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Bayou Is A Treat And Hopefully, The Food Will Be, Too

There is simply nothing else like the Bayou Brewing Company anywhere in our region.

Part restaurant and bar, part concert hall with a game room thrown in on the side, this monstrous space (23,000 square feet) has the feeling of a theme park - including the ankle-numbing lines during its first few weeks of business.

You’ve got to marvel at the herculean effort that went into this place. Video arcade magnate and former winemaker Steve Livingstone said he wanted to re-create the giddy spirit of New Orleans down on Spokane’s bayou.

So, Livingstone, Tom Vincent and a host of other partners secured the building on Trent that began its existence in 1911 as Cascade Laundry, but more recently had been home to the Lucky Penny Tavern and an auto body shop.

Before work could even begin on Riverwalk - the name for the entire project - more than 500 tons of debris were removed and the building was gutted.

A set designer with Hollywood credentials was hired to give the place atmosphere and did a bang-up job. Just a few of the visual treats include silk wisteria draped around archways, tabletops fashioned out of cast-off bowling alley lanes and one neon sign that glows with Mardi Gras greetings year-round.

The outside of the building is unremarkable, resembling one of those faux storefronts you see in tourist traps such as Leavenworth or Winthrop. And the parking lot is too small.

But step inside and a cobblestone path leads you past the coffee bar and gift counter (The Bayou Bean and Bead), past the antique shop and the game room, past the Voodoo Lounge and finally to the three dining rooms, each with its own personality. The place is enormous.

In the Lafayette Room, tables have a fine view of the river through stately windows. The adjacent Garden Room sets a more formal tone, illuminated by ornate chandeliers. The Courtyard has the laid-back, casual feel of a patio - and is probably the nosiest, least-inviting space.

Because the entire facility is nonsmoking, eating in the Voodoo Lounge is another good option.

With the Bayou’s towering ceilings, it’s worth noting that the rumble of the crowd washes over the entire place. That gives it a lively, raucous energy, but doesn’t exactly lend itself to a romantic date.

The New Orleans mystique extends to the menu - in theory, at least.

It’s full of the style of Southern fare that portly chef Paul Prudhomme fired the nation’s palate with a decade ago - blackened fish, gumbo and jambalaya, along with some traditional pub grub such as chili, steamed clams and burgers.

The dishes I sampled during several visits were all tasty enough, but it’s definitely Cajun cooking gone mainstream.

For instance, in Louisiana, gumbo is a soup that’s thickened with a caramelized roux. Here, it was a mild sauce served over rice. And my bowl was lacking okra, a key ingredient.

The dirty-rice side dish was watered down, too. In the South, the addition of beef and pork and sometimes ground chicken livers turns the rice brown. The Bayou’s pilaf is fine, but it’s just not classic dirty rice.

Also, the jambalaya was brimming with all sorts of shrimp, chicken and sausage, but its tomato-y sauce was more reminiscent of a creole dish than a typical jambalaya.

Bright spots include a fine rendition of red beans and rice simmered in ham hocks and the excellent blackened catfish with its fiery, crusty coating. A spicy creole sauce heaped on top of the blackened filet gave the dish a wonderfully wicked one-two punch. (Though Southerners say the seasonings used in true Cajun cooking are far more subtle and less peppery.)

The sprawling menu has some deals - a filling bowl of gumbo is $3.75 - but many items are overpriced.

I tried the Louisiana crawfish cakes appetizer, which had chunks of seafood encased in a good deal of breading. The accompanying remoulade sauce - a dolled-up mixture of ketchup and mayo - had a nice kick.

But there were just three small cakes for $8.95. Throw in one more and I’ll be happy. The order would be a lot easier to share then, too.

At $17.50, the etouffee was a little skimpy on the shellfish. Steamed clams starters are $9.50. And there were just five pan-fried oysters on my $8.75 lunch entree. (I also thought the crunchy cornmeal breading overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the oyster.)

Details need some attention here, too. I didn’t care for the herb-spiked hush puppies - give me plain cornmeal dough anytime - and canned corn was passed off as a fresh vegetable. Most of the sandwiches are so immense they’re impossible to eat without utensils.

Also, with such a big bill of fare, I was disappointed to see absolutely nothing offered in the way of non-meat meals. Even the red beans and rice is studded with sausage. Are there no vegetarians down South?

The Cajun cuisine is a fine match for the selection of respectable beers made in-house by brewmaster Scott Harris, who was once winemaker at Arbor Crest. (What is it with these former grape-types going over to the grain?)

The Spokesman-Review’s beer columnist Rick Bonino liked the full-bodied, dry Voodoo Dark and said the Spokane Red should satisfy those craving an easy-drinking brew. A sampler is a good way to get acquainted with all the offerings.

There is a considerable selection of specialty cocktails, but I was never once offered a wine list. Hmmmm.

Since the Bayou opened, I’ve heard numerous complaints about slow service. I suppose that’s to be expected when a place is jam-packed. On my first visit, I had to wait 30 minutes, even though I had reservations. But that was on Fat Tuesday, so I cut them a break.

Especially when, once we were seated, they showered our table with Mardi Gras beads and treated the women to feather masks.

The servers I encountered were efficient and knowledgable, though one kept referring to our party as “girls.” Miss Manners would back me up in saying that kind of phony familiarity just doesn’t cut it in a restaurant setting.

If all this sounds like I’m carping on the Bayou Brewing Company, simmer down. I do like the place. I sincerely applaud efforts to develop business along the Spokane River.

It should be a cool place to hang out when outdoor decks open.

Obviously, the owners at the Bayou have set their sights incredibly high. With some fine-tuning, the food should soar, too.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BAYOU BREWING COMPANY 1003 E. Trent, 484-4818 Meals: Cajun and creole cuisine Days/hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday Prices: lunch, $5.50-$10.95; dinner, $7.75-$17.50 Smoking: No Reservations: yes Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Personal checks: yes

This sidebar appeared with the story: BAYOU BREWING COMPANY 1003 E. Trent, 484-4818 Meals: Cajun and creole cuisine Days/hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday Prices: lunch, $5.50-$10.95; dinner, $7.75-$17.50 Smoking: No Reservations: yes Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Personal checks: yes