Luring San Franciscans down to Los Gatos for dinner is not easy; it's like, well, herding gatos. The S.F.-centered parochialism that goes hand in hand with snobbery leads people to believe this leafy Silicon Valley suburb is one big Netflix distribution center marked hazily on the edges of their mental maps, “here there be monsters”-style.
It's ridiculous. I've never had the privilege of eating at Manresa, David Kinch's three-Michelin-starred restaurant that's also in Los Gatos, but I leapt at the opportunity to drive 102 miles round-trip to The Bywater, his love letter to New Orleans, the city where he learned his trade. It's as worth-it as worth-it gets, a joyful romp through the world of Creole-Cajun cooking — somehow still underrepresented in the Bay Area in spite of how it performs the magnificent trick, affecting a carefree attitude while caring very deeply about pretty much every aspect of food. New Orleans is a forgiving place — the time I got booted from the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone on Mardi Gras notwithstanding — and as with its spiritual home city, the only mortal sin you can commit at The Bywater is fretting about carbs. The motto here could be, “Come, eat, get full, get drunk, and enjoy life, 'cause life's good.”
It starts with the drinks. I ordered a celery highball with gin ($12) on the not-always-sound logic that if something so odd is on the menu, they must have found a way to make it good. (It was.) Crisp and garden-like, it was considerably peppier than the Huck-a-Buck ($12), a fun-sounding mix of tequila, watermelon, dry Madeira, lemon, and sea salt that was ultimately more innocuous than anything. The biggest surprise was the Frozen Daiquiri (rum and “voodoo mix,” $12), which comes in a plastic cup for discreet sidewalk sipping. Its precise contents are a house secret, but the liberal use of dark rum yielded the most adult daiquiri I've had in a while, bordering on savory.
Then there's the food. A nod to Jay-Z's old record label, the Oysters Roc-a-Fella ($24) was a fat tray of four spinach-, cheese-, and bacon-heavy shells. Some people hesitate when confronted with oversized oysters, fearing the whole thing will slide down their gullet as one briny blob, but with Oysters Rockefeller, you don't have to worry about that (or about the taste of the ocean). As at Antoine's, the French Quarter restaurant where the dish was invented in the 19th century, the oysters are embedded in the topping, not vice versa the way they do it around the block at Broussard's.
Dusted thickly with seasoning, the creole fries ($6) were hot as hell, and perfectly fried. The house preparation of fried green tomatoes (with anchovy and boiled egg, $14) had a layer of remoulade on the bottom, and felt like a family recipe dressed up. The only less-than-stellar starter was the chicken liver mousse (with tomatillo jam, $12). Although the sturdy bread felt constructed out of leavened dough reinforced with rebar, the three layers in the jar — mousse and jam, with fat in between — were no match for it. However rich, it was still too vaporous and one-dimensional. (Then we dipped the remaining fries in it, which saved the day.)
Apart from a “salad for two” ($12) that was only field greens in a light dressing, the large plates were even more impressive. A fried oyster po boy ($19) was not the type that's slathered in a mayo-heavy slaw and then buried in a duvet of bread, but one that lets the delicately fried oysters do all the talking. The Gumbo Ya Ya ($18) clearly started from a deep, thick roux and came with a half-submerged hunk of bread topped with crab plus a whole crawfish as big as the bowl. The only thing that made me happier than the sight of that prawn was the Crystal hot sauce on the table.
I regret that we couldn't find room for the fried chicken with butter beans ($22), but the pork chop with boudin and black-eyed peas ($28) is the best thing I've eaten so far this year. It's the size of a baseball glove, with three sweet peppers stuffed with boudin, and the side of black-eyed peas proved the axiom of Creole cooking that you should still be able to taste all the components of the seasoning. And it was proof that quantity versus quality is a false dichotomy.
Dessert was simpler: Heaped with powdered sugar, the beignets ($11 for eight) go great when dipped in the buttermilk pot de crème ($11). Perfection.
Bedecked with beads, The Bywater is not a pretentious restaurant in spite of those three Michelin stars hovering just offstage. In this open kitchen, slotted spoons stick up out of the ice that keeps the oysters cold, labeled with blue masking tape so the line cooks know which ones are which, and they're visible to all. I love that spirit and only have a couple of bones to pick. Most likely to cause mass frustration is the fact that The Bywater is very small, doesn't take reservations, and even if you're steered toward the bar to mark time while a table opens, it, too, might be full. (“There's a wait to wait?” is a question you never want to ask yourself.) The menu could use some descriptions, especially for the large plates. If I were a server, I'd probably get a little testier than ours did explaining the difference between Gumbo Ya Ya and Gumbo Z'Herbes, over and over. And even though The Bywater is a great value overall, on an individual basis, some of the prices are a little hard to figure out. Why does that po boy cost more than a lobster roll when the pork chop was such a steal?
Overall, The Bywater is the South Bay's version of Brenda's Soul Food (although it is pricier). Pile your krewe into the car and make a pilgrimage to the distant hinterlands, because life's good.