"When I went to New Orleans, I didn't know how to boil water," says Bluff City Bayou's chef Les Carloss. Fortunately for Mid-South foodies, he eventually figured out not only how to boil but to broil, bake, fry, sauté, and make a roux. First, he learned all the basic techniques for preparing the staple dishes of Cajun and Creole cuisine, and then he learned an even more valuable lesson: Don't mess with perfection.
"I've had the same cuisine at every restaurant I've ever owned," he says. "Like they say, If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Sitting in Bluff City Bayou nibbling on one of the best muffalettas this side of Central Grocery, it's easy to get swept away by the smoky, spicy smells pouring out from the kitchen and imagine yourself in a no-frills mom-and-pop diner on the edge of the French Quarter. The service is minimal but friendly, the decor minimal but funky, and the trolley rumbling past the door sells the illusion, making you think you've stumbled into some hidden Crescent City treasure known only to the lifelong inhabitants of neighborhoods with names like like Bywater or Carolton.
"I thought maybe Memphis was ready for the real thing," Carloss says. Although he was born and raised inside the I-240 loop, he learned his trade in the Big Easy. Twenty-seven years ago he opened Feelings Cafe, a romantic restaurant and piano bar on Chartres Street which is still open today, although under different ownership. During the '80s and '90s, he opened popular restaurants in Atlanta and San Diego. Three years ago, he decided it was time to come home.
Carloss initially opened Bluff City Bayou on Kirby near Poplar in East Memphis, where he received excellent reviews and developed a loyal following. But something wasn't quite right, and long before his one-year lease was up, the chef started looking for something near downtown. He wanted something that reminded him a little more of New Orleans. And he wanted something closer to his house.
"I live in Midtown, and I didn't like having to drive so far every day," Carloss says. "And I didn't like what I was doing there. We were serving lunch and dinner, and I've been doing this for a long time. I was tired of that and just wanted to open up a place and do lunches." When Carloss saw the space at 694 Madison, the former site of Leech's Family Restaurant, he was intrigued. Then he saw the sign for the cross street.
"When I saw the sign that said 'N. Orleans,' I knew it was right," he says.
Carloss claims that his kitchen skills are largely self-taught, although he did spend some time studying at a federally subsidized cooking school in the French Quarter. "I don't know if that really helped all that much," he says.
Bluff City Bayou offers a spicy variety of soups, salads, and daily lunch specials such as shrimp and oyster po' boys, crab étouffée, and a monster meatloaf made with ground beef and andouille sausage. Carloss' Creole cordon bleu, a zesty slab of blackened chicken topped with a parmesan and tasso cream, has become the house favorite.
The seafood jambalaya at Bluff City Bayou is somewhat simple, wanting more onions, peppers, and celery and giving a sense that the rice started life on the dirty side. But it's perfectly spiced, and the portions are generous. The red beans and rice are hearty, heady, laden with juicy chunks of sausage, and finished with the delightfully woody whisper of filé.
Gumbo, of course, is the true test of a New Orleans chef, and Carloss' take on the swampy concoction measures up nicely. His golden, bistro-style chicken and andouille gumbo, made with a dark-blond roux and packed with bits of slightly crunchy okra and pieces of diced tomato, is a fresher-than-usual take on this spicy classic. It's served with plenty of French bread, which is shipped in from Atlanta daily.
There's nothing fancy about Bluff City Bayou. The kitchen is bare-bones, drinks are self-service, and customers order their food at one window and pick it up at another. Those who prefer a full-service restaurant may want to look elsewhere, but those who prize value and excellently prepared New Orleans cuisine will treasure this wonderful little eatery located ever so slightly off the beaten path.
Bluff City Bayou, 694 Madison (527-0860)