CRAWDADDY

539 Eighth St. SE. 546-7766.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch served 11 a.m. to

4 p.m., dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. AE, V, MC, CB, DC.

Reservations suggested. No separate smoking area.

At lunch appetizers $2.50 to $4.95, sandwiches and entrees

$5.95 to $12.95; at dinner appetizers $2.95 to $7.50, entrees

$9.95 to $17.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip

about $35 a person.

CAJUN FEVER has hit. Washington is no longer just warming up to the Cajun trend, it is possessed. Blackened redfish is in French restaurants and everyday submarines are now dubbed po' boys.

Crawdaddy would have been a revelation a couple of years ago; now it is only one of several full-fledged Cajun restaurants and one of many restaurants that serve Cajun dishes. Competition is stiff.

The first Cajun restaurant on Capitol Hill, Crawdaddy doesn't look so different from its predecessor, Knickerbocker; in fact, it still looks more New York than New Orleans, but it is pleasant. On the brick walls are Victorian mirrors and posters; on the floor are oriental rugs; in the rear is a brick- fenced alcove that would be nice for small parties.

The waiters fall into that Manhattan mold of handsome young people who look as if they are on intermission from an acting career or law school. They bring intelligence and energy to this job, and if they don't know much about Cajun food, they are willing to find out. The maitre d' is another matter: He seems to consider himself in the middle of his acting job, and plays stand-up comic as much as maitre d'.

In Louisiana, they use the word "lagniappe" -- an extra little something. And at Crawdaddy there is lagniappe in the plate of fried okra presented with drinks at dinner and in the very tart lemon sherbet between courses. The bread basket is a treasure of poppy seed, french and pumpernickel loaves and corn muffins, none outstanding on its own but enticing as an assortment. And there is cinnamon butter, if you like that sort of flossiness.

Crawdaddy does some dishes wonderfully. Others suffer by comparison with other Cajun restaurants. Its Cajun popcorn-fried crayfish tails are tender and lightly battered, but don't have the plumpness and juiciness that would position them with the best. And the blackened redfish is a little too refined -- small fillets of fish one day, a hunkier one another day, spicy but a bit restrained. In other words, it is not the magical dish called blackened redfish (besides, it is so unorthodox as to be served with a sauce!).

With those caveats, I have found that Crawdaddy serves some awfully good food. A crucial test of a Cajun restaurant is the gumbo; here it is dense with okra and flavorsome shrimp but the broth is thin -- and appropriately dark.

Appetizers also include a fettucini with garlic, shrimp and oysters; shrimp remoulade; crab ravigote; Oyster and Artichoke Trufant; more soups and several salads. You couldn't wean me away from the oyster en brochette, though: a small bamboo skewer speared with three oysters wrapped in bacon and seasoned with a piquant, peppery taste that evokes chorizo. Then the whole thing is rolled in cornmeal and deep- fried, served with a touch of gravy on a bed of dirty rice, studded with giblets. It is a marvel of texture and layers of flavor that stimulate your taste in waves. It is the essence of Cajun cooking.

Main dishes at dinner are divided equally between seafoods (trout pecandine or Cajun style, crawfish etouff,e, barbecued shrimp, red snapper cardinale, crab imperial) and meats (tournedos marchand du vin, blackened sirloin, two veal dishes, grilled chicken with sweet potato and eggplant gravy and roast duckling). At lunch there are also po' boys and, oddly, a grilled lamb and mixed grill.

That mixed grill illustrates the best and the worst of Crawdaddy. It looks most impressive on a large plank, garnished with sweet potato rosettes, new potatoes, brussels sprouts, two broiled tomato halves and stunningly good sauteed potatoes and mushrooms with creole mustard sauce.

What all that bounty accompanies,

though, is one barely blackened lamb

chop that needs trimming and two

kinds of sausages, both overcooked,

and a few crunchy pieces of tasso, the

powerfully peppery dried beef. There

were no boudin and no andouille sausages, as promised, but there were

several nice things that weren't promised.

So it went with the barbecued

shrimp. It wasn't what one would expect -- permeated with fiery rosemary

oil -- but it was magnificent shrimp

lightly seasoned and piled on dirty

rice. And crayfish etouff,e was not the usual mellow casserole but dark and spicy.

I'd return just for the Grilled Chicken Camp-n-Julia, though. The chicken itself has all the wonderful juicy, crusty and smoky quality of carefully grilled chicken, and its sauce is a meld of sweet potatoes and eggplant, rich and sweet and intriguing. It, too, is on a bed of dirty rice, which soaks up the last of the sauce for you.

The wine list that accompanies this menu is rather small and undistinguished, but, like the food, its prices are reasonable. You could match this spiciness with a Firestone gewurztraminer for $13.50, a Hugel Alsace riesling for $13.95, or a Fetzer zinfandel for $11.50, or choose from 18 beers.

Desserts include the now-familiar New Orleans sweet potato pecan pie, bourbon bread pudding, pecan cheesecake and praline parfait, as well as a couple of French entries -- chocolate mousse pie and cr,eme caramel. I find the bread pudding too gummy, but its brown sugar whiskey sauce is sufficient reason for ordering the dessert. It is like boozy melted pralines. The pecan cheesecake also has an irresistible praline character, in its case rich and creamy -- the cheesecake is thickly crunchy with nuts and brown sugar crust.

You could expect no less than New Orleans coffee with chicory to end your Crawdaddy meal, and it is awfully good.

So the Cajun feast hasn't peaked in Washington. Crawdaddy adds another good place to find this food that blends the zest of French, Italian, Spanish and African cultures into a uniquely American cuisine.