Neighborly Advice_lowres

ZEKE'S RESTAURANT owner Zeke Unangst, here with manager Darren ?Smith? Smith, learned a thing or two about boiling seafood during his time at Franky and Johnny's.

It takes awhile for outsiders to develop that ache for water-born critters that Louisiana natives have at birth, like an extra appendage that tows them through the off-seasons to the next crawfish boil in the park or oyster orgy at Drago's. But it can be cultivated. The ache is not a craving; a craving is when it strikes you now and then that a half-dozen oysters or so might be nice. The ache is when the thought of a meal without oysters sounds as appealing as driving across Texas without a radio. The ache is when, after your first batch of Zeke's charbroiled oysters, you decide that you could live on them alone.

Zeke's charbroiled oysters are something like a Pittsburgh-style steak: wrinkled and seasoned with grill char outside, jiggly and rare inside. They sizzle on their half-shells and come wearing a crusty mixture of garlic, fennel seed and herbs. Teased with lemon juice, they taste so happy to be skimming down your food tube that it seems downright cruel not to order another dozen. And once the oysters are gone, you're left with small, pully rolls for dabbing at the lemon-garlicky puddles left in each carbonized shell.

It seemed ridiculous to order oysters any way but raw earlier this month when oyster quality was pole-vaulting over the best seasons anyone remembers. But Zeke's kitchen also prepares an extraordinary fried oyster amandine meuniere that somehow defends the oysters' crunch while they suffocate beneath a showering of slivered nuts and butter sauce with dark whispers of Worcestershire's citrus peel and ale.

And while you could slurp through several oyster courses, you'll be the only one not sucking head when the crawfish are running tough. They could use some chile pepper heat for my taste, but Zeke's crawfish are clearly boiled by a master -- sweet, salty, firm and flowering with garlic. Owner Zeke Unangst likely acquired some boiling skills during his time at Franky and Johnny's, and he betrays his ache for the mudbug by making it his mascot: A neon orange crawfish suspended above Zeke's green neon name glows like a beacon among the stitchery shop, the neighborhood market and the pharmacy that share an aging strip mall parking lot along Metairie Road.

A few decades from now, once the new restaurant acquires the patina only hard living and old age can bring, Unangst could have the Franky and Johnny's of Old Metairie on his hands. He already has the crawfish and the neighborly clientele. Family birthday parties eat their weight in boiled shellfish; kids trawl for stuffed Tabasco bottles in a coin-operated crane game; baby boomers compare notes on their above-average grandchildren over lunch; and rampant beer paraphernalia suggests a tight relationship with Budweiser and Michelob. For now, however, Zeke's is as sterile as Casamento's white tile after its seasonal cleaning. The main dining room sparkles with unsmoky mirrors and crystal-clear tanks that house lopsided goldfish whose brilliant colors almost distract you from their mutant breeding.

The rest of Zeke's long menu, which is standard in some places and inspired in others, further extends the New Orleans neighborhood restaurant spirit. Respectable red beans, served everyday, are brick-red like New Mexican earth, vinegary from a few dashes of hot sauce and best eaten with nibbles of an incendiary sausage patty. Thin sheets of salty corned beef, served with buttery cabbage and whole red potatoes, are good as long as the Fair Grounds' crumbly corned beef hasn't spoiled you. Extra culinary efforts at a place like Zeke's go a long way. Housemade dressings include a sharp Creole mustard remoulade and a unique vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar and apple-smoked bacon that makes iceberg taste like a barbecue pit. You might also try fresh-baked, cinnamony apple pie with streusel topping or sticky cheesecake with solid cream cheese flavor and blueberry sauce that's reminiscent of the fruit at the bottom of a yogurt container.

Judging from their successes around the dining room, a couple of daily specials would be welcome additions to the regular menu. Firecracker shrimp, the Gulf Coast's answer to Buffalo wings, were hot and honeyed; a salad of romaine and herby Italian vinaigrette was perfect for lunch, crowned with Creole-seasoned catfish, crawfish tails and crunchy crabmeat sauteed in breadcrumbs.

Other dishes need work. Sadly for my $15.95, the broth for Zeke's barbecue shrimp had all the qualities of orange-dyed saltwater. And something is wrong in the soup department: on one day, nondescript seafood gumbo contained only okra and rice; on another, oyster and artichoke soup was candy-sweet and sandy.

I expect to see Zeke's rolling with the punches for a long time to come. Unangst could probably get away with draping his tables in white linen, but he finds other means of securing a regular crowd, like back-to-back Marvin Gaye albums and a wait staff so friendly it makes Richie Cunningham seem like a grunt. His place needs to live awhile before it has that deep-breathing organic feel of the oldest neighborhood joints, but any kitchen that can soothe the ache for oysters and crawfish like Zeke's can is headed in the right direction.