Eating Through Emeril's Empire in The Big Easy
There are few people in the world who are so famous that they don't need a last name - Cher, Madonna, Gaga and.....Emeril! Known as much for his catch phrases "Bam" and "Kick it up a notch" as his food, Emeril is a television celebrity and a personality, but deep down, he's really a chef (and a great one at that).
Though Emeril and New Orleans are sometimes considered one and the same, Emeril Lagasse was born in Massachusetts and attended Johnson & Wales University in Providence. 1982 was when Emeril really took over New Orleans, when he replaced Chef Paul Prudhomme as Executive Chef of Commander's Palace.
On a recent trip to New Orleans, Clean Plate Charlie was invited to take a culinary tour of Emeril's world, visiting two of three of Emeril's New Orleans restaurants, as well as Commander's Palace, where the magic started.
Old world charm cannot even begin to describe Commander's Palace. Located in New Orleans' Garden District, the home of Anne Rice, Antebellum mansions and old cemeteries, Commander's Palace is a short streetcar ride from the French Quarter. Commander's Palace is totally old-school South. Flip-flops and shorts don't fly here, even at lunch. Jackets are required for the gentlemen and ladies should wear something more along the lines of a brunch with mom than clubbing in SoBe with the girls.
Commander's Palace is huge, with multiple rooms, an outdoor garden and two floors of dining. We were escorted to the second floor dining area and even on a Tuesday afternoon, there was a brisk mix of local businessmen, ladies who lunch and tourists. You could tell the tourists by the men wearing the jackets "borrowed" from the restaurant (they're not kidding about the dress code).
Lunch is a leisurely two hour affair, complete with three courses. You could order ala carte, but why would you want to? New Orleans is all about moving slowly, savoring the experience. Besides, Commander's Palace offers 25 cent martinis at lunch time so there is absolutely no need to hurry. This is the place for a three martini lunch. There are several prixe fixe lunch options available daily. Ours started with a rich cup of gumbo. Gumbo in New Orleans looks and tastes like it took days, even weeks to make. Flavors are married into each other for a rich spicy experience. A Caribbean shrimp salad made with fresh Gulf shrimp (yes, theyre back and just fine to eat, thank you), pineapple and mango was fresh and fruity. The dessert? Bread pudding, of course. Totally decadant when you add in the three perfect gin martinis.
1403 Washington Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70130
NOLA is Emeril's youngest venture. Located directly in the French Quarter, NOLA is a three story building, painted in golden hues with large photos of New Orleans life decorating the walls. Emeril's signature open kitchen dominates the first floor. Alongisde the kitchen is a lively bar. There wasn't a seat in the house on the Sunday evening and we suspect that you would hard pressed to find a slow night here. We had reservations and waited less than five minutes for our table, on the second floor. Both patrons and servers navigate the floors via a glass enclosed elevator and we spent much time watching both servers and patrons enjoying the ride.
The food at NOLA is less traditional Creole or Cajun. There are influences of Asian and Portugese, as noted by the chicken wing appetizer stuffed with bok choy and seasoned in soy marinade. A bowl of steamed mussels arrived without a single gritty or closed mussel. The shrimp and grits entree was delicious. Once again, Gulf shrimp was fresh and good (gotta support the fishermen), but the grits were outstanding - creamy and cheesy without being lumpy or salty. Our server brought along a trio of desserts - the drunken monkey ice cream (made fresh daily), peanut butter chocolate cheesecake and a banana pudding layer cake. If you think that sounds rich, try eating all that. The drunken monkey proved to be the favorite, rich and creamy, with chocolate bits.
NOLA's atmosphere reflects the neighborhood its in. Loud and friendly, NOLA manages to be sophisticated without being stuffy. The service is amazing and at times you feel like you're being surrounded by servers (and indeed you are). We even got a "bam!" after the end of the dessert presentation. Emeril's stamp is certainly on this restaurant, though it's other influences (including Miss Hays, a Vietnamese woman who's been working with Emeril for years and Joshua Laskay, the Chef de Cuisine) are a welcome addition. Plus, it's nice to see that such an iconic chef as Emeril allows his local chefs to add their own touches to his restaurants.
534 Saint Louis St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 522 6652
This is Emeril's flagship restaurant. It's located in the Warehouse District, New Orleans' version of Miami's Design District or New York's Meatpacking District. When Emeril opened his doors, there was really nothing there, but the neighborhood is now filled with loft apartments, art galleries and restaurants both upscale and funky.
Walking into Emeril's is like going to a rock concert for the first time. I mean - this is Emeril's. This is the real place. The room is open and airy, with brick walls and the signature open kitchen. Emeril's is a little more formal than NOLA, and the food is more tradtional New Orleans cuisine, though the Chef de Cuisine, David Slater, hails from Toronto.
Chef Slater's influences are strongly seen on this menu, as noticed by the chicken and waffles with maple syrup and Louisiana Crystal hot sauce and smoked salmon pastrami bagel sandwiches.
Barbequed shrimp was presented as an appetizer. Emeril's chooses to peel the shrimp, making it an easier dish to navigate as a business lunch. The sauce was smoky and buttery, but thankfully, not salty. Lettuce wraps with filled with tuna and bacon were light and fresh, though a fork was needed after the first bite.
The mac n cheese entree was creamy, with a hint of smoke and the abovementioned chicken with waffles was delicious and served in portions large enough for an entire little league team to chow down on. The chef wanted us to try the salmon pastrami and for good reason. It was clearly the lunch standout. Emeril's cures its own pastrami and bakes its own bagels, which are surprisingly close to authentic New York. The cream cheese is mixed with marscapone, making it sweeter and creamier than plain cream cheese.
Since lunch is always a two hour affair in New Orleans, banana cream pie was "forced" upon us, along with a lemon tarragon icebox pie. The pie was reminscent of Key Lime pie and the banana cream pie was delicious mainly because the pastry chef actually let the bananas do the talking.
800 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 528 9393
New Orleans is a short flight from South Florida and makes an excellent weekend getaway. This year's Mardi Gras festivities are starting now and parties and parades continue until the beginning of March. If you want an Emeril "staycation", Emeril's Miami Beach is located in the Lowes Hotel in South Beach and Emeril, the man himself will be at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this weekend, co-hosting the Let Them Eat Cake event with Martha Stewart. Emeril will also be at the Grand Tasting Village.
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