It’s not easy for a 33-year-old restaurant to make waves. But with the recent reopening of Emeril’s, Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans, the celebrity chef is doing just that — in large part thanks to a kitchen now led by his 20-year-old son, E.J. Lagasse, and the introduction of a new wine bar within its fold.
For a refresh: Emeril’s closed in late summer for three months for an interior overhaul. It included a reconfiguration of the dining room, which now has just 12 tables, a redesigned kitchen, and the building of the Wine Bar at Emeril’s, an alternative to the tasting menu offerings of the restaurant that’s positioned as an almost entirely separate entity.
How does the restaurant plan to achieve that uncoupling? By focusing on having fun at the bar, the younger Lagasse tells Eater. “We like to have a nice time when we’re off,” says E.J. “I wanted to create an environment I would want to go to with my friends on those days, and a menu of things we would want to eat on our days off.” Dishes that may not necessarily be emblematic of New Orleans, or representative of any larger legacy at play. “Maybe our farmers come to us with something that wasn’t grown for the restaurant but that they need to move or are excited about, and we think we can have fun with it,” E.J. says of the plan to have a continuously changing menu of semi-improvised dishes.
The Wine Bar at Emeril’s opened on November 1 with 17 items; E.J. says he expects to have a menu of 22 to 25 moving forward. Right now, the menu includes a toro tuna tartare served with nori sheets, for which guests can build their own hand rolls. Wagyu croquettes make use of the trim of an olive-fed wagyu on the Emeril’s restaurant menu. There’s a blue crab salad served with Zapp’s potato chips (“because I can’t make something that tastes as good as Zapp’s,” he says), with crab from a purveyor out of Grand Isle, Louisiana. E.J. expects that dish will come off the menu as the crustaceans go dormant for the winter months.
One dish that’s an exception to the general wine bar approach is a classic New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. Prior to the renovation and closure, the restaurant was doing a version with shrimp cooked on the kitchen’s Japanese grill. For the wine bar dish, E.J. decided to go the traditional route. (“Nothing is better than the original style in the pan,” he says.) The base sauce is made with Worcestershire and jalapenos before adding cream, butter, and chives. “It will taste the same as the barbecue shrimp served here in 1990,” E.J. says.
Today, there is “zero cross-over” between Emeril’s and the wine bar, says E.J. Emeril’s serves two tasting menus only: a classics menu and a seasonal one. “The classics menu doesn’t change and on the seasonal side, it’s what the farmers are bringing to us based on the crop plan. Those are within a box, so it was really important to us to have this separate space where we were able to think outside the box,” says E.J. He notes a few of his local inspirations, restaurants he got to know better while the Emeril’s was closed, like Lengua Madre, Saint-Germain, Dakar NOLA, and Mamou. “It’s an exciting time to be a chef in the city,” he says.
Then there’s the wine. While customers at the wine bar will have access to the 31,000 bottles in the restaurant’s wine cellar, there’s also a separate sommelier, a “highly rotated” by-the-glass selection, and cocktails at the bar. E.J. calls the bar’s wine program “extremely fluid” and says it will be inspired by the seasons, in-town events, and other local happenings — he notes there definitely would have been a Beyoncé night, complete with a themed playlist, had it been open for her Renaissance tour stop in New Orleans. The wine bar has its own Instagram page that will let people know what it’s pouring that night, another mode of separation between restaurant and bar.
There’s a separate entrance for the wine bar at 334 Julia Street (the Emeril’s entrance is at 800 Tchoupitoulas Street). While it accepts reservations, they are not required — unlike the restaurant — and E.J. says walk-ins are encouraged. It’s also open later than the restaurant, until 11 p.m. on weekends.
“We want to be a spot where maybe you had dinner earlier, but you’re walking by and decide to come in for a glass and dessert,” E.J. says. “We will definitely have some fun in the wine bar.”