I was invited recently to visit Emeril’s Tchoup Chop to see some of the changes that have been made. Actually, to meet one of the changes: Ryan Vargas, who was named chef de cuisine when Greg Richie left to pursue other ventures. (Richie, as I told you earlier, has joined Cityfish in downtown Orlando and is developing the restaurant that will replace the former HUE Restaurant in Thornton Park.)
Vargas is a native Hawaiian whose resume includes the Four Seasons Resort and Ritz Carlton in Hawaii and the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach.
Much of Tchoup Chop has stayed the same, at least in terms of decor. The original dining room, designed by the Rockwell Group of New York, is very much the same. Having the opportunity to sit in the dining room again, I was struck by the use of lighting in the architecture. Chandeliers of cascading glass flower petals hang from the soaring, open ceiling. A ring of glowing blue light pendants floats above a large trough pond that gently overflows. Other accent lights highlight rattan walls and wood lattice grillwork, or the pool-blue tile of the opposing far walls (lovely unless you’re seated right next to the tiles, in which case you feel a bit like you’re next to a drained swimming pool). In lesser hands this room would seem like a mess hall. Instead it feels like a grand, palatial banqueting room.
The bigger changes start with the kitchen, where new equipment has been installed, including a robata grill. The grill and other new equipment allowed Vargas to create a menu with many new items.
My companion and I started with an assortment of sushi rolls, All elegantly assembled and stylishly presented. The soft shell crunch was a favorite (even if it didn’t say that it was soft shell crab on the menu), and I liked the spicy red dragon, too, with tuna and shrimp. Only the aloha disappointed, mainly because the Kalua pork in it was dry.
We sampled a number of tasty items from the high heat of the robata. The pork belly, served with tamari chile vinegar, was outstanding. The shishito pepper, served on a skewer, were simple and tasty, sprinkled with lime and sea salt. The cauliflower was quite good, too, especially with the curry mayonnaise dipping sauce.
For my entree I had the Szechuan pepper duck confit, wonderfully tender and juicy duck on the bone served on mashed boniato infused with pineapple and drizzled with sweet and sour lilikoi fruit sauce. Despite the name, the dish was neither hot nor peppery, but it was very good.
My guest had the Sichimi spice mahi, a gorgeous fillet of fish, beautifully grilled, serve atop risotto made with spinach and coconut. The plate was dotted with crispy rings of calamari, and the chopped lomi tomatoes gave it a lovely red accent.
For dessert there’s Emeril’s Signature Banana Cream Pie, a holdover from the former menu (and why not?), a massive wedge of bananic wonder topped with enough shaved chocolate curls to qualify as a separate dessert. We also enjoyed the Hawaiian-style malasadas donuts, mainly for the little squeeze bottles that allowed us to squirt out fruit, coconut and chocolate syrups at will.
Service was first rate, but then I expected it to be. I especially liked that by the time we had walked from the restaurant past the convention space to the portico, the valet driver had brought our car around.
Emeril’s Tchoup Chop has been around more than 11 years now, and its name is still odd (the Tchoup is short for Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans), but it has grown into a fine restaurant worthy of the attention of locals.
Emeril’s Tchoup Chop is at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, 6300 Hollywood Way, Orlando (don’t go to the hotel’s main entrance, use the ballroom driveway). It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-503-2467.