"Bam!" punctuated simple culinary tasks in kitchens across the country by the time I moved to New Orleans. One ubiquitous chef and a dash of cayenne never caused such hysterics. I remained calm, although the memory of one fine pork chop at Emeril's flagship restaurant did salve the irritation when I first noticed his million-dollar mug watching me cry over my bank statements, and again when my grandmother began sending magazine clippings and asking, "Do you know Emeril?" Then recently, I experienced an uncharacteristic longing: During dinner at his 9-year-old French Quarter restaurant, NOLA, I desperately wished Emeril would materialize behind the line and (I can't believe this) kick it up a notch.
Stepping through the doors from St. Louis Street to NOLA's two-story foyer drenches four senses. A wood oven pumps out smokeless clouds, instantly cuddling burnt cedar into sweaters and hair. A fantastical mobile of chunky shapes and color squiggles is as Cirque du Soleil as the troupe of employees who vault about reciting introductions at each table. Variously textured surfaces of a brick elevator shaft, exposed metallic ducts and rough wood give the busy warehouse-like space the feel of an adult romper room. The noise level, without music, reaches a freeway pitch.
Taste, unfortunately, is a sensation sometimes left on the back burner at NOLA. An inexpensive bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone rose chosen from the back-breaking wine book, and an airy focaccia crowded with black pepper and jalapeno cornbread, indicated the beginning of a delightful meandering through casual Emeril world. Then came bruised salads tossed by clumsy hands; limp corn relish hid beneath stabbing corn chips, tasteless polenta croutons, manchego cheese and damaged greens wet with a "warm andouille vinaigrette" that tasted like straight oil. Another salad built with hope but no love included random chunks of browning pear, thick slabs of smoked cheddar, dried cranberries and arugula dumped on a plate with balsamic vinaigrette. Pumpkin seeds and cheese straws were flaccid.
The evening didn't improve with entrees. Of three fish selections, only redfish tasted like it had left the water that week. Roasted in the wood oven and served on a cedar plank, it pulled into moist, perfumed flakes. The creative topping of freshly grated horseradish and citrus, however, was as aggressive as Christmas fruitcake: a few bites per year are enough.
Both yellowfin tuna and haricots verts on a nightly special were barely cooked and gray; "melting" pieces of smoked Gouda on top were sweaty but awkwardly stiff. Wrapped and grilled in prosciutto, salmon was simultaneously cooked to medium and parched. White grits underneath it were irrelevant, a gloppy dribble of beurre rouge had congealed, and gorgeous wild mushrooms went to waste without place or seasoning.
The list could go on, and desserts made no apologies. Dry banana cream cake was a poor man's version of the luscious banana cream pie at Emeril's original restaurant; at the suggestion of a fork, raspberry mascarpone filling flipped in one hunk from its pistachio crust like Jell-O from its mold.
NOLA's signature swirl on a postage stamp hung on the wall. I imagined hauling it down, licking the back and affixing it to a card postmarked NOLA. Dear Emeril: Is this it?
Not entirely. On another visit, smoky rabbit shreds graced a formidable gumbo, and fabulous Vietnamese chicken wings stuffed with a springy mixture of shrimp, pork, wood ear mushrooms and glass noodles were served with a plummy hoisin sauce. In a repeat performance, the salmon was fresher, the prosciutto grilled crispy, and a generous dousing of Parmesan contributed some bite to that dish (the grits, now golf balls, were worse). Peanut butter pie, recommended by every hovering employee, was like a peanut butter cup after a turn in the fluff cycle.
Zealous servers offered chitchat about their zany boss. Others, like the one who did time on the mellower second level, were more deadpan: "Oh him? He's rarely here." That's why busy chefs -- even ones without sit-coms -- hire chefs de cuisine. NOLA has Joel Morgan. Like chefs in many high-volume restaurants, Morgan spends most of the evening expediting on the restaurant side of the line. You'll see him crowning plates with metallic warmers, easing tensions and answering a telephone that rings only for him. In fairness and curiosity, I attempted to taste Morgan's talent. But twice, as I began to mouth my order, the evening's "Taste of NOLA" menus were snatched from my fingers and marched away. All gone.
The second time this happened, my disappointed and now indecisive partner asked a woman nearby to rate her pork chop. "Fabulous." (She was right.) "I'm sure you won't find anything on Emeril's menu that isn't," she volunteered.
As much as I wished Emeril was kicking it up in the kitchen, I yearned to be that starry-eyed woman, enchanted by any meal branded with the name of that man who sends television audiences into raptures by tossing garlic into a pan. But he wasn't, bam it, and I'm not. And while Emeril attains his heyday elsewhere, the food at NOLA isn't good enough to overcome that combination of obstacles.
- Cheryl Gerber
NOLA's vibrant atmosphere includes an open wood oven, a brick elevator shaft and open metallic ducts.