Sushi on the Teche

by Mary Tutwiler

New Iberia's Bojangles redefines "raw bar."

Fridays and Saturdays, you need a reservation to get into Bojangles. Since the New Iberia nightclub reopened as a sushi and oyster bar, it's been packed tight as sardines with Queen City residents hungry for fresh fish. "It's a craving," says owner Gordon Doerle.

Exposed brick walls, a luminous cobalt blue bar, a bright red neon sushi station and live jazz and soul music make for an atmosphere more like a big city club than a sleepy small town restaurant. It's a great combination of urban cool, really fresh fish, easy parking, and a charming downtown with a Bayou Teche boardwalk for strolling that round out the picture.

The former club owner has come of age with the transition. "I stayed in the nightclub business for three years," he says. "I had two days, Friday and Saturday, to make all my money for the week. And the kids don't come out till 11 at night, then you're up till 5 in the morning. I got burnt out," he says. Doerle, 51, closed Bojangles twice ' on New Year's Day, 2006, and then again after he reopened for the 2006 Sugar Cane Festival. "I remembered why I shut it down after we reopened," he says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, to feed his hunger for raw fish, he was driving to Lafayette to eat at Tsunami three times a week. "When I was there, I noticed about half of New Iberia eating sushi," he says. "So I knew there was a market."

Doerle had a large investment in the 19th century building originally built as a hardware store on the corner of Main and Iberia streets, which later housed a gift shop and a dialysis center, among other businesses. He purchased the structure in 2001 and gutted it. "Basically, I had four walls, a floor and a roof," he says. He converted the upstairs into a deluxe bachelor's pad and the 4,000 square feet downstairs into a slick disco.

It was a blow to downtown revitalization when Bojangles, named for Doerle's brother, shut down. But its reincarnation as a lively restaurant has brought a different crowd out six nights a week that is bringing in four times the revenue, Doerle says. And he says he gets to bed by 11 at night.

Bojangles's head chef, Vilavong Prasith, known around the restaurant as "V," hails from Laos. He started out as a dishwasher at Lafayette sushi bar Bonsai and worked his way up to chef before Doerle lured him to New Iberia. V says he is inventing new rolls all the time, experimenting with sauces, playing with combinations of flavors and textures. He designs beautiful sashimi (no rice) dishes like the Orange Flower, made of thin sliced salmon with an asparagus stem, or the delectable Snapper sashimi garnished with cilantro, cucumber and ponzu sauce. Some of the restaurant's signature rolls are the rice-free Bojangles Roll (tuna, salmon, snow crab, cream cheese and avocado, fried), DaBerry Roll (soy paper, snow crab, asparagus, avocado and tempura shrimp with eel sauce), the Gordy Roll, (jalapeno, cucumber, asparagus, snow crab, tuna and avocado on top), and the Lil Jen Roll (soy paper, cucumber, fried shrimp, salmon and smelt-mayo, baked).

What sets apart Bojangles from other sushi houses is the oyster bar. Doerle says it was a no-brainer. "If people eat raw fish, they probably eat raw oysters," he says. "There isn't an oyster bar in New Iberia. People were always asking about it, so it just made sense to start serving oysters." Bojangles serves oysters three ways; raw, charbroiled with garlic butter and fried, topped with a dab of pepper jelly.

The menu has the usual Japanese inspired appetizers: edamame, fried eggplant and shrimp with sweet miso sauce, baked green mussels and pan-fried dumplings, called gyoza. For those who like their entree cooked, Bojangles offers teriyaki, tempura, a baked sea bass and two kinds of steaks ' tuna or prime beef.

Doerle may have left the nightclub behind, but check out the dessert listings. Gordon Seductive Cake is a chocolate lava divine cake with ice cream and a strawberry. "Well," he says, deep dimples flaring, "everybody knows what I'm really like."

101 East Main St., New Iberia, 369-5259
Hours: Mon-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10.
Live music by Ron Antoon Thurs.-Sat. evenings.