A Tale of Two Chefs, or Cage Match: Emeril Lagasse vs Todd English
BY MIKE WARING – MAY 2008
On our latest trip to Orlando we decided to try two restaurants owned by famous chefs. We started with Tchoup Chop, a part of the vast empire of Emeril Lagasse, and finished with bluezoo, a restaurant offering from the somewhat vaster empire of Todd English. These are not the chefs’ original flagship restaurants or anything – not in Orlando – but nevertheless they are supposed to represent their quality and creativity.
Our meal at Tchoup Chop, located in the Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando, was our second at an Emeril restaurant in Orlando and our third at an Emeril restaurant anywhere. So far the results have been pretty uneven. We really didn’t like our meal in 2003 at the Emeril’s restaurant located in CityWalk at Universal, but we did have a pretty good meal at his flagship New Orleans place a couple of years later, so we approached Tchoup Chop with cautious anticipation.
We were a bit early for our reservations so we decided to have a drink in the bar. The bartenders were quite amiable and amusing, regaling us with stories about cars, though what exactly about us made them think we were car people left us puzzled. One odd thing about the bar was that it didn’t offer virgin drinks. When Mary asked if she could order one, someone had to run to another part of the restaurant and find the kids’ menu. She was then invited to choose from one of the kiddie drinks. Not the most sophisticated option, but oh well.
The theme of the restaurant is basically Asian Fusion, which really isn’t something Emeril is known for normally, so we thought this could be an interesting choice. After our drinks we got a table and then checked out the menu. The appetizers were interesting but the entrees raised a few concerns since it seemed like everything had four or more flavor combinations. Still we decided to forge on.
Mary had a dumpling box (three steamed dumplings) which was really quite good. I had crunchy shrimp served with butter lettuce leaves and a hot and sour chili sauce. To be honest I’m not sure that the lettuce added anything. It was obviously supposed be similar to a lettuce wrap but the shrimp, which were good, could have stood on their own.
The main courses were a bit more problematical. Mary had the Asian Spiced Pan Roasted duck breast in a Chili Sapporo beer broth with oyster mushrooms and udon noodles. I had a Kona coffee grilled Manhattan rib eye (whatever that is) with Chinese chive buttered Yukon gold potatoes, Hawaiian vintage chocolate reduction sauce and sake soy tossed julienne snow peas and red bell peppers. (Try saying that one fast.)
Mary’s dish suffered from being too watered down, especially the duck, swimming as it was in a big bowl of broth, and oddly enough no spoon was provided so she could eat the broth. My meat was entirely too tough and dry, though the accompaniments were pretty good. The main problem with both dishes was that the overall flavors were muddy rather than pleasingly complex. It was pretty much a case of there being too much of a muchness.
For dessert Mary chose the pineapple upside-down cake with ginger ice cream, which was just all right. She didn’t finish it.
So yet again we have to profess ourselves unsatisfied with a meal we’ve had at an Emeril’s restaurant. The restaurant itself is very attractive and the servers aren’t as annoyingly pretentious as the ones we encountered at the CityWalk venue. The basic problem is that the food doesn’t measure up, especially at the prices they’re charging. My entrée was $34 and I find this a bit painful because the meat itself wasn’t nearly good enough to demand that type of price.
Contrast our Emeril experience with our visit to the Todd English restaurant bluezoo, located in the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel near Epcot. This is the second time we’ve eaten in a Todd English restaurant, since we visited his Olives restaurant in Aspen last summer and had a wonderful meal there.
We entertained some thoughts about getting to bluezoo a little early and having a drink in the bar, but on arrival we decided to go straight for a table. Our decision was based on the slightly odd fact that bluezoo has a Happy Hour in the bar. We thought Happy Hours and Disney weren’t a particularly good match, but the Dolphin isn’t actually owned by Disney so c’est la vie. The music was pretty loud and the $5 well drinks were apparently a big hit as the place was packed. Neither loud music nor cheap drinks were much of an enticement for us. This time.
The design of the restaurant is pleasant if not particularly outstanding. One issue for diners later in the evening is that the lighting scheme is a bit weak. We began dining while it was still light out, but after sundown we saw a couple of tables using flashlights to read the menu. I did like the glass bubble mobiles and found the overall effect soothing and cool. But I’ve always been a sucker for cool blue ambiance. Mary has overruled my efforts to have the bedroom done over in a Coral Reef theme several times.
I started with bluezoo’s interpretation of New England Clam Chowder and I have to say, it was a revelation. I love clam chowder but so many times it’s served as a big ol’ bowl of white gloppy goop. This serving was light and brothy and more akin to a bisque. I loved it. Mary had yellowfin tuna tartare which was delicious.
For the main course we both went with the Simply Fish option, which is a selection from whatever is fresh that day and an accompanying sauce. Mary went with mahi and a red curry coconut sauce and I decided on the artic char with a cucumber vinaigrette. For sides we choose Zaatar spice roast carrots, which were wonderful, and tempura haricots verts (deep fried green beans) that weren’t quite as good. The fish was wonderful and perfectly prepared.
One observation: if you’re a vegetarian I’d probably recommend another restaurant. Unlike almost every other restaurant on the planet nowadays, there are no meat-free entrees on the menu. There are only a couple of vegetarian options in the starters and one of those is a salad. I expect that one can get the chefs to whip up something, but for the majority of the dishes skipping the meat or fish would leave you with essentially nothing.
For dessert I settled quite happily on a glass of port and coffee. Mary tried something that was called a Red Velvet Cake. Our server warned us that it really wasn’t a red velvet cake and it wasn’t, but it was attractively presented, interesting and tasty.
The meal at bluezoo was memorable and worth every penny. It is primarily a seafood restaurant, though there are more terrestrial selections for those who like their meat. It is expensive, though slightly less so than Tchoup Chop. And the food, especially the entrees, was considerably better than Tchoup Chop. Service was a bit better too. We actually had a discussion with our waiter about the entrees, as opposed to Emeril’s where the server basically took our orders and disappeared as quickly as possible.
If choosing between the two, our recommendation is obviously bluezoo. Admittedly, one is at Universal and the other is located near Epcot, and normally people at one or the other won’t drive all the way to sample the restaurants at another park. We certainly won’t go all the way up to Universal to try Tchoup Chop again. On the other hand if we weren’t on Disney property and we had a real hankering for some fine seafood, we’d probably strongly consider going over to the Dolphin and getting us some briny underwater critters.
Both restaurants are signature places where one would think that the chef whose name adorns the façade would be interested in presenting himself in the best manner. I really can’t say that Emeril impresses me at all. I get the impression that he’s punched out a lot of restaurants in order to take advantage of his fame and the results are pretty much typical of that. On the other hand, we’ve dined at two of Todd English’s restaurants now and they’ve both been very good. I would happily try any of his restaurants based on those two experiences.
So far the score is Todd: two thumbs up out of two, versus Emeril: one thumbs up out of three. On the other hand, I don’t think Emeril is really in the same category. His restaurants seem a little more mass market than Todd English’s, though interestingly enough it appears that Todd English is more prolific, with a total of 14 or so restaurants (15 if you count the one on the Queen Mary 2), whereas Emeril only has 10 restaurants at the moment.