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RESTAURANTS : CAJUN LITE : At Neo-Creole Orleans, the Pacific Meets the Bayou, and Bronzed Fish Are Not Bookends

August 30, 1992|Charles Perry

Remember Cajun cuisine? Nine or 10 years ago, it rivaled California cuisine as the hottest food trend in the nation. The two could scarcely have been more different. California is about lightness and invention (even ridiculous invention) while the richly traditional Cajun style is weighty: It sticks to your ribs and keeps on sticking. Today, California cuisine is everywhere, whereas Cajun food has left us just a couple of remnants: andouille sausage, soft-shell crabs and, occasionally, some blackened stuff.

In truth, Louisiana got shortchanged in Los Angeles. Most people out here read about Cajun and Creole food long before they had a chance to taste even a bad imitation, of which there was quite a bit in our restaurants. By the time some real Louisiana restaurants opened in Los Angeles, the Cajun wave had started to pass. The excellent Patout's, for instance, though it had the best of credentials as a branch of a major New Orleans restaurant, withered on the vine.

The sole survivor of the Cajun wave, at least above the mom-and-pop restaurant level, is Orleans. With its plain wood floors and funky genre paintings of mysterious bayou folks, it has managed to survive in mid-nowhere, viz., the corner of National Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles. But survive it has, and the diners obviously feel they're at some sort of celebration, to judge from all the laughter. (Well, that could be the jalapeno-dosed Cajun martinis laughing.)

When the restaurant opened in 1984, New Orleans megachef Paul Prudhomme served as consultant on the menu and trained some of the chefs. The original menu strictly followed the very rich style of our country's premier celebrity Cajun chef. I knew people from New Orleans who refused to eat there because it was too Prudhommish. "I could cook this at home," said one woman, meaning that she had Prudhomme's cookbook.

Today, on the other hand, I know Louisianians who consider Orleans too Californian (though they don't hesitate to attend its annual gumbo cook-off every January). Of course, that may be why it has survived. Orleans' food is lighter than a lot of what you get in Louisiana, lighter than its own food used to be. You can get fish "bronzed" instead of blackened, if you like the spiciness of blackening but don't like the idea of that charcoalized crust.

The best appetizer is not any Louisiana cliche such as red beans and rice (although Orleans' version is superlatively beany, with hot andouille sausage mixed in) or jambalaya (a mound of rice may be mixed with beef, chicken, andouille and the peppery ham called tasso , with a spicy tomato sauce around the base). No, the best appetizer, hands down, is maquechoux (pronounced MOCK-shoe ), a dish that the Cajuns learned from the Choctaws in the 18th Century and Frenchified into something rich and comforting. It consists of chicken breast, bell peppers and corn kernels in a cream sauce that has a delicate tang from whole-seed Creole mustard. If only you could get chicken pot pie with a filling like this.

A number of Prudhomme's dishes still grace the menu, such as Cajun popcorn (crab, alligator, rock shrimp or crayfish fried in cornmeal batter and served with a sherry sauce that's like a superlative Thousand Island) and Orleans' eggplant, hollowed out and stuffed with any of various fillings, such as a mixture of shrimp, scallops and fish.

The menu changes somewhat every day. Soft-shell crab, served through October, is deep fried and served with seafood stuffing and crab-meat charon sauce or sauteed with crab-meat creolaise . Bronzed fish is cooked in saute pans rather than blackened in iron pans and has a more subtle flavor than blackened fish; it might have a pecan sauce with suggestions of vinegar and Worcestershire.

The blackened fish (which is likely to be ahi, salmon, catfish or mahi mahi) isn't much different from California grilled fish. It may come with a bit of herb-enhanced sauce, though salmon tends to appear with a not un-Californian sauce of crab meat, basil and sun-dried tomatoes.

No matter how Californian things get around here, though, there's still plenty of Southern richness to the cooking. Barbecued shrimp come in a buttery, garlicky sauce good enough to drink by the cup. Sometimes crayfish come swimming in much the same sauce.

The Cajun pasta dishes (well, California Cajun) tend to be equally rich. Garlic seafood pasta is rotelli with, say, shrimp, scallops and fish in a luscious, buttery sauce. Not all are so rich, though; pasta may also come with shrimp, crayfish, tasso and an appealing spicy brown sauce.

The epitome of California Cajun is roast duck with pecan sauce, which tastes like Southern cooking with a Pacific Rim accent. The boneless duck meat is laid on a bed of rice and covered with browned duck skin. The sweet pecan sauce gives the effect of some exotic American version of Cantonese black bean sauce.

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