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Published: Thursday, 10/20/2005

Restaurant review: Gumbo's Bayou Grille ****

True to its name, Gumbo's Bayou Grille at The Docks reflects the hot jazz and Bourbon-flavored atmosphere of New Orleans' French Quarter before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. For example, on one wall is a painting of a blues singer performing in a torrid red spotlight, and hanging above the curved bar is a collection of musical instruments - cornets and clarinets, trumpets and trombones, a bass fiddle, guitar, and accordion.

But the dcor of the main dining room is what especially bowled me over. Suspended from the ceiling, high above the patio umbrellas that shade the tables, are four massive busts of the kind seen annually during New Orleans' high-stepping Mardi Gras parade. Made of Styrofoam, the huge faces are those of king's jesters in floppy foolscaps, fair maidens, and cross-eyed creatures with mangled smiles. They're so big and imposing, they seem almost alive.

Of course, all of this is meant to set the stage for the spicy Cajun and Creole food that the kitchen turns out in large portions every lunch and dinner. As many of the Big Easy's legendary restaurants struggle to reopen after the devastating hurricane damage, Gumbo's does a good job of reminding us just how good New Orleans cooking was and soon will be again.

The menu is a riot of abstract sea creatures cavorting among the garishly colored categories: appetizers, seafood, steaks, sandwiches, pasta, salads, sides, and desserts.

In general, you can't go wrong with any of the New Orleans specialties, from gumbo stew and jambalaya to crawfish etouffee and a Louisiana chicken dinner. Other possibilities are catfish, collard greens, andouille sausage, alligator bites, voodoo chicken salad, and bourbon pecan pie.

Gumbo's, owned by Toledo restaurateur Tom Cousino, moved into the former Hoster's in late 2002. Cousino is well-known as the proprietor of such other places as the Navy Bistro, Eileen s Wine Bar, Tango s, and Cousino s Steak House, all in East Toledo.

Over several visits we feasted on a dozen dishes, including two

kinds of gumbo: chicken and andouille ($2.99 a cup, $4.39 a bowl) and seafood ($3.29/$4.99).

Both featured a rich broth and a nice tang, but the seafood version was disappointingly overloaded with rubbery calamari.

However, the crab fondue appetizer ($7.39) was divine, a

sea of delectable white cheddar sauce sopped up with buttered

baguettes.

Entrees included an $18.39 Creole trio of fried catfish, shrimp, and crawfi sh served with ceramic pots of remoulade and cocktail sauces. Barbecue ranch chicken salad ($8.79) came packed with a choice of grilled or fried chicken along with roasted corn, cucumbers,

tomatoes, onions, and pepperjack cheese with ranch dressing

and little buttered corn muffins on the side. The $13.29 chicken

dinner, tender and tangy, came broiled in a house marinade.

If your appetite knows no bounds, order the southernfried beef tenderloin ($14.99), a huge platter of calorie-laden fried meat smothered in mushroom cream gravy. Somewhat more sensible choices are a couple of sandwiches: the shrimp po boy ($10.89), which combines plump fried shrimp with remoulade and boursin

cheese, or the muffeletta ($8.89), another memorable New Orleans

favorite stuffed with ham, salami, mortadella, provolone and swiss cheese, and a smear of olive relish.

One of the side dishes particularly caught my attention, macaroni and cheese ($1.95), which differs from the traditional dish by combining penne pasta with chopped jalapenos. I immediately turned up my nose, until I took a taste. The jalapenos provides a welcome jolt to the

tongue with every forkful, turning a familiar comfort food into a

newfound creamy delight.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com



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