…so it turns out I’m one of the few gourmands who loves Emeril Lagasse…to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.” In reality my love of the “BAM” dates back to late 2002 (before I started this blog and before I had the money and inclination to go to places like Alinea or Per Se) when I took my mother to his Orlando restaurant as a Thank You for helping me with my medical school applications. Without overstating I can honestly say that it was my first experience with “fine dining” and it opened my eyes to what food and a dining “experience” could be. Since that visit I’ve been back to the eponymous Orlando restaurant as well as Tchoup Chop, Table 10, Delmonico Las Vegas, and the Fish House and liked or loved the experience at each.
Coming to New Orleans I have to say I was a bit disappointed that I’d not be able to experience Chef Lagasse’s first restaurant because of its location along the Mardi Gras Parade route but was relieved to know that not only would NOLA be open, but that they’d also be glad to prepare anything I desired off the dinner menu at lunch when I queried them via phone after making reservations. Arriving a couple minutes late for my lunch reservation (I got caught up talking Bread Pudding with the lady at the culinary school next door) I was greeted pleasantly by both a male and female at the hostess table and was told it would be “a couple of moments” before my table was ready. Standing aside I took in the unique scenery and action in the kitchen for about 3 minutes before I was escorted via elevator to the second floor where I was given an excellent table in the middle of the room.
Greeted promptly by my server, a young African American fellow who introduced himself and the rest of the team I was offered a cocktail (again I declined) and handed a copy of the menu. Selecting tap water and coffee to go with my meal he next explained the daily specials and when I asked if the dinner menu could be accommodated he said he’d check with the kitchen…and returned in 2 minutes to say that it wouldn’t be a problem at all. Pleasant, conversive, and professional without being snooty I personally loved the service at NOLA and would go so far as to say that my server could easily fit in with the folks at Camellia Grill but also could have brought a bit of personality to the team at Restaurant August equally well – no easy task.
Orders placed I sat and browsed the interesting layout of the restaurant – open ceilings, stone walls, plenty of unique art while also marveling at the overall noise level of the restaurant – energetic and lively without being downright loud or annoying…sort of like Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill or Batali’s Babbo for those who’ve been.
Arriving shortly after my coffee – a bold French blend, the kind that isn’t “memorable” but works with everything due to its low acidity – I received something unexpected…bread that wasn’t just a standard loaf of French. Two small rolls served with a complex and sweet unsalted butter, the first a tasty green onion butter roll and the second a beautiful jalapeno cornbread with just a bit of spice, I have to say I quite liked the variation and found the cornbread to be one of the best I’ve had in quite some time…if I had but one complaint it would be that the rolls were so small and refills were hard to get because everyone was requesting more.
My first dish of the meal was the NOLA Gumbo of the day – chicken andouille, shrimp, and lump crab. Featuring a thick and spicy roux with plenty of shrimp, sausage, okra, and celery I was very impressed by the minimal amount of rice and “filler” but also felt that perhaps a little more file would have been ideal as the dish was soupier than I’d have preferred. Good, but lacking that “stick to your ribs” quality of Mr. B’s.
My second dish, a main course from the dinner menu, was Hickory-Roasted Duck with Whiskey-Caramel Glaze, Buttermilk Cornbread Pudding, Haricot Verts, Fire Roasted Corn Salad, Natural Jus and Candied Pecans. Never one to lack for ingredients on a single plate I can say without a doubt that this was (by far) the best Duck of my trip to New Orleans – and the accompanying items were pretty superb too. Featuring a bone-in half duck perfectly roasted medium and with skin smooth, sweet, and crisp-yet-supple…potentially the best duck I’ve ever had. Lying beneath the fowl was a sweet yet buttermilk-sour cornbread pudding similar to the coush-coush at CP, snappy and sweet Haricot Verts, and a smoky yet sweet roasted corn salad. An enormous portion for $28 this item is clearly better served as a dinner selection, but for the glutton who is trying to make the very most of his or her New Orleans dining experience it makes a sublime lunch, as well.
Following the duck and some more coffee I watched my neighbor eat the chicken and waffles – it looked fantastic. I also made a difficult decision. You see, at each of Emeril’s other restaurants I ordered the bread pudding and was quite impressed by all but one…but the bread pudding du jour at NOLA was chocolate and raspberry with creole cream cheese while one of the alternatives was a dish with French Toast, ice cream, bananas, cinnamon, and bacon…the bread pudding didn’t stand a chance. Arriving piping hot with the ice cream slowly melting and soaking the bread, Cinnamon Pain Perdu with Sautéed Bananas, Drunken Monkey Ice Cream and Brown Sugar Bacon was a showstopper – an absolute must order. Crispy and sweet French Toast, Caramelized Bananas, the Bourbon punch of the banana laden ice cream, and the savory bacon…for some it may have been sugar overload but for me it was the kind of dish I’ll crave every time I think of a Banana for some time.
Quite stuffed and planning to go catch some Jazz at the Lundi Gras Celebration on the river I was asked if I’d like a cup of coffee to go – a nice touch that I gladly agreed to. Paying the modest bill and thanking my servers for a wonderful experience I made my way down to the elevator, through the still present (and seemingly never shrinking) crowd, and to the streets. While some “foodies” shy away from celebrity chefs like Legasse, Puck, Batali, etc claiming that the restaurants are all marketing and the chefs are largely disconnected I personally am of the opinion that great food is great food and great service is great service – if a restaurant can provide me with those two things I don’t mind if the chef spends more time at a TV studio than in the kitchen, he is clearly hiring the right people to carry forth his vision.