Fat Tuesday Valentine at Joe’s OK Bayou

Joe's OK Bayou
Nothing says “I love you”: like a plate of gumbo, jambalaya and fried crawfish tails from Joe’s OK Bayou. Dig in! Photo by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Joe’s OK Bayou, Ramsi’s Cafe on the World)

It’s a long way from the Louisiana bayou country to the shopping centers that are rapidly replacing forests and fields on New Albany’s far north side, but once you step into Joe’s OK Bayou, the distance seems to disappear. Or some of it, anyway.

Like its Kentucky-side counterpart in Plainview, this relatively new edition of Joe’s (it opened the autumn before last) turns bland shopping-center space into a modest replica of a Cajun-country saloon. The walls are painted to resemble a fishing shack surrounded by cypress trees and subtropical birds. Zydeco music in the background and glowing Abita beer signs complete the Acadian ambience, and the food does a reasonably good job of evoking the bayou country, too. The cozy gas-log fireplace might seem a little odd in the balmy Gulf, but it was just right on a frosty Hoosier evening with the temperature outside hanging at a steady 21.

The three-page foldout menu is so large that it takes a while to get the hang of it. There’s a variety of appetizers and bar munchies, from $5.50 (for fried pickles) to $7.95 (for a half-pound of peel-and-eat shrimp or fried gator tail), plus fresh flown-in Gulf oysters on the half shell, salads and sandwiches (including assorted po’boys from $8.25 to $9.25), and an almost bewildering variety of main dishes. If you order a “specialty dinner” ($12.95 for catfish to $16.95 for the Big Mamou, with your choice of samples of any three), you get your pick of smaller portions of any two “Cajun Entrees” on the side. Pick a half-portion ($8.25 to $9.50) of any main course except the Big Mamou, and you still get two sides. Or go all mudbugs, all the time, with the boiled crawfish festival platter: three pounds of ’em with sides of crawfish etouffée and crawfish Creole ($18.95, half-order $12.95).

In addition to the two Joe’s OK Bayou resturants in New Albany and Plainview, several other regional eateries plan Mardi Gras-season special events and menus.

Other restaurants who’ve announced Fat Tuesday plans, many of them detailed in our Louisville Restaurants Forum, include:

* Club Grotto, 2116 Bardstown Road, (502) 459-5275, with the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF)
* Cafe Beignet (The Fishhouse), 1310 Winter Ave., (502) 568-2993
* Cafe Lou Lou, 1800 Frankfort Ave., (502) 893-7776
* Gumbo A Go-Go, 2109 Frankfort Ave., (502) 896-4046
* Holly Hill Inn, 426 N. Winter St., Midway, Ky., (859) 846-4732

Finally, up the river a piece, the Northern Kentucky Chapter of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, with the Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Association will have a Mardi Gras taste on Feb. 20. For details, click www.nkramardigras.com.

We went the Glutton Lite route, weighing down the table with half-orders of two specialty dinners and a total of four sides, plus a couple of beers and desserts.

Dinners come out quickly, served on pretty butter-yellow oval Melmac plates. A half-order of fried oysters ($9.25) was more than generous – eight plump, fresh beauties (the full order consists of 12) – coated with a crisp, grease-free breading that contained a light but perceptible jolt of cayenne. The oysters were tasty but had a slightly “muddy” flavor reminiscent of catfish, and curiously, so did the popcorn crawfish and even the gumbo. It was odd but not unpleasant, as long as you like catfish. A half-order of fried crawfish tails ($8.50) contained more than 20 small, crisply fried critters, as much as the menu promised for a full order, not that I was complaining or anything. They seemed to have the same breading as the oysters, and were tasty if pretty much indistinguishable from popcorn shrimp.

The side dishes were very good, if not great, suffering slightly from a technique lapse that I also find at Joe’s local Cajun competition, Gumbo A Go-Go: The chef seemed to pull back just short of the edge when making roux, resulting in a base that’s flavorful but a tad floury. The art of roux is not an easy one, but it’s worth pursuing, as a truly outstanding Cajun dish should never taste of raw flour.

