Apparently, I was one of only a few people who appreciated Lagartos, the South American and Mexican restaurant that opened and closed last year in a prominent East Side restaurant location.
Owner Dale Beck closed Lagartos in the old Talula space in January after about six months, and replaced it with a restaurant called North of the Bayou, Place for Food and Brewery.
It's a reincarnation of the Downtown Bayou restaurant that he owned for seven years and closed in 2016. The original Bayou and Lagartos both benefited from having Fredy Carcano as the chef, and now North of the Bayou does, too.
Where Lagartos had few customers when I visited in September, a recent weeknight visit to North of the Bayou found nearly every table occupied.
The restaurant, in that large, pink, castle-like building off Cottage Grove and Stoughton roads, has been well-received since opening in mid-February. Beck said that there's a 45-minute wait on Friday and Saturday nights.
The front section of the menu features New Orleans favorites, but there's also a page titled "Bringing the World Together," Lagartos' tagline, which keeps a small part of that restaurant's menu. It has build-your-own pasta bowls, crab enchiladas, stuffed chicken breast, and andouille-crusted mahi mahi.
In Carcano's hands, I'm sure any of that would be great, but the Creole food sounded too good to pass up, and it was.
Lagartos had unbeatable crab cakes, and those here ($10.99), called Louisiana crab cakes, are only slightly different, lightly breaded with homemade breadcrumbs made from New Orleans Leidenheimer bread. A drizzle of chipotle ranch added a pleasant bite, and greens on the side were nicely dressed and sprinkled with black beans and corn.
The étouffée also had the right spice level. Customers choose between crawfish and shrimp, and the crawfish were cooked just right. The light-colored roux had the perfect character, punctuated with onion and red pepper.
The "gumbo du jour" which added pulled pork and spinach to the celery and red pepper in the roux, helped differentiate it from the étouffée. The gumbo can also be ordered with seafood or chicken.
The chicken in the jambalaya was dry, but it was overshadowed by delicious coins of sausage that ringed the rice dish. Like the other entrées, the jambalaya had a good amount of heat and didn't need hot sauce. Still, it was the weakest dish we tried.
All three dishes were $8.99 for a lunch portion, or $11.99 for a dinner version, with both sizes available any time. Each dish came with a piece of fantastic, lightly buttered Leidenheimer bread, which the restaurant also uses for its po' boys.
Another strong suit of North of the Bayou is its cocktails, which were unusually tasty and remarkably inexpensive. It also explains why the bar area was crowded when we arrived.
The Pimms Cup ($5.50) with house-infused, cucumber Pimm's No. 1 and lemonade, was just sweet enough, and served in a pint glass.
The lady bug ($7) was a souped-up Long Island iced tea, with coconut rum, and melon, strawberry and banana liqueurs. There were also orange and pineapple juices. It could have been a big, muddled mess, but the flavors blended seamlessly.
"I'm going to have to get the recipes for these drinks or otherwise come back here more often," my companion said.
The brewery part of the operation, run by brewmaster Frank Duane, probably won't be ready until late fall. Beck is still waiting on some equipment.
There's something about North of the Bayou that's more inviting than the old Bayou Downtown, which had a theme park feel. It must be the big, open space, and comfortable booths with photos of New Orleans hanging within them.
Mardi Gras beads hang from a chandelier, and there are a few neon touches from the former Bayou, like theater masks and fleur-de-lis.
Desserts are listed on a card on the table, and while fine, the creme brûlée ($4.99) didn't stand out enough for North of the Bayou to call it their signature dessert.
The beignets ($3.50), three to an order, are covered in powdered sugar, but aren't going to make you forget the famous ones served at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. To my mind, the beignets at Hilldale's Cafe Hollander even beat those.
New Orleans starts calling me each spring. And this year's Jazz & Heritage Festival starts April 28 with the usual killer musical lineup.
The festival's music is only matched by the food served on the festival grounds. Dining at North of the Bayou made me feel more wistful about not going this year, but the great gumbo and étouffée helped ease some of that regret.
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