Table Talk: Bywater Plays Hard to Get
Drawing attention despite a laid-back approach
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH
Everywhere you look around town the restaurant scene is evolving, and Bywater is no exception. Restaurants here tend to be independent startups whose owners live nearby, and with little interest in glitz or fancy promotion they tend to just relax and let their food do the talking. Yet despite (or maybe because of) this, Bywater has lately drawn a fair share of national press for its low-key offerings.
When Cassi and Peter Dymond opened Satsuma in 2009, they were looking to open a place for healthy, quality food at a price local residents could easily afford. “Peter would talk about Lilette’s heirloom tomato gazpacho and I would ask myself, ‘Where can I get that without having to put on high heels and pay Lilette prices?’” Cassi Dymond recalls. They drew on their experience working at Surrey’s and Lilette, and Satsuma was their answer.
They started with a short menu that emphasized fresh-squeezed juices and substantial salads, along with baked goods and brunch options to tickle early-morning pleasure centers. As the demand grew, they expanded their offerings, culminating with their recent jump from neighborhood hangout to full-service restaurant with dinner service Wednesday through Saturday nights.
The comfortably cluttered, book- and art-lined space transforms into a dining room with ease and the menu handles the transformation with equal aplomb. Vegetarian-friendly fare like a zucchini salad with feta, frisée, pistachio, and preserved lemon shares the bill with an antipasto platter offering three flavors of that delicious, magical animal: prosciutto, salami and rillettes. Snack on the addictive gougères, tiny gruyère-laden pastries topped with prosciutto and a sweet, tangy tomato jam. Olives marinated with North African spices and a citrusy shrimp ceviche round out some other ways to start.
For main courses, try the gnocchi tossed in a sage and brown butter sauce, or else the pappardelle with an earthy mushroom conserva – both pastas are made in-house with care that informs the taste. Whatever you choose, the quality of the produce will make an impression. This respect for ingredients follows through on all the menus and vegetarian options are part of Satsuma’s appeal. Chef Michael Constantini, with prior experience at Patois, also offers vegan items.
Another nice surprise is the dessert menu. Since Satsuma does most of its baked goods for daytime service in-house, they essentially have a pastry chef for their dinner menu. If it is available, try Christina Balzebre’s especially complex and intense ginger cake. Price points are comparatively low, although portions are modest, and Satsuma has a BYOB with a corkage fee of $5 for wine and $1 for beer.
Nearby on Mazant Street, another husband-and-wife team recently scaled up their offerings. Pete and Jenny Breen, owners of barbecue spot The Joint, hauled their smokers a few blocks over from Poland Avenue and reopened in a new location on the corner of Mazant and Royal streets.
“We were renting before and wanted to own. Plus we wanted more space,” explains Pete Breen. “Here we have seating for about a dozen more at the full bar, plus more tables outside and better parking.”
The space still feels somewhat new, having not yet acquired the ramshackle patina of the old one. But what hasn’t changed is the menu, which offers up a straightforward selection of pig, chicken and brisket, along with a choice list of sides.
Breen smokes with oak, pecan and hickory, and starts with a dry-rub on the meat. “Good barbecue is all about getting the balance,” he says. “You want that good smoke flavor but you definitely don’t want to over-smoke it. You want to bring it to that proper place where it falls off the bone without falling apart.” He leaves saucing to the customers’ discretion, offering a couple of different styles. I’m partial to the Carolina-style vinegar-based version, especially with the pulled pork. The sweeter tomato-based sauces pair well with the brisket.
For sides, couple the pork with the coleslaw, crafted by Breen to compliment pork. Their mac and cheese side recently got props in a local poll, and the beans get cooked down with onion and bell pepper that are sautéed first in drippings. “For the sides we think them out and execute well so they are not afterthoughts – that makes a difference.” Beer, wine and liquor are all available at the new full bar.
It is a good thing that places like Satsuma and The Joint are bringing people in, because others that initially sparked a draw to the Bywater have faded. Elizabeth’s was one of the earlier restaurants to generate trans-neighborhood appeal. The buzz about their Praline Bacon brought people in and once there, guests would find a fun, eclectic menu built upon crowd-pleasing basics like brunch dolled up with local flourishes. Some of that appeal remains, but much of it has faded through a series of changes in ownership. It is still busy and appears popular with locals, but recent dishes there that read well on the menu fell short in execution and service was poor.
A lunch special of Fried Green Tomato Grilled Cheese with a side of gumbo was disappointing. The server put the plate down and watched gumbo spill over the sandwich, and then turned away as gumbo soaked through the bread. And the gumbo’s broth had the clarity of consommé. Even the famous Praline Bacon has failed to evolve – we live in a glorious time of readily available high-quality pork belly, some of it produced locally, and the four generic wafer-thin strips that come to the table unadorned on the plate lacked appeal. Additionally, the callas were unavailable on multiple visits. I hope Elizabeth’s gets back on track, but in the meantime there is enough in the Bywater that’s new and exciting to bring people in.
Sara Essex Photograph
Bywater is Booming
Chef Michael Doyle’s recently opened Maurepas Foods, left, is drawing a lot of attention. Pop-up outlet Pizza Delicious turns out excellent New York-style thin-crust pies on Thursdays and Sundays and Cake Café offers baked goods and sandwiches to accompany its namesake slices. Bacchanal, too, is back in action and offers live music to go with food and wine in its lush backyard setting – perfect for spring.