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June 15, 1986|RUTH REICHL

Patout's, 2260 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 475-7100. Open for lunch Sunday-Friday, for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.

The last time I saw Paul Prudhomme, he was eating salad. He looked sadly down at the greens on his plate, sighed and said: "I never really ate salad before I went on this diet. Cajuns don't eat much salad."

Cajuns don't eat much salad. In fact, they don't have much truck with any vegetables that haven't undergone a trial by fire. "When I cook beans Cajun style," says Alex Patout, "I cook them so long you don't even know they was beans to begin with."

Even if you've been eating in Cajun restaurants, this may come as a surprise. Cajun food has such cachet that chefs all over the country have cooked what they wanted and simply called it "Cajun." They seem to think that if they throw a little red pepper on a piece of poultry, or burn the outside of a fish, it is magically made Cajun. The real food of the Louisiana bayous is rollicking, heavy, home-style fare that is cooked slowly until it's filled with flavor. These dishes are a delight to eat--but it takes more than recipes to re-create them. It takes a certain style of life.

When Cajuns say "Let the good times roll," they mean it; Cajuns probably know more about having fun than anybody else on earth. They don't count calories and, while they may be serious about food and music, they are never solemn. And what ultimately makes eating in Cajun restaurants so much fun is not just the food, but the way that it's served.

That is certainly the charm of the new Patout's. Opened just last month by Gigi Patout and her brothers Alex and Andre (the family also runs the best restaurant in New Iberia, La.), this soft and pretty new Cajun cafe seems filled with the spirit of the bayou. When you walk in the door, you leave Los Angeles behind. This is not because of the leaves that swirl around you (they are pasted to the wallpaper) or the moss that drips from the ceiling. Nor is it the Mardi Gras music. It is not even because everybody in the restaurant, from the chefs to the busboys, hails from Louisiana. (Devotees of K-Paul's may recognize one of the more outgoing waitresses as a veteran of that New Orleans establishment.)

But all of these things together make the very air feel Southern, and the warmth is so infectious that before you leave you may find yourself with a serious drawl.

"Bye, baby, see ya," said the man with whom I made my reservation.

"Hi, honey," said the maitre d' when I walked in.

"Y'all havin' a good time?" asked the waiter when he walked up.

Who could resist this? Add to it a really potent Cajun martini and one of the fairest-priced wine lists in town, and you know the fun is about to begin. But before you start, be warned: It would be wise to eat carefully.

"You might not feel so good walking out, but you feel great while you're eating, and that's the main point," the waiter said one night. It's true; this is heavy food that stays with you for a while. And the Patouts are merciless: The portions are immense. Eating here takes careful planning.

All the fish they serve is shipped from Louisiana. They fry the crawfish up into a particularly irresistible version of Cajun popcorn, a vast improvement over the little bits of fried crab meat we so often see in L.A. From the Atchafalaya swamp come large, meaty and absolutely spectacular frog's legs. They fry these, too; Cajuns are very big on deep-fried foods. Oysters Gigi are wrapped in bacon and then deep-fried, and soft-shell crabs, when they have them, also take a dip in the deep-fryer.

There are lighter ways to begin a meal. There is shrimp remoulade, a delightful kind of shrimp cocktail in a complex sauce that starts with homemade mayonnaise and Creole mustard, has celery and green onions and parsley added (along with a lot of other ingredients) and ends up as a dressing with lots of crunch and sparkle.

It would be a mistake to leave without trying the gumbo here, for this is the real thing. The roux is dark, the flavor is smoky (from the andouille sausage with which it is made), and each spoonful of this spirited dish tastes slightly different. Even better is the shrimp and crab stew, a thick swamp of a soup that is dark and rich and completely wonderful. Both are served with a little dish of rice to throw into the bowl; if you taste them alone you get one series of flavors, add the rice and you get another. The beauty of this slow-cooked food is that the blending of the many different ingredients creates a real complexity of flavors.

There are a lot of ingredients in the Cajun stuffed eggplant too, an impossibly rich dish that is served on a boat of deep-fried eggplant. The stuffing is made of crab and shrimp, and if you eat it all, along with the bacon-filled cheese-topped potatoes, you will probably have to stagger out the door.

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