Where to eat: Dinner at Emeril's Tchoup Chop at Universal Orlando's Royal Pacific Resort
Written by Russell Meyer
Emeril Lagasse is well known for his steaks and New Orleans-style cuisine. He's had a restaurant at Universal Orlando's City Walk for years, but few probably know that he also has a restaurant in the Royal Pacific Resort with a distinctive Asian theme. It fits perfectly with the hotel's theme, and offers a more upscale experience expected with the Emeril name. I was in Orlando on business, and decided to treat myself to a nice dinner, and reserved a table for one. For guests coming from off-site, valet parking is available at the Royal Pacific Hotel for $5. Guests that spent the day at Universal Orlando or City Walk and parked in one of the massive parking garages can reach the Royal Pacific Hotel by boat at the dock near the NASCAR Café or just walk down the long path that can be accessed near Margaritaville. The entrance is just up the ramp from the Royal Pacific boat dock and near the main pool.
As with most hotel restaurants, the exterior of the restaurant blends in with the design of the hotel, and is identified by a unique sign.
The interior of the restaurant features a three-story-tall space with a massive iron-clad chandelier above a pond/fountain filled with lily pads and other aquatic plants. The restaurant features a semi-open kitchen, but no seats are situated directly adjacent to the action. Aside from the pond, the décor in general is simple and understated, perhaps to draw the guest's attention to the food that is about to enliven their palate.
The menu features a variety of Asian cuisines including Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. There are even some traditional American dishes that have been given the obligatory Asian spin. I was immediately drawn to the Chef's Tasting Menu that included a number of dishes that really piqued my interest. The menu noted that full table participation in the Chef's Tasting Menu was recommended, so after some debate with myself, I chose to try out the four-course meal.
To start off, all tables are brought a serving of shrimp chips and peanut sauce. The chips look a little like flattened Styrofoam peanuts, but have a subtle taste and interesting texture. The sauce served with the chips was very good with a good balance of heat and sweetness. My only issue with the presentation was that the bowl containing the dipping sauce was very narrow, and required you to either bite the chip or break it in half to actually dip it in the sauce. Perhaps if the sauce were served in a wide bowl/saucer or if the chips were formed into strips instead of rounds, it would correct this minor oversight.
My first course of the evening was poached ginger crabmeat ravioli. I love ravioli, particularly special or daily offerings that you know are made fresh that day instead of frozen days in advance. This ravioli was well executed, but probably could have been stuffed with just a little more filling. The buttery sweetness of the crab was not overpowered by the green curry sauce, and the crunchy cashews provided some extra textural intrigue.
The second course of the menu featured pan roasted salmon with white asparagus and sweet corn relish topped with Asian-style chimichurri, soybean cream sauce, and crispy lotus root. The portion of salmon was a little underwhelming, but determined appropriate by the time I reached the end of the meal, and the crispy lotus root was interesting to look at on the plate, but provided little to the overall taste of the dish. For me, the highlight of this dish was the relish that I would classify more as a slaw. The sweet corn and white asparagus were nice and crispy with a light, refreshing flavor that perfectly complimented the seared fish. The fish itself was cooked perfectly with nice caramelization and the bitterness of the chimichurri balanced the sweetness of the relish well. Perhaps it was my devouring of the shrimp chips and peanut sauce, but both the soybean cream sauce on this dish and the green curry sauce on the previous course both had strong hints of peanut sauce, and seemed very similar. The peanut sauce served with the chips was rather thick, so perhaps it was coating my palate and masking the subtle flavors within the sauces.
The third course was a grilled filet mignon served with sausage-herb roasted potato hash, baby vegetables, and topped with an olive compound butter and Emeril's housemade Worcestershire sauce. As you would expect, the steak was perfectly cooked to my desired temperature (medium rare) with a really good sear on the exterior. At first glance, the steak appeared overcooked based on the amount of sear, but had a warm red center, and was tender and juicy. The vegetables (baby asparagus and baby carrots) were crisp and nicely seasoned, and the potato hash was simply amazing. Not only did the hash include a nice combination of herbs, onions, and garlic, but it also contained diced pieces of sausage that almost made it the highlight of the plate over the steak, a difficult task with a perfectly cooked, prime cut of filet. The compound butter on top was scrumptious, but the Worcestershire sauce was a bit sweet for me. I'm a Lea & Perrins guy, and this Worcestershire sauce bordered on the French's side of the spectrum of being overly sweet and thin. However, much of that sauce got soaked up by the hash, and did a fine job of toning down the saltiness of the sausage and potatoes.
The final course was lemongrass ginger ice cream served with pineapple salsa and a coconut macaroon. This was a perfect ending to a multi-course meal. The subtle flavors of the ice cream played well with the sweet pineapple to provide a nice cool-down for my hard-working palate. Cakes and pies at the end of tasting menus can often be too much, so it was nice to see the chef offering a dessert that takes into account that the diner's palate needs a bit of a break. The ice cream was almost of a sorbet texture, but I didn't mind with the generous helping of fresh whipped cream on top.
I was very impressed with the offerings of Emeril's Tchoup Chop, and enjoyed the selections presented on the Chef's Tasting Menu (which also offers a parallel wine pairing for an addition charge, which I declined). The menu prices were on par with other "signature" dining experiences in Orlando, with my Chef's Tasting Menu priced at $60/person. Entrees on the menu are in the $15-$40 range, so a couple could probably dine for just under $100 with shared appetizers and desserts. The setting of the restaurant is stunning, and the grounds of the Royal Pacific Hotel offer a beautiful setting to take a post-dinner stroll or even a pre-dinner walk. (I managed to catch the fire dancer performance near the pool just before my reservation.) The restaurant itself is a little off the beaten path, but is well worth the detour away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy CityWalk. For guests looking for a high quality, upscale Asian-style dining option while at the Universal Orlando Resort, Emeril's Tchoup Chop might be the perfect fit.
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