In the ’70s, percussionist Emeril Lagasse was awarded a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, but a stint he took at a Portuguese bakery in Fall River, Massachusetts lit a spark that led to a different pathway. Instead, he enrolled in the prestigious Johnson & Wales University, became a chef, and eventually caught the attention of John and Ella Brennan, who gave him the opportunity to replace the most influential chef in New Orleans, Paul Prudhomme, at Commander’s Palace in 1982. In 1990, Emeril opened his namesake restaurant in the Warehouse District, offering a five-star culinary experience in a decidedly informal dining room setting, which was a radically modern concept at the time. Within a few years, Lagasse became a celebrity icon with his own television show, created an empire that employs thousands, penned 19 cookbooks, was on the cover of this magazine and formed a philanthropic foundation focused on mentoring youths in New Orleans and beyond. His many accolades include the 2013 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award, and the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award. His current Emmy Award–winning Eat The World series explores various countries through a culinary and cultural vantage provided by Lagasse and various world-renowned chefs. His latest enterprise, Meril, celebrates this curiosity and passion for international flavors, as well as regional favorites.
Meril, named after Emeril’s youngest daughter, opened a few years back in a sprawling Warehouse District space with a distinctly modernist feel, featuring an open kitchen and a business-casual vibe. Guests are welcomed by a rather large bar area bustling with energy presided over by beverage director Milan “Miki” Nikolic’s ambitious roster of libations. They include some of the tastiest concoctions I’ve ever had, such as the No. 41, made with tequila, house-made rose petal syrup, vanilla syrup and Lindemans Framboise. The international wine list includes many by-the-glass options, which are also available in small pours, allowing the diner to experience several options.
Executive Chef Wilfredo Avelar offers a series of small plates that allows the diner a truly dazzling array of delightful options. Some of the standouts of the appetizers we shared were the deviled eggs garnished with shrimp, “Cajun” caviar and remoulade, and the yellowfin tuna wraps spiked with jalapeño, ponzu sauce and crunchy noodles encased in Bibb lettuce. Fried rock shrimp tacos with Crystal hot sauce mojo had a nice Crescent City–Cuban connection. The boudin tamale was a well-conceived novelty, as were the fried buttermilk biscuits with miso honey and foie gras butter garnished with berries. Shaved Ibérico ham with homemade cheese bread was a real treat. Some of the more indulgent offerings included crispy chicken livers on baguette crisps garnished with chicken liver pate and pepper jelly and fresh herbs, a decadent flavor bomb, and the lobster cake with a rich eel sauce, Sriracha mayo and a crunch of tobiko caviar. Meril also offers two of the best oyster dishes in New Orleans. The fried oysters are in a tomato-bacon jam over a bed of shredded mirliton dressed with white remoulade sauce. Fire-roasted oysters are encrusted in bone marrow and hog’s head cheese with a garnish of salsa verde. Both were outstanding.
Of the half-dozen salads, highlights included the roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potato with blue cheese and candied walnuts with an irresistible Steen’s cane syrup vinaigrette, and an arugula salad with apples, pecan-crusted goat cheese and balsamic dressing.
Almost every table seemed to order one of the flatbreads, which have five different variations: cheese, Cubano, muffaletta, market vegetable and “Wise Guy.” They are all savory, generously portioned and delicious. Pasta selections included a perfectly executed dish of linguine and clams with guanciale and blistered tomatoes, a saffron pappardelle with braised lamb, a classic lasagna and savory crawfish étouffée. One of our favorite dishes was the classic Spanish-style preparation of garlic shrimp with lemon and chili. Some of the more exotic offerings also hit the spot, such as the Korean short ribs with kimchi, the Korean fried chicken with Gochujang sauce made with chili and fermented rice, as well as the pork belly banh mi, which was one of the lunch specials. A half-dozen side dishes and artisanal cheese plates are also available.
Lagasse has been well-known for having serious dessert selections in all of his restaurants, and the dozen or so offerings at Meril run the gamut from classics such as pecan pie with coffee caramel sauce, to lemon icebox pie, to a kicked up cinnamon toast bread pudding with Fireball whiskey sauce. There’s also a terrific selection of homemade ice creams and sorbets.
Meril is Emeril Lagasse’s most approachable and affordable restaurant in New Orleans. If it had a theme song it would be “My Favorite Things.” As for navigating this culinary mecca, the best approach is to bring friends, trust your instincts, and don’t hesitate to ask the knowledgeable and friendly staff for suggestions. You won’t be disappointed.
Meril, 424 Girod Street, New Orleans, LA, 70130. (504) 526-3745. Open 11:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day.