When you inhale the aroma of a rich, spicy crawfish étouffée at Bayou Grille on South La Brea, you're following the scent of Louisiana's Creole culinary past. Unlike countrified Cajun cooking, New Orleans' Creole cuisine is adopted from the manor houses of Europe — influenced by African cooks who tossed in a few ingredients of their own.
At Bayou Grille, the Creole étouffées are simmered slowly until they're filled with a flavor-laden amalgam of complex herby notes and smoky chile accents. You can order them with chicken or shrimp, but it's the crawfish version, crammed with sweet, meaty little tails and blanketed with a peppery, creamy, roux-based sauce, that makes it the glitterati of this Creole kitchen. Taste it alone and you get the full blast of flavors. Spoon some over the accompanying rice and the layers of spicing hit your palate in slow, magically changing waves.
The restaurant, in Inglewood, just a short hop from the Westfield Culver City shopping mall, is extremely casual but tidy and well run. It's a simple order-at-the-counter sort of spot as opposed to more formal Creole places such as Harold & Belle's or La Louisianne. You give up white china and cloth napkins for modest prices. But you do get food cooked to order in non-transfat oil, a wall sign is proud to tell you.
The crab cakes outshine even those from high-end dinner houses. Nearly the size of a CD, each luxurious cake is like a thin, crispy golden box encasing lightly seasoned crabmeat that seems devoid of any filler. Alongside comes a little container of to-die-for remoulade sauce, which one counter person (clearly not a Big Easy native) referred to as "tartar sauce."
These crab-filled beauties are sold à la carte or as a threesome on a dinner platter. The spread includes two jawbreaker-size hush puppies, an untraditional curly-lettuce salad (in deference to California tastes), toasted bread and your choice of a side — be it the ultra-crisp and spicy fries, sweet potato fries, coleslaw or potato salad. For a $1 supplement, you may have a small serving of house jambalaya or the big, meaty braised red beans spiked with peppery smoked sausage and served over rice.
On its own, Bayou Grille's Creole-style jambalaya — a dish some say is a variant of paella — is an extravagant meat-filled rice stew. Freckled with thyme and onions, studded with smoked turkey sausage, crawfish meat, chicken and the stinging smack of chile, it's simmered until the rice soaks up the seasonings and meaty flavors.
The Grille's deep-fried seafood po' boy sandwiches, loaded with filling, are nothing short of magnifique. Filling choices include diminutive oysters that crackle under a light cornmeal batter, crunchy whole soft-shell crab and meaty fried snapper fillet arranged on a pretty good crisp-crusted "French" loaf. The fried shrimp and oyster combo po' boy delivers textural contrasts from crackly to lusciously goopy.
Naturally there is gumbo — not the house strong suit but an OK, mildly spiced version. Lightly thickened with filé powder, the dark, swampy soup, a mélange of crab legs, shrimp and chicken, includes Louisiana-style hot sausage. In this case, like all the sausage served here, it's made from turkey, a house preference clearly appreciated by customers who've kept returning for nearly a dozen years.
During crawfish season, which starts after Mardi Gras and extends to August, Bayou Grille cooks up its crawfish boil. The whole shell-on crustaceans are marinated overnight in a proprietary seasoning. Sold by the pound along with potatoes, sausage and corn on the cob, they're available only Saturdays and Sundays.
Desserts run a gamut from soggy peach cobbler to huge red velvet cupcakes imported from Auntie Em's Kitchen in Eagle Rock. But the house beignets are certainly the most traditional choice. A dozen cloud-like, doughnut-hole-size fritters come warm and lightly spritzed with powdered sugar. They're not too sweet and, like the Creole classics on Bayou Grille's menu, they'll give any homesick New Orleans native sentimental pangs for Café Du Monde.
Location: 1400 S. La Brea Ave., Inglewood, (310) 673-0824
Prices: Po' boy sandwiches, $4.99 to $10.99; seafood platters, $10.99 to $14.99; Creole classics, $6.69 to $14.99.
Best Dishes: Crawfish étouffée, crab cakes, shrimp and oyster po'boy, jambalaya, beignets
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday to Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Visa and MasterCard. No alcohol. Nearby street parking.