Emeril's offers a dash of New Orleans

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.


Emeril's Miami Beach

Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.; brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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.

That left plenty of time to dwell upon menu choices, and it occurred to me that a guest's request of a side of red onion-smoked bacon marmalade with his 16-ounce prime cowboy rib eye might have been a mistake; it usually comes with the filet. Our waiter asked if he still wanted the regular rib eye accompaniments of crawfish compound butter and red wine bordelaise, to which the guest answered affirmatively. "Do you want the butter served on top of the steak?" the waiter then inquired. "Yes." The wide, thin plank of meat arrived smothered in the marmalade; upon request, the crawfish butter was brought, as well as a timbale of blue cheese — as a fill-in, I suppose, for the blue cheese glaçage that usually glazes the filet we didn't order. The steak was too salty in spots and lacked sizzle and sear (who knows how long it sat beneath the heat lamp); it barely leaked juice when cut. Mashed potatoes on the plate were adequate in flavor but not quite adequate as the accompaniment to a $48 entrée.

The marmalade was delicious.

Andouille-crusted Texas redfish is an Emeril's signature, but there is hardly any sausage flavor in the breadcrumb coating. The fillet of fish is centered atop a ragout of fingerling potatoes, crimini mushrooms, and Parmesan shavings in a coffee-hued, Creole-seasoned butter sauce. Pan-seared yellowtail snapper proved a cleaner, lighter preparation — the crisp-skinned fillet surrounded by lumps of crab meat sautéed with mirleton (chayote) and a disconcerting spike of raw garlic in a bright citrus-based butter sauce.

After main course plates were cleared, desserts were offered on the house. When nearly ten minutes passed and said sweets were still not forthcoming, I began to wonder about etiquette: When can you politely inquire about a course you're not paying for? Then delicate Meyer lemon crêpes with vanilla bean sauce and fresh ripe blackberries arrived — well worth the wait. So was a tall wedge of banana cream pie featuring chilled chunks of the fruit suspended in dense vanilla custard, with a moist banana/graham cracker crust and whipped cream, caramel drizzles, and dark chocolate shavings on top. A trio of bread pudding muffins — traditional, white chocolate, and strawberry with a dulce de leche center — was more distinctive for variety than character, but there are plenty of enticing flavors on the plate.

Sunday brunch brings limited choices of three courses for $32. The only omelet offered is not stuffed with andouille sausage but with French feta cheese, spinach, and cherry tomatoes. Still, the outdoor terrace and Atlantic vista are beautiful in the daylight, and entrées such as Grand Marnier French toast and eggs Tchoupitoulas (poached, on English muffin, with apple-smoked bacon, asparagus, and lump crab hollandaise) were prepared with aplomb.

Emeril Lagasse is one of the real good guys in the industry: kind, dedicated, charitable. He's also got chops as a chef; if he isn't Thomas Keller, neither is he simply a male Paula Deen. Even longtime antagonist Anthony Bourdain has come around to taking Lagasse's cooking skills seriously. All of which makes the menu and execution at his eponymous restaurant so disappointing. It's understood that this is a corporate venture using Emeril's name, but Emeril — Bam! — it's your name!

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