A taste for food: Bayou Cafe and Grill

A taste for food: Bayou Cafe and GrillAlthough his restaurant is only a few months old, the owner of the Bayou Cafe and Grill believes it's on its way to becoming a Plaquemine institution. From the building that houses the restaurant, to the antique tools that decorate the interior, to the family that gives support to owner Shannon Ourso, the restaurant is a part of the city's history.

Ourso has lived in Plaquemine his whole life except for brief stints at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and Louisiana State University. Both he and his family have left their marks on the parish. His father, J. Mitchell Ourso, was Iberville Parish sheriff in the 1960s; his brother, J. Mitchell Ourso Jr., is the current parish president.

When 37-year-old Shannon Ourso first considered opening a restaurant in Plaquemine, he knew he wanted the site to be visible to passing traffic. His search led him to Railroad Avenue--as he puts it, "There's no better drive-by in town."

Once he knew the general location, picking a building was easy. "1 looked for the dumpiest building down here," he says, "because I didn't want a tremendous note." The building Ourso selected has a long history in Plaquemine. It is the old Rosso Building, which originally housed the Four Jacks Saloon. It has also housed Morgan and Lindsey's, a five-and-dime store; the Plaquemine Drugstore; and Vandel's Men's Store. After Vandel's closed, the building was vacant for 20 years, plenty of time for a building to deteriorate.

Ourso acquired the building in 1998. "It had no plumbing, no electrical, no AC," he says. "The roof was falling in. Half the glass was broken out of here. I did a complete overhaul." To minimize start-up costs and to keep his eventual mortgage note low, Ourso did as much of the work himself as he could.

"I didn't have a contractor. Didn't have an architect," he says. "Everything came from between these two ears." And most of the work was done by his two hands, or the hands of friends and family--from plumbing, to wiring, to welding the tables in the bar, to ripping out some of the floors and refinishing others. It wasn't until, as he says, "I got tired of people asking me 'When are you opening?' "that he got a loan from the bank to complete the kitchen. "I did a lot myself," says Ourso. "Other than the hood and fire suppression system, I did the work, or my friends did."

Although new to the restaurant business, Ourso is not new to the service industry. Before opening Bayou Cafe and Grill, he had been in the nightclub business for 11 years, first at Jack Miller's Landing, which he owned for two years, then at Shannon's in Riverview Plaza for nine years, ending Dec. 31, 2000.

But Ourso had the itch to open a restaurant. He grew up helping his father cook and entertain. "I was shucking oysters when I was 9 or 10 years old," he says.

Since his father was the sheriff, anyone might make an appearance at his parties. "You never knew who would show up," Ourso recalls, "congressmen, judges ..." One of the famous people to turn up at the Ourso household was boxer Joe Louis, and a picture of Louis and Sheriff Ourso now hangs in the bar of the Bayou Cafe and Grill.

No matter who attended, "everything was surrounded with cooking" at his father's parties, Ourso says. That love of cooking has stayed with him. "One of the biggest reasons I wanted to open a restaurant is because I love to cook," says Ourso, who puts his money where his mouth is by personally cooking several items on the menu, including the shrimp and corn soup, the etouffee, the unstuffed potato and the seafood fettuccine.

Ourso is practical enough to know mat loving to cook isn't me only thing needed for a successful restaurant. "I've lived in Plaquemine all my life, and I've never had a restaurant I wanted to go out to here," he says. He often ate in Baton Rouge, and would regularly see Plaquemine residents when he did. "I wanted to keep some of our money here, in the city and parish," he explains.

Ourso intends to make that happen by offering a better atmosphere, better service and better prices than the competition in Plaquemine. "We have an oyster bar, an extensive wine list and every kind of cordial you could think of," he notes, indicating some of the ways he's tried to improve on the dining options in the town.

It's the food, however, that's closest to Ourso's heart. "There are no certified chefs here--we're cooks. Nothing's frozen. We do our own stuffed crab, our own stuffed shrimp. Everything is made here."

One of Ourso's favorite dishes is the restaurant's spinach and artichoke dip, which he created himself by going through a dozen or more recipes and tinkering with the ingredients and proportions.

Although food is the most important aspect for Ourso, the restaurant's atmosphere runs a close second, and here, again, Ourso did his research. To get ideas for the style of the restaurant, he says he consulted books by A. Hays Town, the renowned Baton Rouge architect. One of the ideas he got from Town was recycling as much of the old building as he could. He made the bar and the bar tables out of flooring from the kitchen. The walls are recycled flooring and beaded board from different parts of the old building, some with the original writing or flecks of the original paint intact.

The atmosphere Ourso has created is just as attuned to preserving local history. Although a lot of chain restaurants throughout Louisiana and the rest of the country make a point of displaying trendy antique knick-knacks, at Bayou Cafe and Grill the knick-knacks are a part of both Ourso's history and Plaquemine's.

For Ourso, his family has been the most important resource for opening his business. From his father's gift for entertaining guests, to acquisitions of local antiques, to financial support, to back-breaking labor in the renovation, Ourso's family is a part of his restaurant. "My family's been very supportive. It's crucial to opening a business."

In some ways, Ourso sees his work as a restaurant owner intent on meeting the needs of his Plaquemine patrons as preparation for continuing another family tradition. "I've got plans," he says. "I've got a lot of politics in my blood."