The Big Easy Grill & Oyster Bar delivers local oysters
and a spicy punch to Norfolk's dining scene.

By Tamzin B. Smith, March 2010

If your Bay travels land you in Norfolk, and your stomach is growling, consider yourself lucky. Not too far off the waterfront is the Ghent District, where the dining scene is hopping. Pretty much any hankering can be satisfied here, and on my last trip, mine was for Cajun. As is usual when I'm in the Tidewater area, I stayed in Portsmouth, home base of my good friend and fellow foodie Steve Johnson. And so, on a warm and breezy late September evening we hopped the ferry to Norfolk and walked the few blocks to Big Easy Grill & Oyster Bar, easily identified by a large neon sign just off of Granby Street.

Upon entering the circa-1906 brick building, I was struck by the decor: a well executed combination of hip and historic. The exposed brick walls and hardwood floors offer pleasant contrast to the contemporary art-glass chandeliers, the wavy-edged drop ceiling, and, in the bar area, the neon-lit floor and bar top. A collection of Mardi Gras festival posters and feathered masks adorn the wall in the dining room. A smooth sound-
track of R&B music adds to the ambiance without intruding on conversation.

After the hostess seated us, our waitress quickly arrived with cornbread and honey butter, and took our drink orders. We decided to take the manager's suggestions on wine to pair with our chosen entrees, and were not disappointed. The dinner menu is extensive and impressive, from appetizers and oysters right on through desserts. After being served the chef's amuse bouche--a delicious succotash of lima beans, corn, tomatoes and butter--we moved on to freshly shucked James River (wonderfully salty) and seaside (mild and creamy) oysters from the remarkable list of local and regional offerings. We also shared an appetizer of grilled andouille sausage with caramelized onions, Creole mustard and five-pepper jelly. It was delicious, but be warned: This sausage is hot! A cold beer would have been a nice accompaniment.

For entrees, I selected the free-range chicken and andouille pasta. The penne pasta was perfectly al dente, the Cajun cream sauce was applied sparingly, and the chef demonstrated an expert touch in the spicing of the dish: nothing overpowering and not too hot. Steve chose the jambalaya, which was spicy with the expected Cajun flavors. The chicken bits were a little dry, but the shrimp and scallops were succulent and plentiful, nestled in rice cooked to perfection. Portions were very generous--and, anticipating dessert, I had half of mine packaged to go.

For dessert, the manager highly recommended the southern bourbon pecan pie. I've never been a fan of pecan pie--I usually find it too dense and sickly sweet--but it was a clear choice for Steve. I had a hard time choosing between the cinnamon-and-chocolate eclair and the warm peach cobbler--I chose the latter, but wish I'd chosen the former. I found the crust of the cobbler hard to break into, and its flavor too floury, though the peaches were firm and flavorful, and the vanilla-bean ice cream was tasty. Steve's pecan pie was a winner: not at all overly sweet, and the bourbon was strongly present, nicely mellowed by two dollops of vanilla-bean ice cream. The manager treated us to a small glass of a German Riesling he was contemplating as a dessert complement, and we both thought it worthy.

We had been told that the oyster bar in the lower level was popular with a later-evening younger crowd, and indeed when we popped our heads in on our way out, it was filling up with 20- and 30-somethings. Having passed those years some time ago, we moved along.

Another pleasant ferry ride put a period on a lovely evening of wonderful food and great company. The Tidewater area has much to offer the adventurous diner, but I hope to return to the Big Easy. It will certainly go on my list of memorable dining experiences in Norfolk.

Big Easy Grill & Oyster Bar is locatedat 111 W. Tazewell Street in Norfolk. It is open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., and Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. Appetizers $5-$9, entrees $15-$20. 757-227-6222;