Still, we both cleaned our plates. Sides included gumbo (dark brown and loaded with chicken, slices of spicy sausage and the Cajun “holy trinity” of onions, green peppers and celery, with a bit of bay leaf and a good whiff of piquant spice). None of Joe’s dishes are what I’d call fiery, though, another aspect in which they fall short of the excitement level of bayou country; but jars of hot sauce are provided on every table. Jambalaya was brown and salty, made from converted rice simmered with hot sausage, shredded chicken, large chunks of long-cooked celery, green peppers and onions. Red beans and rice consisted of a mound of white converted rice topped with tender beans and hot sausage in a thick, reddish-brown sauce. Chicken etouffée was a tasty if somewhat pasty light roux on rice with strands of chicken so well cooked that they pretty much dissolved into the roux.

We shouldn’t have, but we couldn’t resist sampling the desserts. New Orleans-style bread pudding ($3.75) was outstanding, a hefty square of white French-style bread, packed with plump raisins and soaked in milk and sugar, baked until the bread literally turned into sweet, dense pudding, then topped with a thick, sweet pale-gold bourbon-scented sauce. A simple praline ($1.50) was as good as you could buy from a Bourbon Street vendor but quite a bit larger, a round, thin disk of sweet caramelized sugar and cream studded with pecans.

Service was exceptional, and the fireplace and simple Cajun-country decor really did turn a Southern Indiana shopping center space into a little bit of the bayou. It would be a fine place to take your Valentine tonight, or hold off until Friday when the Mardi Gras frivolity begins, a celebration with music, buckets of beer and lots of specials, winding up on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 20.

Joe’s OK Bayou
4308 Charlestown Road
New Albany, Ind.
(812) 948-2080
Rating: 88 points

Ramsi’s bulks up the vegan table

When Eat ‘N’ Blog correspondent BARB TEMPLE heard that the new menu at Ramsi’s Café on the World had added new vegan offerings, she was so there. She came back, delighted, with this story to tell:

I used to visit Ramsi’s often, but stopped eating there a couple of years ago. The food had begun to go downhill and even the service was not what it had been before. But that was some time ago, so this return visit would be a test. My son Billy and I headed over there late, so we had plenty of tables to choose from.

After looking over the new menu, we ordered our old appetizer standby, quesadillas ($7.29). They were served with good chunky salsa and sour cream. I enjoyed a small Southwestern Caesar salad ($3.80), a slight variation on the usual Caesar.

For his entrée, Billy ordered his reliable Pollo Nuevo Havana ($13.50), which is a blackened chicken breast on rice with a jalapeño sauce, served with Boursin cheese and a side of stir-fried veggies. I went to the new menu for Yuca Masala ($8.99), chunks of yuca in a sauce of garbanzo beans, tomatoes and green peas “in a traditional Indian tomato sauce,” served on basmati rice. The menu also mentioned sun-dried apricots, but I couldn’t detect any. The accompanying Indian paratha ($1 extra) was good, but it might have been better warmed.

As noted, the new menu adds a variety of vegan dishes, and it retains most of the old dishes. There are also new items for carnivores, including a bison steak sandwich ($9.99) with a green peppercorn sauce and crisp fried onions; a lamb chop ($16.50) with a pumpkinseed mint sauce; and fish tacos ($12.99) with soft corn tortillas. There are four paninis, two of them vegan.

A real plus for dessert lovers is the new Turkish tiramisu ($4.25). Crème Caramel ($4.25) is described as similar to a flan, and medjool dates ($5.99) are stuffed with goat cheese and baked. On the children’s menu, the chocolate sandwich ($4.39) features melted chocolate on a homemade bun served with fried potatoes or sliced apples. Yum! I wonder if they’d sell that to an adult.

Our dinner, consisting of two entrees, a shared appetizer, a salad, two pieces of paratha bread, a tiramisu, hot tea with several refills and a cola for Billy, came to just over $53, with very good service earning a generous tip.

Ramsi’s Café on the World
1293 Bardstown Road