I’ve found over the years that Emeril’s Orlando, the CityWalk restaurant from celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, can offer varying experiences. I’ve had dinners that I’ve left thinking “that’s what a fine dining experience is all about,” and others when I’ve just shrugged and said “meh.” But I’ve learned how to be certain the experience will be more like the former with very little chance of the latter: just ask, “Is Chef Bernard in the house?”
That’s Bernard Carmouche, who at one time was the chef de cuisine for Emeril’s Orlando, and has worked with Lagasse for years, first at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace as a dishwasher, before Lagasse launched his empire, then as a cook in that realm. His latest title is culinary director for the company’s Florida restaurants. Until a couple of months ago, those restaurants numbered three, including Emeril’s Miami Beach. But when that location closed recently, Carmouche found himself spending more time in Orlando overseeing Emeril’s Orlando and Tchoup Chop. His duties will expand again when a planned Charlotte, N.C., restaurant opens next year.
In the meantime, Orlando gets more of his attention. And if he’s helping out in the kitchen, as he was during my recent visit, Orlandoans have a better chance at a sure-thing dining experience.
I started with the fried green B.L.T., which had firm green tomatoes with a lightly fried jacket topped with pancetta and organic watercress, finished with a spicy remoulade. A wonderful rendition of a southern treat. My dinner guest had the seafood and andouille gumbo, which had a dark and rich roux base with a smooth texture. The bits of sausage and seafood were ample enough to make this an entree course.
For my entree, I had the paneed pork medallions, as expertly executed as the finest wienerschnitzel. The tender pork rounds were lightly breaded and pan fried, served with wilted spinach and graced with a Worcestershire sauce made in house.
My friend had a flatbread topped with applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions and arugula, dotted with a boursincream cheese. I thought the crust could have been better crisped, especially given the hot brick oven in the part of the kitchen seen from the dining room, but given everything else about the flatbread, that’s just a quibble.
The pain perdu bread pudding, perfectly custardized and served with cinnamon ice cream, was the only dessert I considered having, and the right choice.
Service was, as it always has been, first rate, and the bustling dining room, which at times can be downright boisterous, is still under the watchful eye of manager Gabriel Orozco. The building is a large, warehouse sort of structure with high ceilings and lots of hard surfaces. But crisp white linens give it an air of elegance.
I did find one thing about the service curious, however. Whenever replacing flatware, the server or assistant always placed the knife with the blade facing out instead of in. Tradition, from the days when a dagger was the only utensil, has the blade facing in as a sign that you mean your dining companions no harm -- the blade facing out could easily be picked up to slice a throat in one maneuver. That hardly ever happens anymore, yet the tradition remains. I’ll have to ask sometime while the Emeril’s crew goes against historical convention.
For the record, Justin Sells is the current chef de cuisine. He has taken over the kitchen since my previous visit, last year, which resulted in one of those shoulder-shrug responses. For all I know, Sells was responsible for every bit of wonderful food I had on this visit with no assist from Carmouche. I hope so. It would mean that Emeril’s Orlando will be the sure thing it should be.
Emeril’s Orlando is at Universal CityWalk. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Dinner here is not inexpensive -- most entrees are over $30. But Emeril’s is participating in the Visit Orlando Magical Dining Month, so, through September, you can get three courses for $30 from a special menu. And here’s another good deal: the $22 “lunch crunch” menu, three courses and complimentary valet parking up to two hours. (At night, the valet, with tip, will cost about that much, but it’s oh so worth it.) Here’s a link to the Emeril’s Orlando website. The phone number is 407-224-2424.