How chef Julian Gaxholli has been jazzing up Bay Street with his Creole cuisine for nearly a decade
Ten years ago, after being exposed to and studying Southern cuisine, Julian Gaxholli decided to bring a little Creole to the northeast corner of his island.
“Julian had been working as an executive chef at another restaurant which occasionally hosted these Mardi Gras theme nights,” noted Jay Larson, general manager of Bayou, a Bay Street staple which has been serving up dishes of gumbo and Jambalaya for close to a decade. “He was responsible for creating Creole specials for those nights, and simply fell in love with the cuisine. So, he began to study the food and culture, and when the opportunity presented itself, he launched Bayou.”
Gaxholli chose the space on Bay Street because he loved the Rosebank area and had enjoyed the Spanish restaurant that had been previously housed there, Larson explained. He made some basic renovations, decorated the place with a little Louisiana art and memorabilia, and focused on French Quarter fare.
“When we first opened, there were like six appetizers and six entrees on the menu, rounded out by a couple of soup and salad selections,” recalled Larson. “Julian wanted to bring traditional Creole dishes to this borough because it was a type of cuisine that had never really been served here before.”
He started with a lot of primary New Orleans dishes like Chicken Gumbo and Crawfish Boil, and Bayou’s style of food and overall gastronomic theme caught on after the 2003 opening, so Gaxholli quickly expanded the menu.
“We went from six appetizers and entrees to something like 20,” said Larson. “Julian started adapting the dishes, too, twisting the authentic New Orleans food to suit a more universal crowd. That’s the type of cuisine that essentially defines what Bayou is all about.”
While favorites like Gumbo are pretty dead-on in terms of taste and ingredients, other dishes are gently manipulated to account for the New York palate.
“Even though okra is a traditional Creole flavor, we don’t use it because it’s just not popular here,” Larson said. “And our Étouffée (crawfish immersed in a brandy sauce, cooked with diced celery, onions, and peppers) is served in a Cajun cream sauce and tossed over fettucini. An authentic Étouffée would be served in a roux over rice— it’s that kind of adaptation that makes our menu pleasing to a range of diners.”
Crawfish Nachos, Jambalaya Rice Balls, and Fried Cajun Sushi are a few of Gaxholli’s crossover appetizers. Entrees like the Big Easy Pork Chop, Chartres St. Rack of Lamb, and Blackened Catfish are offered with dirty mashed potatoes, brown sugar carrots, and rice.
Desserts are “traditional Southern,” and include slices of Pecan Pie, Banana Chocolate Bread Pudding, Crème Brûlée, and Fried Cheesecake. The restaurant’s most popular drink is the Hurricane, a traditional Bourbon Street libation featuring three different types of rum (there are four different versions on the menu).
Bayou was Gaxholli’s first venture into restaurant ownership (he now also owns the very popular Beso and Blue), making the spot very near and dear to his heart.
“This was his first restaurant, so I think it definitely holds a special place for him,” Larson said. “But it’s also spe- cial because the cuisine is so unique and flavorful. There really is nothing else like it on Staten Island.” And three years ago, the restaurant added to its exclusivity, undergoing a full-scale renovation.
“Before the renovation, I think the place was more a caricature of New Orleans— we had bits and pieces of memorabilia dec- orating the dining room. But now, Bayou is more authentic. It’s no longer a representation of the city…more a replica of a traditional New Orleans restaurant.”
Bayou’s most recent redo was centered around a painting that has been hanging in the space since its opening.
“Julian purchased the portrait when he bought the restaurant,” Larson recalled. “It’s from the 1800s…a depiction of a topless woman. When we renovated, we sort of built the bar around her.”
Building on that focal point, Gaxholli added a granite bar and terracotta floor, and encased the dining room with dark wood flooring and intricate antique mirrors.
“We left an exposed brick wall on one side of the room,” Larson said. “And picked tiles with a very New Orleans feel.”
Gaxholli continues to adapt and update the menu regularly, keeping the staples but mixing them with specials and other new and inventive dishes.
“I think the biggest misconception about Bayou is that the food is spicy,” added Larson. “This is Creole, not Cajun. There is a little kick to many of the dishes, but it’s not outrageous, and all of them can be adapted to individual tastes.”
Fridays and Saturdays are the hotspot’s busiest nights, and reservations are recommended and accepted for any size party. Live blues and rock is featured every Tuesday, and Wednesdays are reserved for jazz. Each Monday, a tarot card reader is on site, too. A three-course prix fixe dinner is offered Monday through Wednesday for $19.95 and brunch is served every Sunday.
“Our brunch is also prix fixe, and features three courses with a mix of eggs, French toast, crepes, and alligator,” Larson said. “We put a little bit of Creole into everything we do.”
Photos: By Vinnie Amessé © www.amessephoto.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 12 a.m. Sunday 12 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Price: Appetizers $9 – $12
Entrees $18 – $28 All major credit cards accepted
Service: Friendly, professional
Bar: Full bar with a focus on the New Orleans Hurricane and a range of other mixed drinks. Also features a nice selection of New Orleans microbrews.
Private Parties: Yes (Party must be 30 or more to close down the restaurant)