Emeril's, New Orleans

In New Orleans indulgence is not only desirable, it is inevitable. The city's historic French Quarter, which Tennessee Williams described as "rakish and elegant," is perhaps the last bastion of guiltless revelry in America.

But before taking to the boozy streets of the Quarter to hear live jazz until the wee hours, take a short taxi ride to Emeril's, where some of the city's most innovative food is served.

Emeril Lagasse, who opened his restaurant four years ago in the now trendy warehouse district, was only 25 when he took over as executive chef at Commander's Palace in 1982 after the departure of Paul Prudhomme. He earned his reputation as one of the city's best chefs during his eight-year tenure there.

His spacious, 130-seat, high-tech restaurant is light and airy by day and dramatically austere by night. Its bare wood floors, office-style oak chairs and white tablecloths create a simple setting where the diner is center stage. The staff is highly motivated and confident that your experience will be memorable. Chef Lagasse does not disappoint.

The food at Emeril's is eclectic: a mixture of classic Creole with influences from the chef's New England and Portuguese heritage. Lagasse describes it as "new New Orleans" cuisine.

Hints at the pleasures to follow begin with a basket of freshly baked rolls and jalapeño pepper corn muffins. Outstanding starters include a lusciously textured and mildly spicy Creole seafood gumbo, smoky New Orleans barbecue shrimp with small, homemade biscuits and pan-roasted, live Maine scallops with roe. The scallops are stuffed with truffle mashed potatoes and truffle sabayon.

Entrées continue to delight the palate. A seasonal local fish called escolar (tapioca fish), which is similar in texture to sea bass, is pan-seared and served on a ragout of Louisiana crawfish. Succulent, grilled, seasonal magret duck breast in a Worcestershire sauce is presented with a savory, black-pepper brioche pudding and sugar snap peas. Vegetarian options include a creamy risotto with Oregon morel mushrooms and white truffle shavings served with a wild-mushroom bread crouton and a baked vegetable-and-potato lasagna with homemade ricotta cheese and a Creole-style tomato sauce.

Emeril, whose alchemy in the kitchen can be viewed from the curved, stainless-steel food bar that seats 10, favors the Jackson Pollock-style of food presentation. Splashes of colorful sauces and drizzles of flavored oils adorn every dish. The aesthetic is echoed by a massive Abstract Expressionist painting by New Orleans artist Doyle Gertjejansen.

Desserts are not to be skipped at Emeril's. Hawaiian vintage-dated chocolate is used in the chocolate buttercream cake with white-chocolate sauce. Pecan pie is enhanced with chocolate chips and caramel sauce. But the restaurant's signature dessert is an unforgettable banana-and-graham-cracker-crust cream pie. The dessert is layered like a napoleon and comes with caramel sauce and dusted with chocolate shavings.

Selecting wine at Emeril's is made easy by their well-organized wine lists. The first presented is the basic list, which offers a selection of well-priced wines ranging from 1992 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, $28, to 1988 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape at $70. California sparkling wines such as Domaine Chandon Reserve Brut at $36 are listed separately from the Champagnes, which include Mumm Extra Dry at $48 and Louis Roederer Brut Premier at $50. Emeril's also offers private-label Napa Valley wines, produced and bottled by Trefethen Vineyards: a 1990 Chardonnay at $4 a glass or $18 a bottle and 1984 Camille Cabernet Sauvignon at $4.50 a glass or $20 a bottle.

Sommelier Erin Ryan White is eager to assist and can offer a separate reserve list of more expensive wines. This list offers little depth, however, and includes only a handful of wines from vintages prior to the 1980s, including a 1964 Camile Giroud Pommard at $165 and a 1949 Château Latour at $550. White is currently working on a new list of all wines.

After coffee, what could be better than a Cognac and a good smoke? Cigar smoking is permitted at the bar at anytime and, officially, at the table after 1:30 p.m. during lunch or 10:30 p.m. during dinner.

When ordering cigars, as many as five humidors can be brought to the table. One is handmade by general manager Mauricio Andrade's Ecuadoran father. There are about 50 brands and sizes including Macanudo Vintage '88, Partagas Limited Reserve and Partagas 1844, Punch Maduro, Arturo Fuente Hemingway, La Gloria Cubana, Don Lino cigars and Davidoff mini-cigarillos.

As the smoke begins to rise and the Quarter to beckon, call for a taxi and anticipate your next move.

--Michael D. Moaba

800 Tchoupitoulas Street
Phone: (504) 528-9394
Lunch: à la carte $15 to $25
Dinner: à la carte starts at $50; nine-course degustation menu, $65