Michael T. Regan
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The first time I drank swamp water, I was 12. The sixth grade had decamped to the South Carolina coast for an overnight excursion culminating in a tramp through a salt marsh. In return for feigning interest in fiddler crabs and needlerush, we won license to seek out banks of pluff mud so deep that some of us sunk in up to our chins. This is what brought swamp water to lip level. The bouquet was of methane. The aftertaste, if your bodily reflexes were well-honed, was of stomach acid. It was strong stuff.
If there's any question that head chef/owner John Mims' Les Bons Temps is serious about establishing its bayou cred, the first item on its cocktail list should extinguish all doubt. "Swamp water," as imagined by the bartenders at this 10-week-old restaurant on 12th Street, is nearly as intimidating as that old slug of Intertidal Impure. Oily droplets of Tabasco sauce mingle with olive juice in a mixture of vodka and Bluecoat gin. Two green olives frame a blackened shrimp whose tail tips below the surface on a thin skewer. Astoundingly, for a drink with sediment at the bottom, it is served in a martini glass.
Les Bons Temps is of a piece with that bold mash-up of gnarliness and high style. The timeless interior, centered on a stunning staircase that spills down from the mezzanine toward a vintage bar and a baby grand piano, seems to have been waiting for ages to be harnessed to the aura of the Big Easy. Twin balconies hang under the 30-foot-high ceilings, offering just enough space to hold what may be the most splendidly situated two-tops in town. A third-floor lounge oozes casual comfort; sectional couches share space with a rowboat opposite another dark wooden bar. All the place needs is a few old ceiling fans to jiggle the amber teardrops on the chandeliers — and churn up what can get to be pretty sultry air.
The food is right out of Louisiana Creole country — think jambalaya and étouffée — but 23-year-old chef de cuisine Brett Naylor has deftly carved out some room to inject a few ideas of his own. A fried catfish special made for a perfect example. A crisp, lightly battered fillet rode atop a superbly fluffy pillow of vegetable-studded couscous, and a quenching watermelon salsa surrounded cool clumps of crabmeat in an inspired stab at cutting through the record-setting heat of early June.
The deep fryer figures frequently into the regular menu, too. Duck jambalaya croquettes were a sinful and easily shared appetizer, and just the right size to afford tastes of both the slightly spicy creole tomato sauce and the creamy roux underneath them. Crisp eggplant beignets capitalized on an unlikely but addictive interplay of powdered sugar and Tabasco.
But not everything is breaded. Split andouille sausages bearing jet-black grill marks were served simply with an onion relish and whole grain mustard. Scallops featured a thin crust of seared couscous that I found a little distracting, but the sweet mollusk flesh was already overshadowed by a tongue-jamming black currant balsamic reduction anyway, so distraction was in the cards from the start. But then that's what Creole cuisine is all about — bold flavors that run up against even bolder ones — and the dishes at Les Bons Temps are no exception.
Witness the sirloin, positively slathered with a roasted red-pepper coulis whose earthy sweetness competed for attention with a buttery hash of corn and potatoes that played like a deconstructed chowder.
These kinds of culinary thunderclaps are every bit as fun as the cannon fire in Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," but the choreography is not yet flawless at Les Bons Temps. I liked the sauce accompanying a coffee- and chili-rubbed pork tenderloin, but the meat had been cooked to dryness. And as much as I enjoyed that catfish special, I was alarmed to discover a pocket of raw flesh in the fat part of the fillet as I went for my last couple bites. Our server, when apprised of this flaw — a potentially dangerous one in a bottom-feeder — didn't remove the dish from our bill or do much else to make things right. At this restaurant's prices, she should have.
Yet this kind of mistake, while serious, shouldn't be terribly hard to correct. In big-picture terms, Les Bons Temps is off to an admirable start. Rarely does food and ambience come together as seamlessly in a new restaurant as they do here. And the bar is in play, too, with that daring cocktail menu bolstered by a list of small plates that runs 20 deep.
Some of them will even go with the swamp water. It may have lacked a certain soupcon of marsh gas, but has got to be the most delectably dirty martini in town.
Les Bons Temps | 114 S. 12th St., 215-238-9100, lesbonstempspa.com | Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-10 p.m., Fri.- Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m., brunch served 10 a.m.-3 p.m. | Appetizers, $7-$15; Entrées, $22-$30