“Bam!” “Kick it up a notch!” With those famed catchphrases, even passive television viewers who never cook and put no thought into where they dine out know who is being referred to. Julia Child made cooking shows on television watchable. Emeril Lagasse, forgive the expression, kicked the subject of cooking shows on television up a whole additional notch, into what many considered a bonafide primetime television program. Audiences started going crazy over a decade ago watching cooking as entertainment, before it became an entire genre of programming thanks to Emeril and later the Japanese import “Iron Chef” (then “The Next Iron Chef” and every other of the hundreds of cooking reality shows and competitions today…).
No sous chef joined Emeril for the cooking. He didn’t need one. At least a band accompanied the chef/host like Paul Shaffer for David Letterman. The band would specialize in jazz, the music genre that is most often heard at restaurants because it can be a musical version of wallpaper, and of course since Emeril is a New Orleans native, what better music to spice up his Creole and Cajun cuisine than the music that is as synonymous with the Big Easy as gumbo.
Not only did Emeril make the Food Network into a relevant cable network much like “Sportscenter” for ESPN, he became a crossover superstar to network television, appearing almost as often on ABC’s “Good Morning America” as Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson seemed to.
In its 10th annual restaurant issue in September of 2003, Bon Appétit Magazine referred to Emeril Lagasse’s legacy as having “brought a sense of adventure to the kitchen, inspiring viewers to try new things and season boldly. Besides sparking an interest in cooking, he has made “Bam!” a household word.”
Even when you are cooking at home and decide to throw into the pot that additional dash of cayenne pepper, that’s because of Emeril. Those chefs looking to branch out to your television or your supermarket aisle after cooking for years in intense restaurant kitchens, that’s because of Emeril. The fact that the foodie community rolls their eyes every time another successful restaurant chefs branches out with another restaurant, yet spends more in the green room of a television studio than the kitchen of a restaurant, that’s because of Emeril.
Come to think of it, how many people named Emeril do you even know of? Emeril has become a noun, an adjective, a verb, even an adverb. The name is a brand and a style. It’s the essence of Emeril as his spices like to say. In the world of food, there are many superstar chefs today. Then there is Emeril Lagasse.
Though his 13 strong restaurant empire is now powerful across the country from Las Vegas to Orlando, he lives in New York, and now has a show on some obscure cable network called “The Hallmark Channel,” Lagasse’s heart remains at home, in New Orleans. After following the legendary Paul Prudhomme in 1983 as the executive chef at the grande dame of New Orleans dining experiences, Commander’s Palace, Emeril opened his original restaurant and still the flagship, on Tchoupitoulas, quite possibly the world’s greatest street name. Over two decades later, the original is still going strong, though the namesake chef only shows up a handful of times each year. One of the first restaurants to re-open after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Emeril’s continues to be a tremendous symbol of the fierce strength and civic pride that is unique to New Orleans.
22 years later, is Emeril’s at the top of its game? Not knowing what it was like with the namesake chef around in 1990, I can only say it is a slightly impersonal restaurant with mostly very reliable, at times very special dishes. Interestingly located in the heart of the up and coming Warehouse District where nondescript storefronts and art galleries are much more prevalent than restaurants or businesses, the first thing diners notice upon opening the grand entrance doors is a sheer wave of noise. The place is packed. Locals mingle with the many tourists at the bar and various tables, most of whom sad to realize that Emeril is indeed not in the house. Emeril is watching you though from the paintings of him scattered about the dining rooms that act as decor, but really are creepy in the way that Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard was with her various paintings of herself throughout her chateau.
The place is massive without actually being physically large, feeling much more of Las Vegas and corporation style dining, than a real personal New Orleans experience. You get the feeling here that the chef also sells spices nationwide and has four restaurants in Las Vegas. By the host stand is a tiny bar with an impressive by the glass wine list, particularly strong on California wines and Oregon Pinot noir. A few high top tables sprinkle the bar, along with a plasma television, a clear signal that this is fine dining brought down a notch. The separated dining rooms have a surprisingly low seating capacity of just 88 diners, roughly half of which sit in the more formal, quieter back room surrounded by wine cellars, and the other half in the more open brasserie-like room with the open kitchen. Exposed brick walls and hardwood floors help enhance the noise and the Warehouse District feel. For a classic Emeril experience as if you were in his television studio, the kitchen table seats would be quite the thrill.
It’s a bit of a chaotic experience at dinner rush hour, with waiters nearly colliding everywhere you look. The food emerging from the kitchen under the guidance of David Slater, has all sorts of Emeril fingerprints on it. This is New Orleans cuisine with several twists. All of the buzzwords make appearances: gumbo, boudin, barbeque shrimp, bourbon bread pudding, and the like all can be found, kicked up a notch. The style is indeed about the bold seasoning and plays on classic New Orleans and American dishes. Emeril isn’t about the new age trends. There isn’t a hint of molecular gastronomy or sous vide around, nor are there any mentions of where your ingredients come from except a shout out to California’s Niman Ranch for the pork chop. In fact, this style almost can be referred to as Southern and American classics through the eyes of a French chef with the heavy hand in saucing every ounce of meat and fish on a plate.
