I bristle visibly the third time our server with the impeccable posture poses this question. "Fine," I nod curtly, and off he dashes. Our food is, in fact, less than satisfactory. My pulled barbecue pork -- a mere $17 at lunch -- has been served on a brittle biscuit that was obviously baked much earlier in the day. On the plate next to it lays a heap of oily, tepid fried zucchini bits. My friend is halfway through his warm spinach salad when I take a bite and realize something's missing.
"Where's the herbed goat cheese?"
"Oh," he says. "I thought it was a little bland."
I flag down Mr. Posture to let him know the situation. He promises a manager will be over momentarily with the cheese. My friend waits. I push zucchini bits around my plate. Eight minutes pass -- that's a long time when someone is in the middle of his meal. I wave to our server again from across the vast, animated room. He apologizes and, with a solicitous bow, zips away to get the cheese himself.
That lunch in the middle of October was my first experience at Emeril's Atlanta. Soon after that, the other restaurant critics in town weighed in their opinions on this much- ballyhooed behemoth. They were not positive. Based on my single meal, I wasn't surprised. OK, I thought. I'll give this place some time before I put in my official word. A restaurant should be allowed some breathing room to absorb criticism and make adjustments. Commercial empire or not, Emeril Lagasse and his posse must care about the quality of food and service in his restaurants, right?
I've been back three times since, and I'm sorry to report that little has improved.
The infamous first-run crowds have begun to thin, but just a smidge. You can now book an 8:30 p.m. slot on a Wednesday night, and if you sneak in without a reservation on a weekend before 7 p.m., there's a good chance you can grab a bite at the bar without much hassle. Mostly, though, the multitudes are still showing up to gawk at the spectacle and see what the fuss -- good or bad -- is about.
The spectacle does seem appropriate. Latticed woods, rich red-orange banquettes, the party-gaudy chandeliers, the wall of windows sheathed with lacy curtains reminiscent of the French Quarter -- it sets the stage for the festive, larger-than-life fantasy that the restaurant would like you to buy into and pay dearly for.
The dream typically goes bust with your first forkful of food. I know there must be some intelligent chefs in this kitchen, but they all seem bound to an aesthetic that kicks it up so many notches the integrity of the food literally becomes lost.
Take the fried green tomato salad. What makes a fried green tomato fun to eat? It has a toothy texture that melts into creaminess in the center. There's a sharp but pleasant tartness, a playful innuendo of what summer will bring when tomatoes ripen to their juiciest potential. But when you slather slices of green tomato, as they do here, in a batter so thick and so over-seasoned that all you taste is grease and salt, the pleasure of the essential ingredient becomes pointless. Fancy, artistically smeared remoulade does little to help the situation.
It's hard to find an offering that isn't contrived, dated, frantic or just plain ill-conceived. The pecan crust on redfish at lunch is cottony. Its Creole meuniére sauce is separated and the shoestring potatoes alongside are flaccid. The "study of American lamb" presents three precisely cooked variations on the meat, but there's so much fat in the slick of sauce at the bottom of the plate that every bite has a glossy, sebaceous coating. A special called "oyster baked stuffed flounder" turns out to be a puny serving of fish, scorched black on one end, and buried in a mudslide of cornbread stuffing. The oysters? They're chopped into fine little bits in the stuffing. Wish I'd known that before I ordered a $30 plate of pure disappointment.
I will say this: Someone in the back knows how to work over a pot of gumbo. They change daily, but the two I've tried -- a straight-ahead seafood riff and a delicious medley of beans and vegetables with a hint of pork in the mix -- were a welcome respite from the rest of the dizzyingly busy food.
Cheesecake and Emeril are happily linked in my mind. In 1995, during a brief stay in New Orleans, I went to Lagasse's Nola and had a blueberry cheesecake with goat cheese (a frisky innovation at the time) that made a deep, enduring impression. I cling to that memory as I try the savory lobster cheesecake, a decadent slab of dairy obviously meant for sharing. You'd be sick to your stomach if you tried to eat it all yourself. Maybe I got a bum slice, but there were precious few chunks of lobster in my portion.
I'm much happier with my cheesecake at dessert. Made with a light Creole cream cheese, a cashew crust and flavored with orange, it's surprisingly gentle. I'm grateful for the simple orange segments that accompany it. You take your refreshing, clean tastes where you can get them at this place.
The service? Freaks me out. Everyone is so magnanimous, so effusive with praise for the food and so confident that we're out of our skulls with ecstasy over our meals that it reeks of condescension. But don't narc on them to the Powers That Be. Because you know what I glimpse when I look these servers in the eye? Terror. Corporate terror. One misstep, and two men in black might appear, take them by the arm and silently whisk them off the premises into an unmarked car. I fear for them.
Yet there are cracks in the service during every meal. I witnessed a tense discussion at lunch over who would take our table. One visit, the sommelier (who, I will say, knows his stuff) never appeared when requested. And one guy -- not Mr. Posture, someone else -- was so full of hyperbole for every dish, we didn't believe a word he said.
As worried as I am for the servers, though, I am ultimately more concerned about the diners. I look around the room when I eat here, and I spy a myriad of different people. I see the suits, I see the glitz crowd, I see curious foodies. I also see tourists and people whom I can sense don't eat out that much. They've tentatively ventured out to the Big Guy's restaurant. They want to taste his food, and they'll shell over $26 for an entree, even if they've never paid that much before in their lives.
I want to say to those folks: Save your money. Stick to the fantasy on television. Please believe me when I tell you that this is not fine dining at its best. Whatever allure Mr. Lagasse's culinary charisma holds for you, there's little evidence of it here. When it comes down to the quality of the food at Emeril's Atlanta, the good times roll to an abrupt halt.
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