To the rest of the world, Emeril Lagasse is a TV celebrity, cookbook author, creator of specialty seasonings, and Master of “Bam!”. To New Orleanians, he’s Chef Emeril, the guy who wowed at Commander’s Palace then opened up his flagship Emeril’s restaurant in the Warehouse District in 1990 (long before the neighborhood became fashionable). Lagasse has grown his restaurant empire in fits and starts, concentrating most of his expansion outside of New Orleans in places like Orlando and Vegas, with Emeril’s, Emeril’s Delmonico, and NOLA at the heart of his local operation. Until now.
Lagasse has opened a new eatery in New Orleans, for the first time in close to eighteen years, and it’s a departure from his usual white-tablecloth m.o. Situated in the Warehouse District—now blowing up with development—Meril, named after Lagasse’s daughter, is breezy in style and lower in price point. The bustling space is punctuated by a large horseshoe-shaped bar that seats twenty and floor-to-ceiling windows affording a view of Girod Street. In the large, open kitchen at the back, Chef de Cuisine Will Avelar oversees a hive of activity.
The bar is a great place to wade in at Meril thanks to bartender Milan “Miki” Nikolic’s creative cocktail program centered on local and seasonal ingredients, including fresh herbs like basil and lavender. Besides a menu of classics, Nikolic offers drinks pegged simply by the number. All priced at $11, the combinations are bracing, as demonstrated by the No. 61, which combines Aperol with a housemade raspberry shrub, citrus, red bell pepper juice, simple syrup, and seltzer for a refreshingly light medley of flavors. But you can get a martini or a Hemingway daiquiri too.
In the dining room, the spotlight is on chef Avelar’s inventive takes on some of Lagasse’s favorite foods. Avelar, 32, has spent time in the kitchens at Emeril’s and Delmonico throughout his twelve years with Lagasse, but here marks his first time at the helm.
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At Emeril Lagasse’s new restaurant Meril, Chef Will Avelar composes inventive takes on Emeril’s favorite global foods.
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Plump, juicy Louisiana oysters are finished with hogshead cheese and marrow.
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Meril’s cocktails are all priced at $11 and pegged by the number; the No. 61 combines Aperol with a housemade raspberry shrub, citrus, red bell pepper juice, simple syrup, and seltzer.
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The Japanese robata-style charcoal grill sends out delights like the Korean shortribs served with kimchi cucumbers.
Meril is the most casual restaurant yet in the Lagasse portfolio, with everything on the menu priced at less than $20 and plenty of snacks and salads under $10. The cuisine is influenced in part by Lagasse’s six-episode Eat the World with Emeril Lagasse, a docu-series streaming on Amazon Prime. There are Mexican-inspired tamales made with boudin topped with a roasted tomatillo sauce and roasted corn on the cob slathered in chili, lime, and mayo. Lovers of Asian food will appreciate Thai-style mussels steamed in coconut milk and Korean short ribs cooked on a Japanese robata-style charcoal grill, served with kimchi cucumbers. The fresh pastas feature noodles from local chef Dan Esses’ company, including linguine and clams made with guanciale and blistered tomatoes. A glass display case offers more local: St. James Cheese Company cheeses and Bellegarde Bakery baguettes. Unfussy desserts spring from pastry chef and fellow Delmonico alum Bergen Carman.
Some dishes are Avelar’s inspiration, like the turkey necks marinated in a tangy sofrito, a recipe he learned from Puerto Rican kin. The result is perfect; crisp as cracklins on the outside, they arrive in a puddle of citrusy mojo, a traditional Cuban sauce tangy with Crystal Hot Sauce. Roasted Louisiana oysters are plump and juicy, served with nibs of hogs head cheese, a schmear of marrow, and a piquant salsa verde on the side.
Meril is the most casual restaurant yet in the Lagasse portfolio, with everything on the menu priced at less than $20 and plenty of snacks and salads under $10.
“The way I see it, the techniques we use are not specific to one cuisine,” said Avelar, a New Orleans native. “Everybody everywhere in the world grills over an open flame, so why restrict ourselves to just American dishes? Meril is the biggest playground I’ve ever experienced. We have no restrictions. We just have tools, and it’s up to us to be creative and develop a vision.”
Working closely with Chef Emeril is key to that vision. “I don’t even know how to describe that,” he said. “He came into Delmonico many times, but rarely to work with us side by side. He’s here a lot, next to me, saying ‘What about this? How about that? Taste this combination.’ It’s a huge privilege. It’s the most I’ve ever learned anywhere.” Avelar acknowledges that Lagasse used to have a reputation in the kitchen as “a ball buster, somebody to be feared, who didn’t always talk with respect,” but that’s not his experience. “He pushes everybody harder, but that gets me excited. The energy here is amazing. And that comes out on the plate.”
Another thing he’s learned form Lagasse is the importance of interacting with his guests. “We are a neighborhood restaurant. We aren’t here just to do convention business. The locals are the ones who will keep us open. I want to make them feel at home, like they’re having dinner with us in our kitchen.” That commitment to customer care is the Emeril way, and Meril has a global grip on it, welcoming guests from the first bite of Louisiana caviar-topped potato salad to the signature “Bam!” of Spanish-style Gulf shrimp. Fancy and formal have their place, but Meril is an affable contender and a welcome addition to Emeril’s legacy.