The “Bam!” and the “Kick it up a notch” and all the rest of the shtick may get a little stale (OK, more than a little stale), but that Emeril Lagasse sure has a way of surprising us. And all of the other stuff aside, we need look no further than that to see his genius.
The last time I reviewed Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand, back in 2002, he was at the height of his reign as Emeril the TV Personality. I was feeling pretty certain, pre-visit, that the diverted attention would manifest itself in mediocrity, in a restaurant where the staff was on autopilot because their navigator had other fish to fry. Boy, was I wrong.
So my expectations were decidedly less jaundiced this time, but present nonetheless: It would still be a pretty noisy, almost raucous place; the cuisine would still carry the colors of American Regional with a magnifying-glass focus on Creole/Cajun; and the prices would have bounced up into the nether regions, in keeping with other celebrity-chef restaurants on the Strip.
Wrong again, on all counts.
The most visible sign was the look of the restaurant itself. Emeril’s may maintain the “New Orleans Fish House” subtitle, but after the redecoration in 2004, the look is anything but. Today’s Emeril’s exhibits a lot of color — bright-blue booth seats with whimsical, colorful backs are a case in point — but there’s a more elegant, serene look overall, and the space has been broken up more effectively, most notably by some wine-cellar areas. Besides being more attractive, the new arrangement absorbs noise much better, so that the dining experience is a bit more peaceful.
I don’t mean to get you excited about the prices, because we’re still nowhere near bargain territory, but these are in keeping with what they were four or five years ago, slightly adjusted for inflation. And considering that some Strip restaurants seem to have taken a “how high can we go?” approach, they feel reasonable by comparison. (I’m also keeping in mind that entrees at Emeril’s generally include a vegetable and starch, which leaves the plates less scantily clad than in many of those other places.)
And, finally, the food. There still are a few vestiges there to do the New Orleans Fish House name proud, but this summery selection has hints of Asian and fusion for an overall effect that is lighter and newer.
As in the nori-wrapped yellowfin tuna ($34), which was cloaked in the seaweed sheets that traditionally wrap sushi, dunked in a tempura batter and lightly fried until it was medium-rare as ordered. Stir-fried vegetables and a mound of jasmine rice fleshed out a picture that was completed when our waiter poured a soy-mustard butter sauce over the fish and around the rest of the plate.
Scrupulously fresh, ultra-mild grilled grouper ($33) got a flavor boost from the panzanella on which it rested. Well, at least the restaurant called it panzanella, which is a traditional Tuscan bread salad, served cold. This was not cold, and the cubes of bread had been sauteed with chunks of wild mushrooms and tomatoes and slices of onion. Dressed by our waiter with a little cup of shellfish cream, it was a delicious dish, the only shortcoming being the pile of rather stringy pea shoots on the side.
We also turned to a dish that sounded more like the old Emeril — the pecan-crusted Texas redfish ($29) — and yes, the Southern flavor still rang true. Pecan crusts can overpower, but this one was so well-balanced as to simply show the flaky fish to advantage. With a tangle of shoestring potatoes and a heap of grilled vegetables on the side, it was a very satisfying dish.
For starters, we’d also split between the old Emeril — his New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp ($12) — and the new Emeril — seared ahi carpaccio and tartare ($16). Putting “seared” and “carpaccio” in the same thought seemed oxymoronic and was; I’m not sure why the kitchen felt this fish needed to be seared. But both of our starters were excellent, including the nicely chunky, well-seasoned tartare, the roux-based barbecue sauce that bathed the shrimp, and the little rosemary-flecked biscuit that accompanied it.
After such spot-on fish, dessert seemed anticlimactic, and you’ll rarely hear me say that about chocolate. The double-chocolate flourless cake ($8.50), was sufficiently rich to work quite nicely served chilled (a refreshing touch in the summer), and we liked the accompanying little Godiva chocolate milkshake; the promised cherry compote was composed of dried cherries, whose firm texture and deep flavor played off all that chocolate quite well.
We also had a rather interesting bottle of 2004 Martinelli Russian River Sauvignon Blanc ($58) and were generally impressed with the depth and range of the wine list, which seemed ready to accommodate just about any whim.
As did our servers, and Emeril’s in general. How much of today’s Emeril’s is Emeril himself and how much is the people he’s put in place to represent him matters not; it’s the successful interpretation that counts. Like Las Vegas itself, the Bam-master seems to keep reinventing himself. And like Our Fair City, that spirit of innovation will retain his place in the world.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.