Work in progress. That quality comes to mind upon entering Gator’s Cafe, the formerly Bedford-based gumbo bar, which can now be found in the space once occupied by J.R.’s Grill in Colleyville. (J.R.’s, owned by restaurateur Johnny Ragland, combined with J.R.’s Steakhouse and reopened in March a block away on Highway 121.)
Gator’s 200-seat interior space is spartan, anchored to a polished cement floor. There are remnants of its former life as a rather swank fine dining-sports bar hybrid: the 25-plus flatscreens; a collection of dark, faux-mahogany wood booths. And yet, Gator’s Cafe has maintained its old parade of bar-ready neon beer signs, which do bring some needed color to the otherwise murky interior walls.
But any of the “fine dining” ’tude of J.R.’s does not extend to the kitchen, where chef Todd Phillips is determined to churn out as many back-slapping, New Orleans-inflected dishes as possible. The Big Easy bent includes everything from gator bites and a Cajun sampler, to chicken and Andouille gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée and dishes spotlighting some of the humblest Gulf dwellers, from catfish to redfish.
The Buffalo-style crawfish tails ($11) were crunchy little nuggets crowded onto a plate, and they packed a pleasing, vinegary-spice tang. The “see ya later” gator bites ($10) tasted, yes, like chicken, but they were greaselessly fried and quite dippable in an accompanying ranch-style sauce.
I waded into the Bayou for most of my Gator’s entrees, starting with a blackened redfish ($18), a surprisingly nuanced dish, with a nice balance between hot and smoky, and a fetching skin that was almost shellacked on with crispy care.
The shrimp étouffée ($16) was swimming in a solid chestnut-brown roux, and offered a tasty smackdown between sausage slices and the shrimp.
The only real clunker of the sampled entrees was the blackened chicken Alfredo ($15). Though its blackening coaxed welcome flavor from the chicken, the dish still ended up inundated in a soupy cream sauce, which also engulfed the thick ribbons of fettuccine.
Of the two desserts sampled, the bourbon bread pudding ($6) was a brick-sized rendition of the classic Southern confection, with thick puddles of sticky caramel sauce, yet stingy use of bourbon. However, pecan pie ($6) was a real standout, an ooey-gooey triangle whose pecans tasted as if they were shelled that morning.
With Gator’s Cafe planning to introduce even more classic Gulf items from the Southern larder to its menu, such as oysters on the half shell, management might also consider lightening up the overall atmosphere to match the festive dishes flying out of the kitchen.