Arnold Pompos, physics researcher at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has calculated that if Santa Claus were to travel at nearly the speed of light, he could drop presents off at more than 75 million homes in approximately 500 seconds. I wonder whether Emeril Lagasse might bend the time/space continuum in similar manner in order to visit all the branches of his burgeoning restaurant empire each night. If not, then adults who expect to be dining on "Emeril's" food at his newest namesake restaurant in the Loews Hotel are no less naive than children scurrying to the Christmas tree for "Santa's" gifts.
The surprise here isn't that the chef de cuisine is named not Emeril but Thomas Azar, who last worked as executive sous-chef at Emeril's Orlando, but rather that the two dining rooms, which are big and easy on the eyes, have nothing remotely to do with the Big Easy.
A kinetic open kitchen, brightly framed in colored glass and with a row of ten seats at a "food bar" facing in, is located in one room, which is the place to be for those who relish an interactive (and loud) dining experience. The other, slightly larger space has retained the lofty ceilings from its previous tenant, the Gaucho Room, but all else has changed. Twin wine storage units now dominate the dining area, and while not unattractive, they form an unusual focal point, which awkwardly blocks sight lines of diners and waiters alike. Generic, contemporary music piped over the speakers is as blank as the walls -- Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, and Clifton Chenier would match better the cuisine, as well as the energetic buzz that routinely emanates from this consistently busy restaurant.
Emeril refers to his cooking as "new New Orleans," which means most of those "old" Cajun and Creole foods that you're all familiar with, such as jambalaya, crawfish, étouffée, fried oysters, and rice and beans, are not on the menu. At least there's a gumbo, which changes daily and on one occasion featured a trio of pork products, including the lean, cured, spicy-hot "tasso," a few minuscule nuggets of which added a smoky kick to the medium-thick, but practically sausageless army green purée. The gumbo also contained a requisite dollop of rice and fleck of filé, but overall was a lackluster rendition with no depth, and worse, no okra.
The people of Louisiana have been enraptured with various sausages since being introduced to them by the Spanish. One of Emeril's best starters consists of spicy chorizo steamed with littleneck clams, the two ingredients releasing their juices to create a delicious broth at the bottom of the bowl. Another appetizer features andouille, a more heavily smoked Cajun sausage that is made on the premises, sliced lengthwise, placed atop crusty squares of white bread croutons, and floated in tangy homemade Worcestershire sauce whose tamarind/ molasses sweetness handily complements the peppery link. A savvy blend of sweet and spicy also boosts five too-small barbecued shrimp, the buttery, piquant tomato-based sauce so good you'll feel compelled to sop it all up with the soft, petite, and timidly herbed "rosemary biscuit" that centers the plate.
Lobster cheesecake sounds strange, but cream cheese and seafood do go together -- although this usually occurs between two halves of a toasted bagel. Actually the wedge of custardy "cake," with teeny, tasteless bits of lobster embedded within, was more similar to the French seafood timbales of days gone by. Unfortunately this grainy starter lacked the delicacy of timbale or cheesecake, and came plunked in a vinegary pool of herb "crema," which was no doubt meant to cut the creaminess but instead clashed with it.
Having been responsible for the blackening of hundreds, maybe thousands of redfish during my time behind the stoves at the Fairmount Hotel in New Orleans, I figured eating one more wouldn't noticeably increase my guilt over their near extinction. The mildly sweet, white-fleshed fish is presented here with a crumbly andouille crust, the taste heightened by unadvertised, but unmistakable blackening spices, and unremarkable little snippets of grilled zucchini, eggplant, onions, and carrots. A double cut Niman Ranch pork chop, easily two inches thick and tender as a Cajun lullaby, is sweetened with tamarind glaze and nicely spiced with green chile mole sauce. I was greatly looking forward to making a lunch the next day from my leftover half, but apparently my waiter had other ideas, or perhaps the same idea for himself, as he never brought the chop back from the kitchen as requested. This was the only misstep by an otherwise well-trained, well-populated waitstaff. The wine selection, too, is polished, though the hundreds of bottles are listed in a less than reader-friendly manner; sommelier David Mokha can help in that regard.
I entertained no visions of glorious leftovers regarding an unfinished cilantro poached grouper -- it was way overcooked and underseasoned, the surrounding medley of mango and corn salsa, mashed avocado, smoked poblano peppers, and fried yucca crisps conspiring in a vain attempt at coverup. I'd also suggest skipping the vegetable cannelloni, plumped with portobellos but pedestrian and bland.
Do not forgo dessert -- except, that is, for a dry chocolate soufflé that no amount of syrupy chocolate-Grand Marnier sauce poured into the center could remedy. Banana cream pie was a puffy delight, heavy on fresh, sturdy, chilled chunks of banana, light on vanilla custard, bottomed by a banana and graham cracker crust, and topped with whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings. An individual round of southern pecan pie was rightly sweet and gooey, as was accompanying praline ice cream, both constrained by a soft "deep dish" crust smartly short on sugar. The fresh fruit plate, centered by a scoop of sorbet and encompassing four types of ripe berries, was one of the prettiest I've seen.
Emeril's is, by and by, a decent restaurant, but just doesn't feel like an Emeril's -- and it's not his body this place lacks, but his spirit. The next time Lagasse and his reindeer do make it down for a visit, I'd suggest he tell both the interior designers and his kitchen crew to kick it up a notch.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.