By Emily Codik
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Emeril's Miami Beach looks just as it did the day it opened at the St. Moritz Hotel (part of the Loews) in November 2003. Two large, lofty dining rooms are visible to guests as they approach the host's podium. The bigger one to the left is a handsome assemblage of linen-topped tables and gracefully curved banquettes in a neutral pastel setting, with twin wine-storage towers dominating the design and blocking sight lines. To the right is the smaller arena, which is enlivened by a ten-seat "food bar" fronting a bustling open kitchen framed in bright glass panels of varying patterns. It's the only vivid color displayed in the restaurant, and the cooks in the backdrop provide the sole drama; one would guess this space that would fill first. Yet it was nearly empty on a Saturday evening, while many of the outdoor patio seats were occupied and just about every table was taken in the other room. Either folks' fascination with watching chefs perform has greatly waned, or Emeril's management team is oblivious to customers' desires. After recent visits, my guess is the latter — assuming there even is a management team. That the men's bathroom is being used as a storage facility for dining room chairs might suggest otherwise. So does the service, but we'll get there later.
Thomas Azar, Emeril's original executive chef, left last year to help open the instantly ill-fated Ahnvee Restaurant & Lounge. A couple of other Cajun/Creole-style joints have tried to make a go of it locally, but only Emeril's has succeeded — mainly, it appears, by not being very Cajun or Creole. Azar played the Big Easy small, and the chef who followed him, Brandon Benack, played it even smaller: A menu of only middling intelligence was dumbed down. It hasn't gotten any smarter since Brandon left in mid-April. Emeril's is currently head chef-less.
There are two ways to go with this fare: Serve traditionally prepared dishes at modest prices, or up the ante and the tab by redefining it in 21st-century manner (be it via the organic route or by way of visually dazzling fusions with haute ingredients). Emeril's is stuck in between: The plates look less like self-billed "new New Orleans" cuisine than stuff the Mango Gang was putting out in the early '90s with a dash of Louisiana heat. New Orleans has less of a presence on this menu than it had as a city the day after Katrina: no jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, blackened fish, tasso ham, or andouille sausage with rice and beans. There is, however, a starter of tuna-lettuce wraps with crispy wontons, jalapeño, yuzu ponzu, and basil oil.
1601 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
To be fair, a pretty good gumbo du jour is offered. Our filé-fueled shrimp-andouille rendition was pleasantly piquant and generously stocked with rice — if short on the namesake ingredients. The most popular starter at the table was a hefty portion of fried "Creole-marinated" calamari, spicily breaded rings and tentacles smothered in muffaletta-style olive mix and Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings piled atop a riveting smoked tomato sauce — a stimulating mix of flavors that makes this stand out among the army of fried calamari treatments.
A barbecue shrimp appetizer disappeared from the plate quickly too, partly owing to the petite size of the five potently peppered crustaceans curled upon a buttery, Worcestershire-wired sauce — to be sopped up by a little rosemary biscuit. If you want wine that pairs with Worcestershire, there are hundreds of bottles from which to choose. There's also a rather puny specialty cocktails list; the Hurricane, a N'awlins favorite, was the weakest I've ever had.
Emeril's employs a good number of waiters and buspersons in an apparent attempt to better serve each table. Yet almost all the workers carried themselves like rookies. Watching them traverse the dining room hunched over while awkwardly carrying single piles of plates with both hands made it seem as though they were trained by Quasimodo. Actually, considering one especially disastrous Saturday dinner, that analogy might be unfair to Quasimodo.
It began well enough, with our group given menus and water shortly after being seated. Moist corn muffins and crusty French rolls followed, appetizers were consumed, plates removed. Then we sat. For the first half-hour, we were left alone — empty cocktail glasses and bread plates on the table, no checking in with us whatsoever. We finally flagged our waiter to inquire about the delay; he said dinner would be out in a minute. Ten minutes later, we asked again. "It's been ready for a while now," he told us, "but something happened to one of the plates." He was a nice enough bloke, and we thanked him for the info. About five minutes later, we waved down one of the managers to see if she could find out about our meals. She returned to tell us that one of the fish had been burned, so another was being prepared and that it would be out shortly. When one of us politely asked about how long that might be, he was told, in a stern voice: "I said it would be coming out." And it did come out, about 50 minutes after our appetizers were first cleared.