po' Boy ($9.95) — Thick-sliced, lean, slow-roasted slabs of beef are generously coated in a New Orleans-style "debris" gravy — bits of the charred meat that crumble into natural juices during the cooking process — then nestled in a fresh-baked grinder roll and dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Wonderful (and it's worth noting Brother gets his chewy rolls daily from a bakery in Brooklyn).

Shrimp Po' Boy ($10.95) — Each bite focused on flash-fried large shrimp that provided a pop! contrast. The underpinning involved a spark of a remoulade to go with the lettuce, tomato and slices of dill pickle. I wished for a few more shrimp, but it's very great. 

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo ($4 cup, $6 bowl) — Over those migratory journeys, Brother has mastered the discipline of making a proper roux. You can see him through the kitchen portal at the Bayou, taking just a moment in the midst of two or three other tasks to whisk the darkening, thickening foundation infused with secret powders and ultimately added to chopped okra, onion, green peppers, rice, tender (poached?) chicken and densely-flavored sausage. I'm not lying: I've had this at least 10 times since the Bayou opened.

Jambalaya ($10.95 lunch, $15.95 dinner) — Chicken, sausage and shrimp in a tomato/rice dish. It's very similar to paella, for those more familiar with that recipe. All the components are in place at the Bayou, though a greater sausage presence would add a bit of contrapuntal spark. I also felt compelled to add some Crystal's hot sauce for added torque. Again: maybe a north/south preference?

BBQ Platter ($19.95) — What a trifecta! The pulled pork was tender with a deep, smoky presence, and the sausage, nicely crisped on the exterior, had a sneaky heat. Best, though? The lean, hickory-infused ribbage, the meat of which somersaulted into my mouth and which was kissed by a thick, mellowly flavorful sauce. The menu says these were St. Louis-style ribs, though they seemed closer, in my opinion, to baby backs.

We're still working our way through the menu — the Bread Pudding with Toffee Caramel Sauce ($5) is an addictive exclamation point to any meal — but I'm going to take my time with the whole Bayou experience and think of it as a Brother-style culinary migration.

Bayou BBQ & Grill

221 Shaw St., New London

(860) 326-7947

Cuisine: A personalized twist on Cajun, barbecue and Tex-Mex

Atmosphere: A friendly roadhouse with plenty of charm and local art on the walls

Prices: Very moderate; nothing over $19.95

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Credit cards: All majors

Handicap access: Double front door entry but very negotiable

Reservations: Call ahead weekends for large parties


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