More blah than bam

Emeril's fails to live up to its reputation

"Well, if you want to quote me," my friend Brad Lapin said, slapping his hands on the table, "this is the antithesis — the complete antithesis — of Emeril's in New Orleans."

We were of course lunching at the new Atlanta Emeril's (3500 Lenox Road, 404-564-5600). I'd given up on getting a table for dinner anytime soon, after fruitless efforts to secure a reservation convinced me that every meal must include an audience with the Pope. The place is sold out nightly, a month in advance.

For Brad, our mediocre lunch was more than a minor disappointment since he regularly uses cookbooks penned by Emeril Lagasse. The popular chef's restaurant in New Orleans has become legendary since its opening in 1990. And it's spawned the usual industry. Lagasse appears on the Food Network and has opened new restaurants in New Orleans, Orlando and Las Vegas before coming to Atlanta.

I've eaten at Lagasse's signature restaurant in New Orleans, as well as the hipper and cheaper Nola. I should confess at the outset that I am not a big fan of a lot of classic New Orleans cooking. (I get letters calling me a Philistine whenever I admit this.) It is too often heavy and harshly seasoned. But Lagasse's takes on the food in his New Orleans restaurants is a refreshing departure. It's New American food that pays homage to the Cajun and Creole traditions. I'd call it New New Orleans.

What makes the Atlanta restaurant an "antithesis" is not the menu itself but the disappointing execution. I'll add to my rep as a Philistine by saying that opening the lunch menu caused Brad and I both to reel from sticker shock. We're simple folks, writers, not used to paying $20 for lunch entrees. But if we are going to pay that and the Pope isn't dining with us, we expect high quality.

The one dish I liked was a starter of homemade andouille sausage with a homemade Worcestershire sauce. The sauce is tangy if a bit too sweet but a nice complement to the peppery grilled sausage. Still, there was one problem.

"How was it?" our server asked when he came to fetch the plate.

"Small," I said. "I've seen bigger Vienna sausages." Come on! For $8 I want more than a few nibbles even if the hands that made the homemade stuff belong to the Pope.

Entrees were miserable. Chicken-fried steak ($18) was limp, nearly room temperature. It was served over a mound of mashed potatoes made with Plugra, the high-fat Euro-style butter. It didn't manage to impart sufficient creaminess to the mealy potatoes. A serving of collard greens was drowning in alleged red-eye gravy that was way too sweet. Somebody in the kitchen loves him some sugar.

There's more! Brad's grilled barbecued salmon ($19), though cooked fine, tasted candy-coated. The sweetness was amplified by more of the Worcestershire served with some tasty hash made with potatoes and andouille sausage.

I made a second visit and had basically the same experience with barbecued shrimp (much better), gumbo and crab cakes. Yawn. Ka-ching. Yawn. Ka-ching.

The decor is horrible, of course. Maybe if you stumbled out of your cubicle in a nearby office building, you'd be thrilled by the huge neo-Mardi Gras light fixtures that look like they belong in a laboratory on the spaceship in Close Encounters. There's a wine room that would make a killer mega-sized ant farm. Paneling that belongs at Stonehenge. Maybe it all looks better at night. Or maybe you'll go to Pappadeaux and invest the savings in your Roth account.

Oh. A final note. The restaurant prefers that men wear jackets. As if.

The antidote

A few days later I dined with my friend Rick Ecord at Eno (800 Peachtree St., 404-685-3191). This restaurant with a Mediterranean menu and one of the city's best wine lists deserves more attention than it gets. If I drank, I'd be at the bar every day swilling wine and snacking on dishes like shrimp pancakes made with chick pea flour. These small dishes, alas, are not available as part of the dining room menu.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to please. My mint, sweet pea ravioli was tender, nicely shocking to the palate and served under a basil sauce with ground lamb. Rick ordered an assortment of cold-water oysters whose tiny size he found disappointing. But size isn't everything.

My entree was sliced grilled loin of venison classically served with a juniper berry reduction. There wasn't a hint of gaminess in the meat. Caramelized squash and caponata were on the side. Rick ordered halibut, seared and served with olives, roasted artichokes and fennel. A saffron emulsion sauced the dish.

Desserts were just as good. I ate mascarpone blended with chopped figs, layered with filo. Rick chose a lemon tart whose custard was spiked with fresh basil.

Here and there

One of the best lunches I've had in a long time was at Soleil in Buckhead recently. A rack of four lamb chops served over risotto may be heavy for lunch but it exceeded anything I ate at Emeril's. My friend Brad also lunched with me here and couldn't stop raving about his vegetarian sandwich. ...

After hearing Cesaria Evora last week, I dined at Caffe Midtown. My entree — a sad gray filet — was disappointing, but I liked my arugula and parmesan salad. Wayne had a fish dish with lots of capers which he declared "real good." ...

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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