It took a while, but Lagasse's restaurant is now worth visiting
For the first time since it opened six years ago I can finally recommend Emeril’s Tchoup Chop. That’s thanks in no small part to the restaurant’s new chef, Gregory Richie, who joined on at the beginning of the year.
Richie’s name will be familiar to many. He opened the Roy’s on Sand Lake Road in 2001 as its chef and operating partner, following a stint at Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant in Hawaii.
So it would make sense that Emeril Lagasse would tap Richie to head up Tchoup Chop, which is themed as an Asian / Polynesian restaurant to complement the Royal Pacific hotel’s motif.
But part of the reason that Tchoup Chop now works is that, ironically, Richie’s menu doesn’t try to overemphasize the Hawaiian theme, which previously was strained and artificial. The menu now is more subtly pan Asian, more in the list of ingredients than in the dishes themselves.
But it wasn’t just a strained menu and theme that prevented me from endorsing Tchoup Chop in the past.
And it wasn’t just the name, either, although the name was at the core of the problems here. You see, Tchoup Chop was intended to be the name of a restaurant Lagasse had planned for New Orleans near his first, euonymus restaurant, which is on Tchoupitoulas Street. So Tchoup (pronounced “chop”) indicated the locale, and the other Chop was a nod to steaks and chops of meat.
That restaurant never opened. But Lagasse so liked the name that he attached to the Orlando restaurant where neither Tchoup nor Chop made any sense.
And then there was the restaurant itself. Although it is a beautiful room -- and more about that in a moment -- the last time I revisited Tchoup Chop, in 2005, I was seated at a table with cracks in the top, and inside those cracks were the detritus of many meals past. Yuck.
Those tables are gone, one of the changes implemented by new general manager Jeff Kundinger. Unfortunately, another change to the dining room includes a massive, theatrical-sized curtain that, when drawn, closes off approximately a third of the dining room, which provides an area for private dining for groups.
The curtain was closed on my most recent visit, and it does affect the overall feel of the room, which I always thought was one of the best things about the place. The restaurant, designed by the Rockwell Group of New York, which also designed Cirque du Soleil at Downtown Disney, is one large room with myriad hard surfaces, yet it is less noisy than Emeril’s Orlando. Along the length of the room runs a pool with porcelain lily pads. In the center of the dining room is a food bar that looks into the kitchen. At one end of the room is the cocktail bar, with its towering shelves. The walls at the other end are covered in aqua tiles that look like the side of a swimming pool, a thick stalks of bamboo crisscross each other. There are accents of rattan, and wood grillwork lit from behind. Chandeliers fashioned out of cascading glass leis hang from the two-story ceilings. Booth backs feature large rolled bolsters that are quite comfortable.
It’s a beautiful room that is not well-served by the improvised curtain. I can’t help but think the Rockwell design people would have a fit if they saw it. But then, what were they thinking by designing a restaurant with no private dining rooms?
I started with a sampling of the ponzu grilled P.E.I. Wellfleet oysters ($2.25 each), served with lomi lomi tomato salsa. The oysters had a fresh firmness, and the salsa added just the right complementary flavor.
I loved the salad of fresh Florida peach, brie, radish and lamb’s leaf lettuce ($8). The peach and the brie had similar textures with decidedly disparate tastes. The honey balsamic yogurt dressing was the perfect grace note.
For entrees, the smoked sea salt grilled filet of beef tenderloin ($35) featured wonderfully tender meat, served with garlic potatoes and green peppercorn sake reduction sauce.
Although the pan-seared Maine jumbo sea scallops ($27) got top billing on another entree, it was the shrimp and fire-roasted sweet corn risotto underneath that was the star. I could have eaten a whole bowlful of the nutty rice.
Beer-braised beef short ribs were served on caramelized onion mashed potatoes. The meat had been braised into tender submission and finished with a sweet garlic cabernet reduction.
For dessert, the chocolate Kahlua layer cake ($7) was a standout.
Kundinger is also responsible for the new wine list, which features a number of selections thoughtfully included to complement Richie’s cuisine. The Heartland viognier/pinot gris blend was a favorite.
Service was first rate -- I’ve never had a problem with service at any of Lagasse’s restaurants, here, New Orleans or Las Vegas. The training crosses all of the brands.
In fact, of all the Emeril restaurants I’ve eaten in, Tchoup Chop was the only one that gave me pause. Now, with the team of Kundinger and Richie, Emeril’s Tchoup Chop joins my list of fine restaurants I would glady recommend to tourists or locals.
Emeril’s tchoup Chop is in the Royal Pacific Resort, 6300 Hollywood Way, Orlando. Entrance is on the ballroom side rather than at the main entrance to the hotel. Watch for the sign off of Hollywood Way. Lunch and dinner are served daily. The menu and other details can be seen at the restaurant’s Web site.