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A Bit Of Fiddlin' Noted In Cajun Cooking Rage

March 14, 1986|CHARLES PERRY

Nash's Seafood/Ragin' Cajun sure looks promising. There's a 12-ounce bottle of Tabasco on every table, and the back of the menu is an essay on Louisiana food, including instructions on how to pronounce roux and file (roo, fee-lay).

This is strange. Roux and file are two things not served here.

Yes, this is another restaurant cashing in on the Cajun rage, but I'm of at least two minds about it. On one hand, it's a decent seafood restaurant (there are other branches with no Cajun motif in Huntington Beach and Placentia). On the other hand, the Cajun part of the menu is mostly unconvincing. On the third hand, though, Nash's isn't awful about it. This isn't one of the restaurants that are actively trashing Cajun food.

Take the gumbo. Now, this is one dish where you'd really expect a nutty-flavored base of browned flour (roux) in the soup and want to sprinkle it with powdered sassafras leaves (file) at your table. But no. It's proof, if proof were needed, that when restaurateurs start serving an unfamiliar cuisine, they don't prepare with a deep study of cookbooks, to say nothing of making a visit to the cuisine's home turf. They tend to swipe ideas from each other's restaurants.

Gumbo is a bayou dish, and 95% or more of the recipes call for seafood and/or wildfowl (sometimes chicken). However, it happens that the first Southland restaurant that made a splash serving Cajun food (it publicized its opening with searchlights) served a roux-less, file-less "gumbo" made of braised beef with bell peppers and shrimp, and now most of our restaurants--Nash's included--consider that the beginning and end of gumbo.

I'm not saying that I don't like braised beef with bell peppers and shrimp, and Nash's Tabasco-ized version is livelier than most. And I'm not saying that I don't enjoy the shrimp remoulade, but I'd call the sauce only about halfway to a real New Orleans remoulade. It's a peppery, mustardy vinaigrette with some diced onion in it. This is far better than the usual Orange County remoulade-- mayonnaise mixed with either Tabasco or mustard--but why don't they go all the way and add a lot of paprika and some chopped parsley, celery and green onions? And maybe use whole-seed mustard instead of Dijon? Then we'd have some fun.

Two of the Cajun dishes, I have to say, work just about perfectly. Cajun popcorn, deep-fried bits of crab in cornmeal, is very tasty with tartar sauce and Nash's excellent sharp cocktail sauce, and I'm impressed with the chicken and sausage jambalaya, a real Louisiana combination of chicken with bits of breakfast link and hot pepperoni sausage.

But the rest of the Louisiana dishes are middling. Blackened fish has plenty of hot pepper flavor, and it's well blackened. But like the shrimp etouffee, it has an odd, bittersweet flavor that doesn't belong here. The fried catfish is really pretty good with its spicy breading, but the hush puppies that came with mine were overcooked.

This may be because Nash's tries to do so many things. When you offer half a dozen Italian dishes, a whole oyster bar menu of 20-odd items, upwards of 20 fish entrees plus a Cajun menu and a lot of side orders, trying to do a Southern hot bread like hush puppies is reaching.

I should add that the non-Cajun items seem pretty good. The fish is all fresh--Nash's is also a seafood market--and not only is the mesquite grilling competent, somebody in the kitchen knows his deep frying. There's not a drop of oil on the breaded oysters in the oyster poorboy sandwich, and if you ask for some tartar sauce to put on it and then dose it with Tabasco, you have a pretty respectable New Orleans oyster loaf. The bread is even toasted the way it should be.

One attraction of the place is that nobody goes away hungry. Dinners start with a choice of chowders (the Manhattan style, a hearty vegetable soup that would be enjoyable even without the clams, is the better one) or a salad, and you choose pilaf or a couple of kinds of potato (great steak fries). The plate also comes loaded with fried onions, bell peppers and maybe a bit of broccoli. There's an endless supply of garlic bread made from fresh sesame rolls. I've been to Nash's three times and never had room for dessert.

One of the best items on the menu really should be noted because it might be the last thing you'd think of ordering. Buried in a little list of sauteed seafood dishes, right under scallops mornay (for the record, not a French mornay sauce but scallops with cheese melted on them), is a bland-looking shrimp curry. It happens to be a very pleasing, subtle curry with a fresh-tasting blend of spices. It turns out that the owners of Nash's are Indian, and maybe this is why the Cajun food here is tolerable even when it's not authentic. Unlike so many others who are fooling with Cajun food these days, these people aren't in their hearts afraid of spices.

Now, if they could just overcome their problem with roo and fee-lay . . . . NASH'S SEAFOOD / RAGIN' CAJUN 18685-H Main St. (Five Points Center), Huntington Beach (714) 841-9911 Open for lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily. American Express accepted.

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