Famed chef opens 14th eatery; focuses attention on locals instead of “the season”
Story by Michelle Farnham
MIRAMAR BEACH – When news broke this spring that world-renowned chef and local resident Emeril Lagasse was going to open a restaurant in town, he said he wanted to keep things as local as possible. Fast forward a few months, and Lagasse has kept his promise at his 14th restaurant, Emeril’s Coastal Italian. The James Beard Award-winner has hired 120 local people, is serving locally sourced product as often as possible, and is really trying to cater to local residents.
Making his own trends
In an area like the Emerald Coast, where so much emphasis is placed on “the season” (serving tourists from spring break until Labor Day) Lagasse said he wants “Coastal” – as he affectionately calls the eatery – to be a great restaurant year-round.
“I purposely pushed not opening until the end of the season to not only do the construction right, but I didn’t want my staff to get in that mindset,” he said. “That’s the mindset out there in the community, you know, we’re going to make a lot of money between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and then we coast. That’s not how I operate.”
Lagasse said they’re already looking forward to specials for Thanksgiving, possibly something for the Italian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes around Christmas, New Year’s Eve events and beyond.
“We’re just going to be a great restaurant for locals, for them to come and enjoy and have fun, order multiple dishes, and talk,” he said.
Lagasse is also bucking the trend of stodgy, structured meals, eaten during fixed times, and costing a pretty penny. In a market where many of his competitors rate four dollar signs on Yelp, you’ll only find one entrée over $25 on the menu at Coastal. The staff opens the doors at 11:30, and won’t close them until 10 p.m. (10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays).
“That’s an Emeril Lagasse trend. I think that’s how people want to eat,” Lagasse explained. “I just feel today that these rules that we’re open from 11:30 to 2, and then we’re closed, then we reopen at 5:30 – people are tired of that. People are tired of being dictated what to do, what to eat, how to order. They’re over that. Now, if you want to go to Daniel, The French Laundry, you want to go to Del Posto, that’s a different story. I want people to come here more than once a week.”
There he goes again
Chef admitted that although this is his 14th restaurant, the task of opening doesn’t get any easier, especially when customers walk in the door with such high expectations on Week 1.
“It’s been a little overwhelming,” the chef admitted, after closing up the restaurant at 1 a.m. the night before. “It’s like having a baby. I’m getting ready to have a 1-year-old with Meril (his contemporary American restaurant in New Orleans) in a couple weeks. Here at Coastal, it’s like giving birth and we’ve had the whole process all over again.
“We have a brand new staff we trained for three weeks. They’re trying to adjust to how we do business, our system. Overall, we’re very, very happy. Most people are happy and we’re trying to move that percentage up more and more every day.”
Speaking of the staff, Lagasse has brought a few heavy hitters from Emeril’s Homebase in New Orleans for the opening, including his director of culinary and right-hand-man, Chris Wilson. Local chef Shane Quinlan was hired to fill the roll of chef de cuisine and will lead the kitchen when the proverbial dust settles.
Bringing the tastes of Italy – all of them
Lagasse said his culinary team drew inspiration from the Amalfi Coast of southern Italy when crafting Coastal’s menu, but in the Italian tradition, they were open to neighboring flavors, too.
“Amalfi plays a big part in the gulf they’re on with their seafood, and so when I was there last year shooting my show ‘Eat the World with Emeril Lagasse,’ for Amazon, I got super inspired,” he said. “But there’s a little influence of Tuscany, of Sicily, so there are little accents. It’s not just straight-on.
“That’s the way it is in Italy, you know? You can be in Tuscany but you’re still getting great seafood from the North. They’re like that with their wines as well. There are certain things like the sweet and sour, the lemon and the orange – those kinds of accents that we’ve incorporated in the menu.”
Don’t come to Coastal expecting Ye Olde Italian fare, though. Lagasse’s team has left off many of the more “traditional Italian” dishes many Americans may expect.
“Chicken Parmesan, veal Parmesan, that stuff hasn’t quite made the menu,” he said. “Maybe we’ll do that stuff as a special – pork Milanese, veal chop Milanese, you know.”
