Published February 14. 2013 4:00AM
It's a rare occasion when a new restauranteur in the area opens something that isn't a pizza joint. It's even more obscure when the focus of a new restaurant ventures into the realm of barbecue or Cajun. Or both.
The latter is ambitiously the case at The Bayou Smokehouse in Groton, located symbolically enough in the old Russell's Ribs location. On many levels, they're doing some nice work. Other areas need fine-tuning, but there are sufficient reasons as a Hungry Person to be encouraged - not just with the food but also because the employees are eager and friendly. (One bit of advice: the cashier/take-out counter's right by the front door, which can create a bit of a traffic jam at peak hours.)
Food-wise, most of the focus is on barbecue and that would consist of pulled pork, beef brisket, and baby back ribs. Tangential items include Bayou wings, jerk chicken. From this base, The Bayou offers a variety of sandwich and combo-plate creations - and there are consistently nice sides such as fresh corn bread, homemade coleslaw and potato salad, creamed corn and spinach, mac & cheese, onion rings and all manners french fries and toppings.
The Cajun emphasis is smaller, consisting solely of gumbo, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. But they provided pleasing recollections of home.
For one thing, the Bayou folks can actually make a flavorful and chocolate brown roux - a murky base from which to construct the proper gumbo. The house version is chicken and Andouille, and the requisite trinity of celery, green pepper and onion are all on hand. This is pretty authentic stuff, served as usual over a mound of white rice. Still, having sampled two bowls, the rice-to-gumbo ratio is way off - which is to say the gumbo was ladled as though it was a topping and not the heart of the dish. At $4.50 a cup and $7 a bowl, you'd expect a lot more gumbo.
As for the sausage and chicken jambalaya ($3.50 cup, $5 pint), it also rings bells of authenticity. However: the savory sausage was finely chopped and the chicken was slivered; typically, you'd find thick coins of sausage or hunks of chicken to provide texture and contrast. Still: tasty.
As for the barbecue, we tried a brisket sandwich and a two-meat sampler with pulled pork and "BBQ chicken." (Note: all sandwich plates and combo platers come in a variety of sizes, including daunting Big Boy portions.)
The small duo platter - with plenty of food for the $9 price tag - was a mixed bag. The pulled pork was moist with a flavorful tang; pretty damned good stuff and a generous serving. The BBQ chicken came nicely seasoned but a little dry.
A small brisket sandwich ($7, $11 Big Boy), ordered with the spicy sauce, came packed with meat and a playful layer of crunchy coleslaw on a fresh roll. I wasn't wild about the brisket. While a bit of fat never hurts in the flavor department, there was quite a bit on some of the slices. The dry-rub provided a tangy edge to the bark, but there wasn't much actual smoke flavor. Still, after a bit of dissection, I ended up with a filling sammich.
There are daily specials at the Bayou, and a big winner was a pulled pork burrito with rice and beans ($10), ordered with the sweet sauce.
Traditionalists may scoff at combining barbecue and Tex-Mex dishes, but there's a definite appeal to the cross-pollinization. We were already sold on the pork, and a huge portion arrived tender and well-shredded and fluently mixed with rice and pinto beans - with the sparkly sauce blended throughout instead of spooned on top at the last minute.
The whole thing was wrapped in a blue corn tortilla - nice touch - and topped with a gooey layer of yellow cheese that had been allowed enough time in the oven to develop a pleasant crispiness around the edges. Salsa and sour cream came on the side, but the spice of the salsa contrasted with the sweetness of the barbecue sauce. No worries; this is great.
Over the course of two meat-happy visits, it seemed wise to try what turned out to be an excellent veggie chili: a thick, stew-like broth with the expected beans and tomatoes as well as carrots and - very cool! - chickpeas. The flavor and texture were terrific and were improved further by the coating of melted cheese and scallions. And crowning the whole thing: delicious cornbread croutons. Trust me, you can never have enough of the Bayou's cornbread croutons.
Bottom line: root hard for the Bayou folks. There's some real potential here and already some rewarding food opportunities.