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CityWalk – Emeril's Restaurant Orlando

What: Gourmet dining
Where: On the Plaza
Price Range: $$$$+
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Dinner 5:15 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; to 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Reservations: Mandatory. Call (407) 224-2424; fax (407) 224-2525; or OpenTable.com
Web: www.emerils.com

Emeril Lagasse, the popular TV chef and cookbook author, brings his upscale New Orleans cuisine to Orlando in this lavish eatery decorated (if that’s the word) with over 10,000 bottles of wine in climate-controlled glass-walled wine cases. This is an extremely handsome restaurant that evokes and improves upon Emeril’s converted warehouse premises in the Big Easy. The main dining room soars to a curved wooden roof and the lavish use of glass on the walls facing the Plaza makes this a bright and sunny spot for lunch. The exposed steel support beams contrast with the stone walls and rich wood accents, while stark curved metal chandeliers arch gracefully overhead. It’s a hip, modern look that matches the food and the clientele.

The cuisine is Creole-based, but the execution is sophisticated and the presentation elaborate. Many dishes follow a standard Emeril architectural template: A layer of hash, relish, or puree is topped by the main ingredient, which in turn is topped by an antic garnish of potatoes, onions, or some other vegetable sliced in thin strips and flash fried; the plate is then decorated with a few swirls or dots of various sauces, sprinkled with spices and greenery, and delivered to the table with a flourish. Many dishes are based on home-style comfort foods like barbecue, fried fish, or gumbos, and there’s an unmistakable spiciness to much of it. The result is a cuisine that is fun and festive with only the occasional tendency toward self-conscious seriousness, making Emeril’s a great choice for a celebratory blowout.

Despite its noisy, bistro-like atmosphere, this is a first-class restaurant where dining is theater and a full meal can last two and a half hours, with the per-person cost, with drinks and wine, easily rising to over $100. In the European fashion, Emeril’s closes after lunch to allow the kitchen a chance to catch its breath and ready itself for a different and more extensive dinner menu.

Appetizers ($8 to $15 at lunch and dinner) include Panko-crusted fried green tomatoes and fried calamari along with the occasional more exotic creation. Soups and salads ($6 to $13) enjoy their own section on the menu and typically include a sturdy gumbo, savory oyster stew, and some artfully presented and deceptively simple green salads.

Entrees are in the $14 to $24 range at lunch, $26 to $45 at dinner. They include the odd-sounding but delicious andouille-crusted Texas redfish at dinner (a pecan-crusted version is offered at lunch). A four-course “degustation” menu with optional wine pairing, and a five- or six-course “tasting menu” served at a Chef’s Table is also sometimes offered. At lunch, look for a moderately priced three-course prix fixe offering.

Desserts ($8 to $12) are equally elaborate, although it says something about the chef that his signature dessert is a homey banana cream pie served with chocolate shavings on a latticework of caramel sauce.

Dining here is a special experience. Emeril’s is not the kind of place where you will feel comfortable in full tourist regalia, even though the management officially draws the line only at tank tops and flip-flops. Stop back at your hotel to change and freshen up.

Tip: If you are dining alone or there are just two of you, you might want to try the “Food Bar,” a short counter with stools that looks into the kitchen. The primo dining location is the L-shaped dining area by the windows; VIPs are seated here, so reserve well in advance if it’s your preference. Emeril’s, by the way, is strictly a restaurant; there is no entertainment. For most people, the tongue-tingling food will be entertainment enough If you want to sample Emeril's but still stay within your budget, visit the bar for the daily happy hour (5:00 to 8:00 p.m.), when discount appetizers and half-price beer and cocktails are available.

Special note on reservations: Emeril's accepts reservations six months in advance and often books up completely several weeks in advance, especially during the height of convention season (February and March). So if you are planning on visiting at a busy time or are planning a special-occasion meal here, you will be well advised to book as early as possible. A day or two before your visit, the restaurant will call you to remind you of your reservation. By the way, the concierges at the resort hotels have no special pull with Emeril's.

So how do you get seats at the last minute? Most often you don't, but your best shot is to call at 3:15 p.m. on the day you want to dine. If all else fails, show up early and ask for a seat at the main bar, where people are seated on a first come-first served basis and can order from the full menu. Generally, it's easier, but by no means a slam-dunk, to come by a table on short notice at lunch..

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Universal Orlando 2011


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