Instead, look for Fettuccine Nero, featuring Calabrian chiles, almond, crabmeat and some very distinctive black pasta, compliments of squid ink. There’s a Parmesan-Crusted Snapper in a red sauce; a Tuscan Steak with arugula, garlic, lemon and olive oil; and the Kurobuta Pork Porterhouse Chop with Cubanelle pepper and an onion salad.
Two dishes on the pasta menu bear the name of two of Lagasse’s children. Meril’s Linguine & Clams features guanciale, blistered tomato and oregano; while E.J.’s Rigatoni is topped with shrimp, broccoli and a house-made Italian sausage ragout.
Again, Lagasse is hoping diners will order several things to share, and there is an entire small plates menu to do just that. The Upside-Down Cornbread with pineapple and pancetta is an interesting mix of sweet and savory. The Stuffed Fried Olives come with pork rillettes and garlic aioli, while the Steamed Mussels give you a taste of the sea, prepared with white wine, tomato, garlic and arugula. Off the bruschetta menu, Lagasse’s Cajun Caviar Bruschetta tops a baguette with Cajun caviar, egg salad and crème fraîche.
Even as early as Week 1, Quinlan and the kitchen were turning out specials, like the lion fish, fried Italian-style with smoked tomato sauce, olive relish, and a yellow pepper coulis. Using this unique yet notoriously invasive protein, Lagasse hopes to improve the community one plate at a time.
“We’re helping out as much as we can with the reefs,” he said. “I spend time in south Florida in the winter fishing, and that’s when I learned lion fish are a nuisance. They have no predators and they’re really attacking. All of a sudden, the migration in the past couple years, now they’re here in Destin. We’re doing our part, and it’s delicious!”
Time for something sweet – and different
In addition to house-made gelatos, sorbetos, cookies and biscotti, Lagasse worked with his pastry chefs Jeremy Fogg and Amy Lemon to “Emerilize” traditional Italian desserts for the Dolce Tazzas – or sweet cups.
“I don’t want to just do just banana cream pie, coconut cream pie and key lime pie. I want to break it up,” Lagasse explained. “We took every dessert and deconstructed it, and then we rebuilt it in the style of the Italian way. All of the components are there.”
As an example, the pastry program has turned out its own take on banana cream pie, all layered in a glass.
“You have the graham cracker crust, you have the banana, you have the pastry cream, the whipped cream, the caramel and the chocolate, so when you go in with the spoon, you get every one of those sensations, but it’s completely different,” the chef said with a sparkle in his eye.
Setting the scene
Also sparkling is the Mediterranean, coastal-themed interior, courtesy of Lagasse’s wife Alden with local design house Lovelace Interiors, and architects Geoff Chick and Jeff Margaretten. Soft, beachy grays mix with light and dark wood and modern light fixtures to set the tone for the meal. The kitchen is open, allowing guests to watch their meals being prepared. The chef’s counter is especially exciting when Lagasse himself is on the line. You may even spot his teenage son E.J. in the kitchen, when he’s not in school.
The north wall features original sea life “street graffiti” with a fine art twist, created by Savannah College of Art and Design alum Landon Lott. Lott got his foot in the door, so to speak, after doing black and white murals at Meril last year. The pieces created such a buzz, Lagasse and Alden asked Lott to work his magic at Coastal.
Additional artwork includes a massive antique Italian piece in the private dining room from the Lagasses’ personal collection, as well as work from Watersound-based artist Allison Wickey.
Onward and upward
With two restaurants under a year old, television programs and all the other pots that Lagasse is currently stirring, you might expect him to stop and take a breath. Instead, he’s planning the massive Boudin, Bourbon and Beer event Nov. 3 in New Orleans. He’s in the middle of completely renovating his French Quarter restaurant NOLA after 20 years, with plans to reopen later this month, and he hinted at plans to change up one of his Vegas concepts in the near future.
Lagasse senses the winds of change may be coming to the South Walton dining scene, too. Fellow James Beard winner John Currence also opened a restaurant this year: Big Bad Breakfast in Inlet Beach. Could that be the sign of things to come? Lagasse thinks it might.
“I have a lot of respect for all the chefs here – don’t misunderstand me – but I think that the area is getting ready to change,” Lagasse admitted. “I think the whole dining scene is going to begin to evolve – and it needs to.”
Emeril’s Coastal Italian, located at 435 Grand Boulevard, Miramar Beach, is open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner.
Photography by Michelle Farnham and Phil Heppding