Published: Wednesday, November 26, 2003
He is the clown prince of the Food Network, bug-eyed and frantic, throwing together the night’s menu while he kibbitzes with the Emeril Live Band and flirts with the crowd. His catch phrases are as hokey as they are predictable: ”Pork fat is love!” ‘It’s gettin’ happy in here!” and, of course, “BAMM!”
As much butter and oil seem to ooze their way into his TV dishes as could possibly be permitted by law. Yet a visit to the ninth in New Orleans superstar chef Emeril Lagasse’s namesake chain, at the Loews Miami Beach hotel, puts an unexpected spin on this cartoonish pop-culture icon: The man is intensely serious about food.
Emeril’s might have an outpost at Universal Studios in Orlando, but this is anything but theme-park dining. Service is swarming and old-school. There is a broad and impressive wine list selected by Lagasse and sommelier David Mohka — and it’s fairly priced. Menu is as big and loud as the boss, and portions range from bountiful to behemoth, but this food is full of innovative, intriguing touches.
Lagasse’s philosophy, interpreted here by chef du cuisine Tom Azar, draws a bit of inspiration from his Boston Portuguese heritage, but mostly it is a variation on Cajun New Orleans, where he had his culinary coming of age.
Gumbo is the Cajun chicken noodle, and Emeril’s has a different one each day, from seafood to andouille to smoked chicken. This night’s was chicken with chorizo, and it was spoon-stand-up thick, robust and rich with a chocolate-colored roux, heady with creole spices, delicious if almost recklessly hot.
Portuguese cooks love to mix sausage and seafood, and the combo shines with an appetizer of littleneck clams and homemade chorizo. The eight tender clams played nicely against the chewy, spicy sausage; both benefited from a savory tomato broth flavored with olives.
The chopped salad of the day matched velvety Bibb lettuce with hearts of palm, pecans, red onions, bacon, tomato and Roquefort, the platter shrouded in a creamy sesame dressing.
Entrees pay lip service to the light (vegetable canneloni, grilled tuna niçoise), but most are big and hearty. Sweet-fleshed redfish is seared with Creole spices and gets a saucy coating of andouille sausage and bread crumbs before baking. It’s plated with shoestring potatoes plus a Creole take on the French meunire sauce and a relish of grilled vegetables enriched by pecans. A grouper fillet was poached (perhaps a minute too long) in a cilantro and garlic-flavored seafood stock, served with cilantro-coconut rice and a corn and poblano coulis. The flavor intensity is relentless. Bring it on.
Double pork chop, best ordered medium for maximum juiciness, gets a zesty tamarind glaze. Green chile mole adds another wake-up call. Chunks of caramelized sweet potato are the carbs.
Menu’s premier entree is a majestic filet mignon, painted with a tangy blue cheese glaze, cooked to dead-on order and served aboard a bed of thick mashed potatoes specked with bits of chive.
Deep dish pecan pie sounds like the appropriate cap on a New Orleans night, but how about something . . . lighter . . . like Emeril’s banana cream pie? Feel the love: This pie has terrific mouth feel, balanced fruitiness and sweetness, a soft graham-cracker crust. It’s gettin’ happy in here.