Loaves and Fishes

For most of the last decade, Gagnier's of New Orleans was a gleaming white-tablecloth creole restaurant in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza shopping center on Crenshaw, casual enough to stop into after a morning of shopping at Macy's, though still one of the nicest places adjacent to the swank black communities of Baldwin Hills and View Park. The nearby Boulevard Cafe may have been groovier, Harold & Belle's more soulful and Stevie's on the Strip possessed of better gumbo; Gagnier's was as current, as popular, as the latest Bebe Moore Campbell novel. Within a few months of its opening, it seemed to have assumed the status of a neighborhood institution, and its oyster loaves, its peppery fried chicken, became legend.

Then, a few years ago, developers ripped up the mall to put in the Magic Johnson Theaters, and a lot of people assumed that Gagnier's had closed, hidden as it was by the detritus of heavy construction. Many of its customers drifted away. Last year, when the developers ripped up the parking lot once again, to put in more theaters and more parking, Gagnier's closed its doors and decamped . . . to the wilds of Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. To a few of us, this seemed as unthinkable as Pink's relocating its chili dogs to the Glendale Galleria.

But here they are again, Gagnier's catfish sandwiches and oyster loaves, served from a glistening stall hidden away near a Wolfgang Puck Cafe on the second level of a marble-encrusted food court. Decent gumbo and popcorn crawfish are as unexpected here as decent pastrami sandwiches were when the food court housed a branch of Factor's Famous Deli, or Chinese steamed rock cod when it played host to Mon Kee.

Gagnier's serves neither the corn muffins that were its signature at the Baldwin Hills restaurant - a sizable takeout order is likely to include half a dozen small loaves of buttered French bread instead - nor the fried chicken, but it is nevertheless a fairly orthodox creole restaurant, which is to say plenty of roux- darkened stews, complex peppery seasoning and lots of fried seafood.

The restaurant's version of oyster loaf, the quintessential creole fried-seafood dish, leans toward austerity, a length of French bread neatly split in half, buttered and toasted, layered with chips of sour pickle and a leaf or two of lettuce, and heaped with deep-fried oysters. You'll find a dozen or so oysters on a sandwich here, crusted with coarsely ground cornmeal, cooked to a gnarled crunch, briny juices concentrated to a single pop at each bivalve's center.

This may not be the best oyster loaf in creation - these days, I tend to daydream about the spicy, drippy oyster loaves from the Acme in New Orleans - but this sandwich, especially sluiced with the Bajan habanero sauce Gagnier's keeps around, is plenty good enough. The fried shrimp and fried catfish po' boys (but not the gummy crab-cake po' boy) are pretty good here too - get them with a side of smoky stewed greens.

Gagnier's gumbo is thin and on the bland side, more like a sausage-spiked seafood chowder than like the dark, mysterious substance you find locally at, say, Stevie's on the Strip. The pallid red beans and rice could have benefited from a lacing of creole pickle meat, or at least a good ham bone, though confirmed vegetarians may be happy with the dish.

But I like the restaurant's chicken creole, a spicy, long-cooked concoction imbued with the creole trinity of onions, garlic and sauteed bell peppers and dominated by the high, sweet note of tomatoes cooked down almost to caramel. "Barbecued" shrimp are in the style of - though not quite in the league of - the Italian shrimp at the great Louisiana creole-Italian restaurant Mosca's, drenched in an emulsion of butter, olive oil, garlic and enough rosemary to stun a mule. The jambalaya, drier - better - than most other jambalayas in town, is just moistened with tomato, and shot through with chicken, smoked sausage and shrimp. And the crawfish etouffee is wonderful, complexly seasoned, impeccably fresh and glowing with peppery spice.

Gagnier's serves only one dessert, but its warm, raisin-studded bread pudding with whiskey sauce is all the dessert that any restaurant needs.

1315 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; (310) 319-9981. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $9-$18. Beer and wine. Takeout. MC, V. Recommended dishes: oyster loaf; crawfish etouffee.

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