SEASIDE - Muffuletta sandwiches, crawfish etouffee, chicken jambalaya, boudin blanc, plus beads with dinner - there's nothing typical about Lil' Bayou. In our land of evergreen trees and ocean breezes, this downtown eatery stands out like a Yankee accent in New Orleans' French Quarter.
"Where else in Clatsop County can you order alligator?" is how one of my dining companions explained Lil' Bayou's one-off menu. Neither of us tried it, but the reptile is available here slow-cooked in a spicy sauce, the dish served with rice and hushpuppies. Cornmeal dumplings about the size of cherries, the latter are deep-fried deep-south specialties seasoned with scallions. The name is said to derive from the scraps of fried batter cooks would toss to begging dogs with a scolding to "Hush, puppies!"
Much of the Cajun and Creole-inspired fare served at 4-year-old Lil' Bayou enjoys similar folksy roots, along with overt French influences. Whereas Cajun cooking is Louisiana comfort food that utilizes a dark roux (a slow-cooked mix of flour and fat used as a thickening agent) and plenty of pork fat, the generally more upscale Creole cuisine relies, at least in reputation, on butter and cream. Both make ample use of chopped green peppers, onions, celery, beans, rice, chicken, crawfish, andouille sausage and cayenne pepper.
The latter sees limited used at Lil' Bayou. "Cajun-Creole food is not all hot 'n spicy," says John Sowa, a transplanted New Yorker who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Deborah Anderson, from Seaside. "But everything has flavor," Sowa emphasizes. "We make our own spice mix, and cayenne equals only about 10 percent of the blend."
Diners get to peruse an array of Cajun and Creole choices at Lil' Bayou, along with some fun fusion, such as the crawfish enchilada and a French Quarter crawfish pie, both a kind of Creole-Mexican mix (is it Cre-Mex? we wondered). The crawfish pie involves mass quantities of crawfish tail meat blended with green and red bell peppers and onions in a spicy roux-cream sauce, all served inside a plate-sized tortilla shell. And those irresistible hush puppies come sided by a zesty salsalike dipping sauce. Salsa of another kind, made with bananas, accompanies the grilled shrimp cocktail, which our server boldly pronounced the best in the West. After sampling, we couldn't argue with his assessment.
Nor did I complain about my 12-ounce ribeye snugged up against a mound of mashed potatoes and coated with a sweet and sassy Jack Daniels sauce. Order yours blackened, like I did, and savor this smoky-flavored hunk of beef. Accompanying green beans arrive lightly steamed, unseasoned and stacked like a pile of freshly sawed cypress trees.
"In New Orleans, most of the restaurants are serving a modernized version of Louisiana Creole cooking," said Sowa, a tall slender energized man with a shock of gray hair and a distinct New York accent. "A certain portion of our menu is traditional cooking, but some of it varies, with Portuguese, Italian and Spanish influences. I like to take those influences and fly with them."
Witness his halibut osso bucco, a special served with fish because the dish's traditional centerpiece of veal isn't as popular in these parts. "Some nights I'll do a Thai curry sauce just because I like to do it. But that's where my East Asian expertise stops," Sowa added, laughing. He has been known to stuff his alligator with, say, Dungeness crab. "My specials are an area where I can play," he explained.
Music is played many weekends in Lil' Bayou's Magnolia Lounge, a sultry but not seedy setting that oozes deep-south noir and hosts live jazz, blues and, in the near future, zydeco. "We're trying to create an atmosphere for adults," said Sowa. "There's no place for people 30 and up to go that's a safe environment," he added with a chuckle.
Even Lil' Bayou's toughest critics, area chefs, are touting the place. "I love what John does!" said Lynne "Red" Pelletier, high priestess of the kitchen at the four-star-rated Shoalwater Restaurant in Seaview, Wash.Or, as an out-of-town dining companion succinctly put it: "I wish we had a place like this in Portland."
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20 N. Holladay Drive, Seaside
Three stars (out of four)
Hours: 4:30 to 9 p.m. or later, Thursday-Monday. The Magnolia Lounge is open until midnight or later. Beginning in June, the restaurant and lounge will be open Tuesdays.
Prices: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers, soups and salads cost $3.50 to $9.95, entrees $12.95 to $27.95.
Superior selections: Grilled shrimp cocktail with banana salsa, blackened Texas ribeye steak, French Quarter crawfish pie, red beans, rice and andouille sausage, hush puppies, chicken jambalaya, muffuletta sandwich, chocolate-bourbon pie, sweet potato-pecan pie.
Atmosphere: One half of the restaurant looks and feels like a cozy storefront; the other resembles a sultry deep-south lounge.
Service: Professional and knowledgeable.
Kid-friendly: Can you get your young'uns to try slow-cooked alligator? This place is an adult dinner house.
Vegetarian options: Limited - daily vegetarian pasta, grilled vegetable and mozzarella salad and a few side dishes.
Alcohol: Full bar, meager wine list.
Access: Entrance and a unisex restroom are accessible to those in wheelchairs.
Credit cards: All major cards.
Personal checks: Local checks only.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of five or more.
Smoking: Not permitted in the restaurant or the Magnolia Lounge.