Years later, I brought another girlfriend to Bayona for Jazz Fest. She was an aspiring cook herself, and I kept telling her about the wonders of the goat cheese crouton, about how the sweetness of the Madeira tempered the earthiness of the mushroom, about how the toasted French bread lent some crackle to the cream. Just whispering "Bayona" did the trick. When we finally dined there, and she sampled the miracle appetizer with the swoosh of her fork, she turned to me in that brick-laid courtyard and smiled, "This is the best thing I've ever put in my mouth." Four months later, we moved to New Orleans, and she even worked in Susan Spicer's kitchen before moving on. I stayed, both in New Orleans and with Bayona.
At about this same time, Spicer was getting out of one relationship -- closing down her promising Spice Inc. business -- and beginning another: opening Herbsaint with her partner, Donald Link. She later opened her Wild Flour Breads business with Sandy Whann, and became a consulting chef with Cobalt. I fooled around, too, discovering the precision of Peristyle, the audacity of August, the lilt of Lilette. But I always seem to come back to Bayona.
Some relationships come and go, but sooner or later you have to learn the notion of commitment. Spice Inc. and her work with Cobalt are no more. Herbsaint is clicking along, with Link firmly in control and Spicer available as needed. Really, right now, it's all about Bayona, for Spicer knows the dangers of spreading herself too thin.
"Of course, I worry about that, and I know that I'm very connected with this place, and I love that, you know," she says, taking a quick break during an extended lunch rush a couple weeks ago. "I love the fact that when people write letters, they address them to me personally and that sort of thing. Because I do take responsibility for pretty much anything that goes on here."
Recently, I wanted to take my current, longtime girlfriend to lunch, and to New Year's Eve dinner, to show her why I loved Bayona (and her) so much. And I couldn't think of a better example than the trusty goat cheese crouton, which made her put down her Atkins guard for a brief, shining moment. A devilish smile crept over her face, and the rest of the lunch became a very polite tug of war over this seemingly innocent slice of bread -- not her red wine-braised beef short rib cooked to medium-rare tenderness, not my grilled Moroccan lamb.
How could something so simple taste so good?
"I wish that all of my dishes could be that honestly simple in terms of mise en place (set-up) and in terms of execution, and in terms of a recipe so that home cooks could enjoy it," says Spicer. "Because it's only a seven-ingredient dish: bread, mushrooms, shallots, garlic, Madeira and cream. And chives on top. I don't have an exciting story behind it."
But it's telling in terms of Spicer's approach, which is about looking at the foundations of French-inspired cooking and then branching out from there. "The way I parse out recipes is I think first about flavor," she explains. "What's my main ingredient going to be? What sounds good with that? And then, what's going to be good texturally? So then the idea of the toast, and the idea of the goat cheese, which is a little tangy and creamy, it all goes together. And that's kind of fun."
My girlfriend and I toasted the new year over a five-course dinner featuring a simple filet mignon with seared foie gras laid over as the entree, with daring precursors such as a lobster and scallop terrine and a smoked duck pastrami salad -- all matched succinctly with an optional wine pairing. "We just decided to go with something classic," Spicer says. "Since we were going with a set menu, we wanted something that people would really like."
Over the years, Spicer has studied under some great chefs and watched others graduate from her kitchen, including Lilette's John Harris and Lulu's in the Garden's Corbin Evans. Recently, she was honored with her Bayona partner, Regina Keever, as the Louisiana Restaurant Association's Restaurateurs of the Year -- adding to a long list of bon mots. After getting married last year, she decided to focus a little, getting a long-awaited cookbook project in high gear and enjoying married life in this, her early 50s. As Bayona marks its 15th year of business, Susan Spicer sounds like she's settling down. We should all be so wise.