In reviewing restaurants, there is always a gravitational pull toward the new, the large and the celebrity-driven. How easy it is to be lulled into obsession with whatever big shiny eatery is being promoted, regardless of whether or not the menu is breaking any new ground.
It’s this mentality that results in far too many critics, bloggers and Yelpsters covering the same places within weeks of each other, as if there is only one spot at one moment that could possibly be worth talking about.
But “real people” don’t necessarily dine that way; even passionate restaurant-goers will frequently wait “until the hype dies down” to try a new place (if that - many are far more likely to stick with their favorites even when friends insist a rival is better). And I’ve long maintained that it says much more about a chef or restaurateur that they can sustain a clientele over years rather than just making a big opening splash.
All of this was in my mind when I decided to revisit Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House in MGM Grand around the holidays. Why Emeril’s? Nostalgia, to be honest. The Fish House is one of the very first restaurants I dined at on the Strip, back when it was relatively new (to give you some context, the same weekend I visited MGM’s Brown Derby, located - if memory serves -where Tom Collichio’s Craftsteak now thrives).
When you think about how much has changed since those days in the MGM Grand and the Strip overall, it tells you something that Emeril’s has survived with only one major remodel (circa 2005) in what must be very prime real estate.
And it’s unlikely that the celeb-chef association is what keeps people coming back. When he is in Vegas, a handful of times a year, Chef Lagasse typically focuses on his Venetian/Palazzo properties. Nobody here seems to mind, though, because somehow the dated (albeit well-maintained) decor and relatively value-priced menu (compared to newer Strip spots) make it feel more like a nicer off-Strip restaurant than haughty tourist trapper.
Cocktails, like the Smoked Green Thumb I enjoyed (a smoky, herbaceously sweet concoction of gin, mezcal, fresh celery-cucumber puree, green peppercorns and egg white), are created by Max Solano, the same mixologist who helms Delmonico’s bar and flies all over the country doing events and TV appearances with “Mr. Bam!”
Chef de Cuisine Heath Cicierelli’s dishes also show a passion for keeping classics fresh, balancing the strengths of ingredient and technique with care.
I was never a fan of “stacked” dishes when they were trendy, and I’m still not, but the Caprese twist here—heirloom tomatoes with bruleed bufala mozzerella, aged balsamic, pistachios and petite fava leaves in place of the basil ($15)—was not a bit precious, the sweet, creamy, crisp and nutty tastes combining into pure comfort food, rich and refreshing at once.
A starter size portion of linguini vongole was just about the best version I’ve had, with a generous count of Manila clams still in their shells (how else can you be sure they’re fresh?), smoky thick bacon and chopped broccolini balancing savory salty and bitter over a rich broth that cried out for a piece of bread to sop up every drop. Even if there is nothing unfamiliar in these dishes, their complex flavors are smartly balanced.
We ordered two fishes, providing a nice contrast in the kitchen’s repertoire: a whole grilled loup de mer and a crispy skin trout stuffed with blue crab ratatouille ($39). The former offered light, moist flesh inside a crusty smoky skin—the meat under the spine notably richer than the top half. The latter was a much more elaborate presentation the rich trout almost overwhelmed by the tomatoey crab stuffing, the New Orleans inspiration coming out most strongly here.
Not everything was note-perfect. The ” hickory smoked bacon ham mac ‘n’ cheese” ($10) for all that build up was more creamy than smoky, most of the flavor staying in the crusty top layer. Far better were the port wine and foie gras sauteed wild mushrooms, so earthy rich and satisfying that they justified the $14 price tag, and then some.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Emeril’s is a bargain. But should you be looking for a restaurant to meet visiting friends, or planning a romantic dinner, you’re unlikely to feel you didn’t get your money’s worth here. I also noticed that fresh oysters here (I enjoyed a few mild New York Primes) are $1.50 each during happy hour, almost as good a deal as you’ll see anywhere in town, and you can be sure they’re getting the good ones.
We finished our meal with the same dessert I’d ordered on my first visit, and never forgotten all these years: Emeril’s Banana Cream Pie ($9), almost a terrine of sauteed bananas layered under plentiful whipped cream, chocolate shavings and caramel sauce. Somehow it wasn’t exactly the way I remembered it—but that’s nostalgia for you. Even when things stay the same, the way you appreciate them changes.
EMERIL’S NEW ORLEANS FISH HOUSE inside MGM Grand, 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-891-7374. E.C. GLADSTONE is a Las Vegas-based food writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ecgladstone. Go to nowimhungry.com and sipsavorswallow.com for more of his musings on food and drink.