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First bite: Bourbon Street Bar and Grill in downtown Puyallup

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Jan. 31, 2014 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
January 30, 2014 2:37 pm
Mike de Alwis, center, and his son, Jehan, mix a drink while chatting with a customer at Bourbon Street Bar and Grill. Lui Kit Wong/Staff Photographer
Mike de Alwis, center, and his son, Jehan, mix a drink while chatting with a customer at Bourbon Street Bar and Grill in downtown Puyallup. Lui Kit Wong/Staff Photographer

It’s been some time since this region had a Cajun restaurant, which made the opening of Bourbon Street Bar and Grill that much more anticipated.

The New Orleans-themed restaurant that opened in mid-December is a small destination that’s more bar than restaurant in downtown Puyallup.

Two first-bite visits in the inaugural month showed a restaurant trying hard to do the right thing – mostly succeeding at food, excelling at atmosphere, but struggling at service.

When crawfish is fresh and available, Bourbon Street Bar and Grill offers a seafood boil. Pictured here is a crawfish boil that also includes shrimp and clams.
When crawfish is fresh and available, Bourbon Street Bar and Grill offers a seafood boil. Pictured here is a crawfish boil that also includes shrimp and clams.

The menu reads like the greatest hits of bayou dining: jambalaya, gumbo, blackened seafood, po’ boy sandwiches and seafood boil on a menu that has morphed during the first month of operation. It’s also quite well priced, with the bulk of the menu in the $12-$16 range.

Owner Mike de Alwis – who operates the restaurant with his son Jehan, a culinary school student – has created a visually interesting atmosphere that breathes easy with New Orleans charm.

Wrought iron accents inside and out add structure to a bisected restaurant converted from a gas station. Seating is where things might get tricky for diners in Puyallup, a city known for family dining. The restaurant is broken into two seating areas. One is open for diners of all ages, but it’s a space that has few tables, most of which were high tops. I suspect families with kids needing high chairs will have trouble (de Alwis is fixing that). Most of the restaurant’s seating is in the bar. There’s hope for the al fresco season: A large patio is outside.

In one dining room, wood-clad walls provide warmth against a glossy, mottled ceiling. In the other room, dark rust and brown tones contrast sharply with sunny walls.

The noise level in the all-ages dining room wasn’t as troubling as I expected, but I’m willing to bet the bar becomes roaring loud at full capacity. Tall ceilings and hard surfaces usually don’t create quiet ambiance.

Fried oysters and fries were a recent special on the menu at Bourbon Street Bar and Grill, newly opened in Puyallup.
Fried oysters and fries were a recent special on the menu at Bourbon Street Bar and Grill, newly opened in Puyallup.

The menu has fluctuated, which is why dishes described here might not be offered on your visit.
The seafood boil — a New Orleans classic for $17.95 — was served in a bowl rather than toppled onto paper. That bowl was filled to the rim with bivalves, snappy shrimp and tiny crawfish with a broth so tasty I wanted more.

Spicing tended to be timid instead of assertive on both visits. The jambalaya ($11.95) was threaded thick with shrimp and in-the-shell clams, the rice dish lightly dosed with heat (request more spice for the real deal). The gumbo was similarly mild ($4.95/$7.95) but thick with andouille and chicken, colored somewhere between brick red and muddy brown – just the right shade for that roux-based soup.
A New York steak was an oddly thin cut, but the price was wallet friendly at $14.95. It was accompanied by lumpy potatoes that were forgettable, but a slaw salad offered a nice tweak of Cajun spicing.

Cornmeal-coated fried oysters ($12.95) nodded to the sea in taste and texture – I love a kitchen that doesn’t overcook its seafood. Kicky hush puppies outperformed a side of garlic fries.

A po’ boy sandwich ($10.95) spilled shrimp out of a crunchy baguette that was layered with tomatoes and lettuce and a punchy remoulade-style spread. A tiny quibble: there were no pickle slices and I would have preferred crispy iceberg over the fancy greens used on the sandwich. A good po’ boy needs crunch from the lettuce and pucker from pickles. Fries flanked the sandwich.

On the first visit, some dishes arrived more lukewarm than I would have preferred, but that was not a persistent problem on a second visit.

I could tell the kitchen was headed in the right direction, but here’s where things got tricky: uneven service.

On one visit, our server was friendly, but slow and forgetful. We waited a painfully long time for everything from menus to food. Our server was overwhelmed and apologetic, so it was easy to forgive the fledgling restaurant.

A return visit a few weeks later found little improvement and flustered servers.

Despite a nearly deserted dining room, it was a struggle to get water refills and server attention. We had a round-robin gaggle of servers tend us – three total – which explained why nobody took ownership of our table, leaving us for a long stretch of the meal with empty cocktail and water glasses, no table check-ins, and a frustrating wait for a check.

Considering the staff-to-customer ratio at that time seemed about 1-to-1, that should never have happened. It just shows that a restaurant can excel at the big picture, but fumble its execution in the fine details. What might save the restaurant is an owner who pays special attention to customers. I spotted de Alwis checking on tables throughout both experiences. He and his wife, Karen, have operated Misty Mountain Montessori in South Hill since 2010.

This is the sole Cajun restaurant in the immediate South Sound area. In the past, Kevin Roy operated From the Bayou in downtown Puyallup (2005-06) and in Parkland (1998-2007), and there was Creole Cafe in Parkland as well, operated by Blandon Dillon from 1999 until 2010. I’ve been looking forward to the return of Cajun dining in the South Sound.

Bourbon Street Bar and Grill
401 S. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-604-4404, Facebook

Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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