Four years ago, chef Glenn “Gator” Thompson almost died. He weighed more than 400 pounds, and his health was failing.
“I was about to leave this world,” he says. Thompson had spent two years with relatives in the South and ate too much fatty, fried food and couldn’t lose the weight he gained. A doctor told him his chances of dying were 85 percent. He credits a gastric bypass with saving his life. Now, nearly 200 pounds lighter, Thompson is on a mission to show the world that it’s possible to make healthy Southern food without sacrificing flavor. He hopes his cooking will serve as an example to his overweight brethren in the South that one of the country’s most distinctive regional cuisines need not be hazardous to your health.
The platform for his mission is Bayonne restaurant in downtown San Jose. Thompson owned Gator’s Neo-Soul restaurant in San Mateo and the excellent Alacatraces in San Francisco before setting up shop in San Jose three months ago in the space formerly occupied by the Agenda. The Agenda lounge is still in business upstairs.
Bayonne serves delicious New Orleans and Southern–style food, the likes of which downtown San Jose has never seen before. Thompson calls his food “a healthy approach to the South.” I didn’t know Bayonne was serving a lighter style of Southern food. I just thought it tasted noticeably lighter and fresher than Southern fried fare I’ve tried. The menu doesn’t tout the fact that he uses olive oil and canola oil instead of butter and lard.
Thompson says the word “healthy” scares some people away. And his food is by no means fat-free or even low-calorie. He has simply lightened things up by cooking with good fats, by roasting and grilling instead of frying and by sourcing his produce from organic purveyors. Everything I tried over the course of three visits was flat-out delicious. Most of the dishes are named after Thompson’s family members. The names would be grating if they weren’t real people, but Thompson’s food is inspired by his family in Arkansas and Mississippi.
I ordered crab cakes to tempt fate. They’re almost always more cake than crab. That was not the case at Bayonne. The Dungeness crab cakes ($12) are dusted with bread crumbs, but the rest of the little discs are all sweet crab meat. They’re grilled (not fried) to a golden hue and served with a lickable candied yam and pecan sauce. Another not-to-miss starter is the barbecued shrimp and grits ($12). In New Orleans, barbecued shrimp have nothing to do with a barbecue. They’re made with butter, vinegary hot sauce, tomatoes and a few other savory ingredients. Bayonne’s are as good as they come—rich, spicy, complex and delicious.
Po’ boys are staples of the New Orleans diet—big, sloppy sandwiches dripping with mayonnaise and piled high with things like fried oysters and fried shrimp and fried fish. Thompson calls his “rich boy sandwiches” ($9), and they are definitely upper-crust, starting with fluffy, house-made brioche buns. Thompson does away with the drippy mayo sauce and just adds fresh lettuce, tomatoes, red onion and your meat of choice. The grilled and blackened catfish is spicy and delicious. Best of all might be the pulled pork braised in Coca-Cola, milk and orange juice.
Making fried chicken healthy and delicious is a challenge, but “Aunt Gertie Bea’s Fried Chicken” nails it. The 10-ounce Fulton Valley organic chicken breast ($19) is soaked in buttermilk, dredged in seasoned bread crumbs, pan fried for a minute to give the bread crumbs a golden color and then finished off in the oven. I’ll come right out and say it: It’s the best fried chicken I’ve had in Silicon Valley. But then there’s “Cousin Willie Buck’s chicken and dumplings,” $17. It’s another winner. Braised chunks of chicken are served in a moderately spicy, tomato-based sauce with steamed biscuits instead of the heavier, chewier traditional dumplings. The dumplings are light and made for a great dish that didn’t weigh me down.
From the lunch menu, the jambalaya ($12) is superb, and I loved the piquant, crawfish étouffée over brown rice ($13). I don’t know how low-calorie the desserts ($8) are, but they are very good. Go straight for the peanut butter silk pie, a lofty cloud of peanut-buttery cheesecake wobbling atop an outstanding pecan-chocolate crust. My other favorite is “Lori Taylor’s ice cream sandwich,” twin house-made cookies filled with Thompson’s chocolate chocolate chip ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce.
Thompson has big plans for his restaurant. He’s trying to raise funds to take over the nightclub upstairs to turn it into a “world-class” jazz club. He’s writing a cookbook and is also trying to create a TV show to showcase his healthy take on Southern food. I wish him well. In the meantime, he’s making some great food.
399 S. First St., San Jose