There's a lot going on at Meril, Emeril Lagasse's new restaurant in the Warehouse District.
The celebrity chef's first new restaurant in New Orleans in 18 years plays the small plate game, taking a sharp detour from Lagasse's more refined restaurants with a globetrotting palate and a more moderate price tag to boot.
One would be hard-pressed to find a theme within the expansive menu — and the starters section alone includes 14 dishes. The menu ranges from Mexican-style corn slathered in mayonnaise and Cotija cheese to Spanish croquettes oozing manchego and puffy cheese bread similar to Brazilian pao de queijo, topped with razor-thin slices of Iberico ham. The downhome pecan pie wouldn't feel out of place in a Thanksgiving spread. An entire portion of the menu is dedicated to items prepared on a Japanese wood-burning robata grill, including Korean-style short ribs, Gulf shrimp and jerked chicken thighs.
It's hard to imagine a dish you could not find here. Because there is no single connecting thread, dining at Meril can feel like a potluck dinner party where every dish itself is fine, but when joined by others seems out of place.
Taken individually, most dishes are simple and successful. Calamari from Point Judith, Rhode Island, arrived lightly battered and fried on a bed of white bean puree. The slightly crunchy squid was drizzled with lemony aioli and sprinkled with buttery Cerignola olive crescents, a light and refreshing take on the dish. A generous dollop of inky Cajun caviar tops a petite European-style potato salad that tastes briny and fresh and sits atop a bed of creme fraiche drizzled with parsley oil.
Brussels sprouts are served cold, and the caramelized roasted florets are tossed with a hodgepodge of roasted sweet potatoes, candied walnuts, juicy grapes, nutty blue cheese and a jolting Steen's cane syrup vinaigrette.
The selection of freshly made pastas includes an excellent fettuccine nero, with ribbons of inky pasta tossed with lump crabmeat, arugula, toasted almond slivers and Calabrian chilies, which add delicate heat to the dish.
Most dishes play it relatively safe, but there are a few daring and creative plates. Cornbread mounds support a blanket of sweet and syrupy pineapple chunks and bacon marmalade. Turkey necks — one of chef de cuisine Will Avelar's best creations — are cooked and then fried, so a crispy exterior gives way to soft layers of dark, flavorful meat. A citrusy Crystal mojo sauce imbues the slightest touch of heat, while the vinegar base cuts through the fatty bits.
Restaurants often tell a story about the place, the chef, a home or a life. Meril doesn't tell one story, it tells many. The narrative arc isn't clear and some characters feel out of place, but in the end it's fun to sit down and get lost in it.