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South by South Bay

At the Bywater, David Kinch leaves the Michelin stars behind for a smart and spirited trip to New Orleans.

SLIDESHOW

The Bywater’s shrimp po’ boy.

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The dependably busy dining room.

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The Bywater Gibson.

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Mardi Gras had ended, but even as New Orleans slept off its excesses, the good people of Los Gatos partied on. Luxury sedans inched along the streets, their stereos thumping the Marketplace theme song. All three Starbucks were crowded. A woman marched her labradoodle toward a pet shop stocked with organic feed. Such revelry sparks all kinds of appetites, and on this evening in Los Gatos, most of them were represented in the line stretching from a low-slung downtown building. The waiting customers had been lured by the hand-painted promises of po’ boys, oysters, and ice cold beer to go that decorated the windows. But most of all they had come because this former sports bar is now home to the Bywater, a snug N’awlins-inspired restaurant and bar from none other than three-Michelin-starred chef David Kinch.

“He’s like Thomas Keller in Yountville,” observed an elderly man in line beside me, linking Kinch to the French Laundry lord and the wine country town that he colonized. “First he has the high-end restaurant, then he opens a bakery, and now another restaurant. Before you know it, he’s pretty much the mayor.” As if on cue, the front door swung open and there Kinch stood, framed by Mardi Gras beads. “Hi, everyone,” he said softly. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

To members of the church of culinary chic, Kinch is less a mayor than a demigod, revered as the force behind Manresa and its genre-bending style of California cuisine. Yet, long before he earned exalted status in Los Gatos, he was a teenage line cook in his hometown—New Orleans—working at Commander’s Palace under Paul Prudhomme. The Bywater brings him back to the bayou, to dark, roux-thickened gumbos, buttermilk fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and gulf shrimp in assorted guises. It allows him to serve oysters, raw and Rock-a-Fella, and to stuff them, crispy, into po’ boys. And it gives him an excuse to put a bottle of Crystal hot sauce on every table. Kinch’s tidy narrative accords well with a fine-tuned but festive restaurant that embraces its boozy obligations but still handles its fryolator with finesse. In the wrong hands, the Bywater would feel like a theme park restaurant. In Kinch’s, it’s both smart and unassuming.

Kinch has implied that the restaurant is a selfish project, a place where he would want to hang out when not busy with his own haute plating. Doubly nice for him, he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting here, having delegated the kitchen’s day-to-day control to Cyrus veteran David Morgan. The two men have created an appealing menu that nods occasionally to its NorCal surroundings but never loses sight of its NOLA roots. Though a hint of Left Coast infuses the panko coating on that oyster po’ boy, the sandwich itself—built on crusty bread, smeared with mayo, and scattered with lettuce—remains a faithful Southerner, right down to the pickled okra parked by its side. This is not a restaurant of forced fusion: Dishes, when they wander, are less apt to travel west than to sink deeper below the Mason-Dixon Line. Such is the case with the red beans and rice, a notably hearty version stocked with bacon, andouille sausage, and ham. 

The kitchen’s deft evocation of the flavors of New Orleans is countered by the dining room’s ersatz Big Easy decor: The ceiling is pressed tin; Tulane pennants and framed photos of jazz giants line the walls. Colored beads hover over one of the gray-backed booths, an ornamental touch that feels like overkill. 

The bar is more in the spirit. A font of Pimm’s cups, Sazeracs, and other well-made Crescent City classics, it’s also home to a frozen daiquiri machine pumping out a flamingo-colored concoction that goes down with dangerous ease. “New Orleans is for livers,” one waiter’s T-shirt reads. It’s also for Lipitor. But I can think of far worse ways to elevate your LDL than the Creole-spiced fries, dusted in a medley of ground peppers, garlic powder, and paprika, or the fried chicken, which is brined overnight, Creole-seasoned, soaked in buttermilk, and brought to its delicious, crunchy finish in a vat of molten lard.

Those in search of levity won’t find much here, other than an herb-flecked frisée-and-arugula salad (which, it’s worth noting, had some grit along with the vinaigrette the first time I had it), or perhaps a shrimp boil starring gulf shrimp, red potatoes, andouille sausage, and corn on the cob, scattered on a beer tray and dressed only with seasoning; it’s the Creole equivalent of a cleanse.

Clearly, this isn’t spa food, but it is spot-on. The Bywater could have coasted on Kinch’s name and cocktails. Instead, it applies precision to unpretentious cooking.

The kitchen’s careful work carries through to dessert, which is highlighted by a superlative butterscotch pot-de-crème. I’m not big on beignets, and the Bywater’s somewhat leaden version did nothing to sway my opinion. But I appreciate the fried dough’s spongelike purpose: It’s all part of the festive package. Whether Kinch is blowing smoke when he describes the restaurant as a self-indulgence is beside the point. Who cares if the Bywater is the sort of place where the chef wants to spend his free nights? What matters is that the rest of us want to hang out there, too.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at the Bywater.

Fried green tomatoes,
anchovies, and boiled egg.......................$14
Oysters Rock-a-Fella...............................$18
Shrimp boil...............................................$25
Salad for two............................................$12
Gumbo ya-ya...........................................$18
Fried chicken and butter beans...............$22
Butterscotch pot-de-crème......................$11
Chocolate bread pudding........................$11
Sazerac...................................................$12
Frozen daiquiri........................................$12
Total........................................................$155

Bywater
N. Santa Cruz Ave. (near Thurston St.), 408-560-9639
2 ½ stars
 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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