There was no way Levi Raines was putting a gumbo on the menu at Bywater American Bistro, the New Orleans restaurant where the Eater Young Gun (’19) is chef and partner.
It’s not that Raines was new to New Orleans when the restaurant opened in March 2018. He’d been in the city for three years, working his way up through the ranks at Nina Compton’s acclaimed Warehouse District restaurant Compère Lapin. After just a year there, Compton and her business partner Larry Miller decided to open a new restaurant with Raines as a third partner. That restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, would serve an “eclectic American” menu to neighborhood locals, but gumbo, Raines reasoned, wasn’t in Bywater’s wheelhouse.
“When you throw your hat into that ring you’re automatically opening yourself to be compared to everything else that’s out there,” Raines says. “Even if we decided we were going to spend a year testing different [gumbo] recipes... we would receive poor criticism from at least 50 percent of the people that ate it.” But Raines did want something on the menu with similar appeal.
“I kept trying to figure out some type of thing that we could put on the menu that would fill the gap and have a soul-satisfying quality that a bowl of gumbo has,” Raines says. The idea for an oyster gravy, served with fried jumbo gulf oysters and rice, sprang almost fully formed from his head. The dish is indicative of his style of cooking, he says, in its multiple uses of a primary ingredient, a method that creates a “better mesh of flavors and textures.” In this case, he started with the Gulf oysters, which clearly link the dish to New Orleans. On pretty much the first try, Raines found it was what he had been looking for. “It was just one of those things that was super tasty, and we definitely made a couple of adjustments to it since then, but it hasn’t really changed a whole lot,” he says.
A culinary school teacher gave Raines his first introduction to Cajun-Creole cuisine. After he learned to make the French stocks and sauces typical of a culinary school curriculum, his instructor pulled out a cast-iron pan to make a dark roux for gumbo. “It [was] kind of jarring to see her pull out this cast-iron pan and get oil smoking hot before adding flour to it, whipping pretty aggressively,” Raines says. “It kind of went against everything we had learned in our sauces class.”
The gravy in the oyster gravy at Bywater American Bistro starts with a dark roux, similar to the one Raines learned how to make at the very beginning of his career. He adds complexity to his roux by first frying oysters in olive oil and using a hard white wheat milled from local miller-baker Bellegarde Bakery. “Our base roux is going to be more aromatic and more flavorful because we’re not using processed white flour,” he says. He cooks it about an hour on high heat, stirring continuously, so that it doesn’t burn. “You have to take it deep, deep, deep until it starts to turn red,” Raines says. “The darker you take a roux and the more you dehydrate it, the less thickening you get from it. You can use more and you get that deeper flavor.” When it’s the right color, it comes off the heat to rest.
While the roux is still hot, the chef adds grated mirliton, also known as chayote. “It will start to sizzle and that will drop the temperature further so it stops cooking,” he says. And then, it’s time to turn the roux into a gravy. Raines adds a blend of milk and heavy cream, plus a gram of xanthan gum to prevent the mixture from separating. The oysters that were first sweated in olive oil are added back in, and they simmer for 20 minutes. It’s finished with Worcestershire sauce and Crystal hot sauce — “two flavors that are synonymous with Cajun and Creole cuisine,” according to Raines — and lemon juice. “Then we puree the whole thing, and that’s our gravy.”
Bywater American Bistro is located in Bywater’s Rice Mill Lofts, a building that once housed the largest rice mill in North America. And so, rice and other grains appear prominently on the restaurant’s menu. Rice is a central ingredient in the oyster gravy dish. “We cook fresh jasmine rice every single day,” Raine says. As with the initial roux for the gravy, the rice component of the dish is simple but not entirely straightforward — Raines adds a chiffonade of little gem lettuce hearts to the hot rice. “It wilts a little bit but you can still get [the] fresh and bitter refreshing elements of it,” Raines explains.
When a bowl of Bywater American Bistro’s oyster gravy arrives to the table, it appears in three distinct stripes. There’s the deep brown gravy, the white jasmine rice flecked with green, and, down the center splitting the two, three golden-fried jumbo Gulf oysters. Raines refers to them as the “garnish” on the dish, but they’re a hearty and essential component.
Grains are important at this stage, too. The oysters are dredged in heirloom cornmeal, mixed with semolina, jerk spice, and some flour to ensure it sticks. Like the flour for the roux, the cornmeal comes from Bellegarde Bakery, which gets it from Bayou Cora Farms in Alabama. It’s the same cornmeal the restaurant uses for grits (available as a side), while the jerk spice also shows up elsewhere on the menu. “We use jerk spice as our Cajun mix for everything that we do as our base flavor,” Levi says, explaining that the seasoning, typically comprising allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers, is a nod to Compton’s Caribbean roots. When the oysters are placed in a line in the deep bowl and sprinkled with chives, the dish is complete.
“In all honesty, everything that we do is very simple,” Raines says of Bywater American Bistro’s menu. “We take techniques and things that we’re interested in and food that we think is craveable and then we test it; [if] we like it, we put it into rotation at the restaurant.” Simple though it may be, the oyster gravy manages to encapsulate the vision Raines and Compton had for Bywater American Bistro: a bowl that weaves together Caribbean flavors with Cajun and Creole influences, highlights the region’s grains, and, with clear local roots, satisfies the neighborhood regulars without encroaching on gumbo’s territory.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.