Everything also seems to have a dash of humor with it too to accompany the dash of cayenne pepper. Smoked salmon arrives in a cheesecake with green onion coulis. The Mississippi quail travels to diners by way of the bayou and Québec with a crawfish “poutine.” The classic French dish of veal sweetbreads come served with…passion fruit butter. The classic New Orleans chargrilled oysters get spruced up with uni butter, a dish something Ludo Lefebvre might serve. The best dish of a night comes a world away from Emeril’s. His “Kicked Up Pad Thai” mingles lo mein noodles with succulent Maine scallops, Littleneck clams, and the real highlight, a robust, perfectly tender North Carolina poussin that sounds of road kill, but speaks of the most elegant game meat. All topped with chopped peanuts and tossed together, this is where New Orleans kicks up a notch an Americanized Thai dish, and makes it an outstanding authentic inauthentic inauthentic dish. The dish itself, absolutely outstanding in whatever authenticity desired.
Much more authentic and closer to New Orleans’ cuisine would be the classic “Emeril’s” New Orleans barbeque shrimp with a petite rosemary biscuit and fresh chives. The shrimp are not as massive or plump as those at Pascal’s Manale or Commander’s Palace, yet still make every other shrimp of the sea seem irrelevant. It’s something about Louisiana waters that make shrimp and oysters just so much more plump than any other region. The sauce is perfect to be sopped up by the excellent trio of breads- a foccacia, a potato bread, and a cornbread muffin. It’s strange for such a corporate place to put such appreciated detail into a tiny feature such as the bread plate. There are some bright people in charge here.
Emeril’s better make an excellent gumbo above anything else. Indeed they do, this evening full of duck meat and smoky housemade andouille sausage. It’s a standard to measure all other gumbo by. The classic crawfish étoufée gets a more elegant, Italian treatment, where the crawfish tails come with angel hair pasta made in house, instead of a bed of rice. The premier appetizer seamlessly blends the South with the Far East by way of Mexico, encompassing bacon and yellowfin tuna inside butter lettuce wraps acting as tacos, kicked up a notch again with jalapeno and a drizzle of citrus hoisin sauce. Again, a heavy hand in spices and sauces, without going overboard ruining the dish. This bold way of crafting dishes walks a fine line, but never muddled the flavors.
Be aware that entrées are more on the massive side and mundane side than the starters, so when choosing a path for ordering, veer more on the side of appetizers. The grilled Niman Ranch double cut pork chop must be half the pig, impossible for three people to even finish. The chop arrives with the bone jutting out one end, in a tamarind glaze with a sublime green chile mole sauce, atop addictive caramelized sweet potatoes. Unfortunately the meat itself was on the dry, chewy side, a possible side effect of using too massive a chop.
The classic andouille crusted drum is the opposite of the pork chop. The fish itself is cooked to flaky perfection, but the andouille-glazed pecans crust and run of the mill creole meunière sauce, all atop grilled vegetables and a five foot mound of shoestring potatoes show a lack of boldness and inspiration every other dish has. To really have a challenge to finish a dish meant for an offensive lineman, try to tackle the grilled ribeye with onion rings and a roasted garlic bone marrow butter.
Or better yet, finish one of those entrées and then the signature Emeril’s banana cream pie. The three story structure luckily has a higher banana slice to cream ratio than most versions and boasts a terrific, fresh graham cracker crust. Better yet is the chocolate peanut butter pie, the envy of any Reese’s lover. Again, the pastry chefs know their way to a terrific crust with this Oreo version. The JK’s chocolate souffle received a stern disapproval from the waiter when we considered ordering it. Instead, venture more towards the outrageous, gluttonous sounding twists on Southern staples: lemon-tarragon ice box pie in a Nilla Wafer crust, warm sticky toffee pecan pudding cake, or warm chocolate bourbon bread pudding.
Numerous times our server was most helpful with recommendations and making sure nobody went overboard with ordering too much, an easy mistake to make nearly anywhere in New Orleans. I still don’t understand why every restaurant I went to in New Orleans has the waiter introduce their name and all other co-servers’ names too, something I rarely see outside of a Cheesecake Factory or Red Lobster. Initially I chalked it up to the corporate nature of Emeril’s. Then after it happened at literally every place in the city, it didn’t seem so corporate at all. It must be a sign of friendly hospitality, something a West Coast and East coast centric critic is not used to.
The servers have a lot of heart, always asking you’re dine instead of stealing nearly empty dishes, even splitting the gumbo four ways when requested. When one member of our party spilled a bottle of red wine, the staff rushed over so quickly as to almost catch the falling bottle.
The one cold aspect of the service comes at the door, where you won’t find a smile or much of an acknowledgement of your arrival except to tell you to wait (15 or so minutes after) your reservation time.
“Bam!” I couldn’t help but say the catchphrase again. You will hear it in your mind every minute of your time at Emeril’s. Food superstars and brands don’t come any louder or larger than the Emeril empire. Fortunately, the flagship of the empire happens to be an excellent restaurant, kicked up a notch.