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Our first mistake was paying six bucks to park in the garage at Universal Studios CityWalk. That's because when we made reservations for Emeril's Restaurant Orlando, nobody told us we could park free at the Hard Rock Cafe. (Emeril's will validate valet stubs, saving $12.)

Our second mistake was forgetting to call and confirm our reservations on the day we were to dine, as we were told to do. So after hiking 10 minutes from the garage, we found ourselves turned away at the host station because we weren't on the list and there were no tables.

But there was no turning back. The host suggested that we return in several hours or go to the bar. We chose the bar, which is small but offers a view of the elaborate show kitchen where TV-celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse himself has been spotted in recent weeks, launching the latest in his restaurant family.

There's no arguing that Lagasse's adopted New Orleans flair is an attention-getter, on the tube and live. And a taste of the menu shows why his cookbooks sell by the millions. Everything we tried was flawlessly prepared and beautifully presented.

The prices are reasonable, considering the quality, except for the small portion – about three bites – of "grilled homemade andouille sausage" for $7.50. But it was the definitive andouille, thanks to Emeril's Worcestershire recipe, which is "kicked up" with anchovies and molasses. The crabmeat strudel also was a hit ($10), topped with hearts of palm and sweet-corn remoulade.

Daily specials play a prominent role, as the restaurant wants to lure the locals back for repeat visits. So far it's working, because 90 percent of the reservations come from residents, we were told. But the permanent menu is filled with incredible selections. Our favorite was the andouille-crusted Texas redfish ($22), dressed with roasted-pecan vegetable relish and teamed with shoestring potatoes.

Veal fans shouldn't miss the 14-ounce grilled chop ($27), served with cheesy grits, capocollo ham and exotic mushroom ragout. The chop was thick and thoroughly cooked but still juicy.

Attention to detail carries through to desserts. We had a luxurious trio of dark-chocolate truffle petit fours with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream ($7).

There is much to like about the casual, contemporary atmosphere, warm and spicy colors, and first-class service. Emeril's has the ingredients to hold your interest; just be sure to get those reservations straight.

"Smell my fingers," my dining comrade commanded after decapitating a freshly boiled crawfish, thrusting her cayenne-tinged digits into my face. The scent of garlic, spices and the sea made me want to lap that hand like a thirsty mutt, thumb to pinky and everywhere in between. But that wouldn't have been appropriate, given my unstained hands were longing to be reddened and licked themselves. And that we were dining in public.

If thoughts of Louisiana crawfish lead to thoughts of sea life caked in crude oil, rest assured these crawfish are farm-raised. The only thing crude is the manner in which the little buggers are devoured – twist off the head and suck the juice, then pinch the tail and pull the meat. A pretty mess, no doubt, and we devoured a pound ($6.99) of the medium-sized crustaceans while going through about a thousand paper napkins. (Where are the Wet-Naps?) Our seasoning choice – "sha bang" – amounted to a blend of lemon pepper, garlic butter and Cajun spices. Even at "medium" heat it was enough to set the nose of another of my dining companions to trickling, requiring strategic placement of the bone bucket. On the side, corn on the cob ($1.50) is mandatory – sweet and swimming in a pool of seasoned (read: spicy) butter. Pass on the subpar potato salad ($1.50) and coleslaw ($1.50) and go for the Hershey-Kiss-shaped hush puppies ($1.50) – the bite-sized fritters were gone before we even knew it.

A bowl of gumbo ($3.95), we thought, would offer a proper pre-crawdad indulgence. Purporting to be based on a "spicy roux," the soup was disappointingly thin and lacked the dark reddish-brown hue that typifies the Cajun stew. The restaurant is run by a pleasant Vietnamese family who moved to Orlando from New Orleans, and I couldn't help but think that the soup's consistency was more like pho and less like gumbo. To its credit, the assemblage did include a heap of sausage, shrimp, chicken and okra.

I would've liked to have seen a Vietnamese po'boy (aka a banh mi) as part of their sandwich offerings, but we were nonetheless pleased with the catfish po'boy ($5.95), even if the bread wasn't true crispy Louisiana-style French bread. (Note: If you're jonesing for a muffuletta, you won't find it here.) No surprise seeing basa ($7.95), a mild-flavored Vietnamese river fish, on the menu. It's given a cornmeal treatment here, then battered and fried, resulting in the desired texture combo – flaky flesh and crispy skin. As a bonus, we got three fillets instead of the advertised two. For dessert, we got none of the advertised three – cheesecake ($2.75), pecan pie ($2.75) or fried banana ($2.75) – as they were all out, so we opted to end with some wonderfully potent Cafe du Monde coffee ($1.75) though, admittedly, we missed the beignets. The cuppa joe stoked our inner chatterbox and we found ourselves settling in and comfortably yapping away in this small, fan-blown space. The eatery comprises all the elements of a coastal dive minus the coast, and like the aroma wafting from my companion's fingers, we interminably lingered.

Not a great place to make a good first impression; definitely a great place to soak up Cajun flavors while getting drenched in garlic butter. The place is stiflingly hot, probably due to the industrial steamer, but the food is first-rate, especially the creamy Creole jambalaya. Fresh shellfish combos -- crab, shrimp and crawfish steamed with spices and sided with corn and potatoes -- are more than generous.

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