The hottest Cajun restaurant in Washington -- in public acclaim as well as in seasoning -- is the New Orleans Emporium, a seafood restaurant with a clattery downstairs white-tile dining room. The place is bright, energetic and fun, particularly if you start with a chili-fired Cajun martini or a shooter -- raw oyster and hot sauce with vodka.

The menu is long, and a little complicated since dishes are categorized more by their main ingredient than by whether they are suitable as appetizers or main courses. But there are several dishes not to be missed: to start, the batter-fried crayfish tails called Cajun Popcorn, and the big fresh barbecued shrimp with their heads on, swamped with crunchy spicy tomato sauce. The oysters are brought up from New Orleans, and are available rockefeller and bienville style as well as raw. And there are very good soup/stews such as gumbo and turtle. Also watch the blackboard for daily specials, which on my last visit included ecstatically good stuffed clams seasoned with tasso, a strong dry-cured Louisiana ham.

The blackboard also lists main dishes definitely worth watching, and the wines, which are quite good choices, reasonably priced. Outside of the daily specials, "blackened" dishes are required courses here. New Orleans Emporium does the most authentic blackened redfish in town, and the blackened prime rib is also a revelation. There is also sometimes a variation on the theme, perhaps blackened swordfish. But it doesn't beat the redfish. On the other hand, redfish cooked other ways -- such as with lemon and pecans -- has a far less interesting texture and flavor. In general, I would stick with the spicy stuff.

The basket of wonderful homemade breads -- seasoned biscuits and muffins -- makes it hard to remember to save room for dessert, but the gooey liquor- spiked bread pudding should be kept in mind. As for complaints: the little salad that accompanies main dishes is an insipid mix of iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes -- even in the ripest part of tomato season -- in a dressing so sharp and mustard-drenched as to drown out even the Cajun cayenne.

Even so, don't try to find a table at the Emporium without a reservation, though you can eat at the bar if mood or crowd dictates. 2477 18th St. NW. 328-3421. L $10-$18, D $12-$20. L, D daily. AE, C, CB, DC, MC, V. Full bar.