Once a simple wine shop with 30 reds, 30 whites, and a few sparkling options, Bacchanal is now home to one backyard party after another. Seven nights a week, there’s food, wine, and live music under twinkle lights. Patrons sit under the glow of heat lamps listening to the sounds of trumpets, base guitars, drums, and more, sipping wine and enjoying the spoils of the kitchen.
We arrive on a Sunday night, which is a special day at Bacchanal. Chris Rudge opened Bacchanal as a wine shop back in 2002. He hosted wine tastings on Saturdays, and became lovingly known as Bacchus. After Katrina hit, Chris invited guest chefs whose kitchens had been lost in the storm to cook in a makeshift outdoor kitchen, luring the Bywater neighborhood to come together and heal every Sunday, if only for a few hours.
After many years and noise complaints, the Bacchanal of today has a full kitchen and meets all appropriate codes. But it still retains that backyard party charm. Described as Mediterranean minimalism, the menu is brimming with tasty choices. We start with bacon-wrapped dates, which arrive in a pool of what looks like spicy tomato soup. The acidity of the tomato plays nicely with the sweet and salty of the bacon-wrapped date, made even better by a bite of chorizo inside.
Smoked catfish dip is decorated with spicy radish slices, microgreens, and trout roe, and served with sweet lavash crackers. We wanted mussels but they were sadly out, so we went with three beautiful Gulf shrimp balanced over a pool of sherry-laced butter and red pepper flakes, accompanied by a few slices of grilled bread.
One of my favorites is butternut squash risotto which, though inexplicably pea-green, is rich in roasted squashy goodness and topped with a dollop of mascarpone, about seven fresh sage leaves, and spicy pepitas. We also get the patatas bravas, which are sizable and well-seasoned, served with a tomato salsa/jam situation, espelette, and chimichurri aioli. Finally, though it arrives substantially later than the rest, the confit chicken leg, which sits next to a thigh in a mushroom stew with chunks of chorizo and slivers of tender confit shallot.
The music is lovely, and the crowd is lively, eager to help newcomers find a seat and willing to share tables to make room for more. If it starts raining for a few moments, and every gathers under the porch — but the music keeps playing.
Chris passed away unexpectedly in 2015, leaving the entire town shocked and saddened. But his spirit still lives on each night at Bacchanal, drawing strangers and friends together for wine, food, and music under the stars.