BETHLEHEM, Pa. - At the industrial site beside the Lehigh River where Bethlehem Steel's blast furnaces once forged iron ore into battleship guns, slot-machine gamblers now wait on lounge chairs with Sazeracs in hand for a chance to sup on TV superchef Emeril Lagasse's truffled potato chips, New Orleans-styled barbecued shrimp, and $42 steaks.
But wait, here's another fact to kick that double take up a notch: The recently opened Emeril's Chop House at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, glitzy as it may be, isn't even the best restaurant in town.
Bolete, an infinitely charming farm-to-table restaurant, is set in a 220-year-old stone inn, where the evening menus aren't determined until the farmer makes his delivery at 4:30 p.m., and it has quickly become the brightest light in the Star City's nascent dining scene, earning national notice from magazines including Conde Nast Traveler and Gourmet.
There are other worthy restaurants, as fans traveling to watch the Eagles training camp at Lehigh University next week will undoubtedly discover.
But between these two in particular, a whole new culinary light is being cast upon the Lehigh Valley. And in the transition away from life with Big Steel, the region finds itself at the confluence of two major streams feeding the food culture in the postindustrial American heartland: the injection of brand-name chefs through the spread of casinos, and the equally potent grassroots growth of the local-food movement.
Lagasse - who owns 10 other restaurants among New Orleans; Las Vegas; Gulfport, Miss.; and Miami - concedes that Bethlehem would never have been on his radar as his first outpost in the Northeast had the casino not approached him.
"I said, 'You got to be kidding me.' But then I went to Bethlehem," he said, "and I saw this project and its connection to the history of the steel mills."
Built into the heart of the former mill complex, the casino is designed - from the giant ore-crane sign out front to the illuminated orange sculptures inside, evoking the heat of a blast furnace - to honor the heritage of the community.
"I really got excited as I looked into the local people and farms and the young chefs I've met trying to make the area much better than it's been," Lagasse said.
That scene has come a long way in the last decade, say observers such as Maria Rodale, granddaughter of the founder of America's organic-farming movement and chairwoman of media giant Rodale Inc. in Emmaus.
"Ten years ago, there was the Farmhouse [a restaurant in Emmaus], and that was pretty much it," said Rodale, who also writes a food blog, "Maria's Farm Country Kitchen." "But it's been a gradual evolution, and there's a very strong organic and farm-to-table culture here now. Farmers' markets are sprouting up all over the place, and ingredients are now more available. Emeril just kind of brings attention to what's been happening here."
Things were so "desolate" on the restaurant landscape in the mid-'90s when Kristofor Sandholm graduated from culinary school that he enlisted in the Marines after looking in vain for work. Now he's the new chef-owner of Starfish Brasserie, another locally minded, sustainability-conscious restaurant that has become an anchor for a core of eateries in Bethlehem's historic northside downtown, which also includes the Apollo Grill and the Edge.
A cluster of stylish restaurants has been stoking a buzz at the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, in nearby Center Valley, including the Japanese Kome and a contemporary Italian, Melt, adding further to the options.
But it is the arrival of Bolete from chef Lee Chizmar and Erin Shea that has most captivated local foodies, who go for lobster salad tucked into house-baked rolls with fingerling potato chips, pureed sunchoke soup with walnuts and candied orange, and house-smoked pork chops over royal trumpet mushrooms, beans, and Liberty Gardens' kale. The menu changes daily.
"It's been the answer to my dreams," said Rodale.
It has also been a showcase for the region's premier farmers, six of whom are credited on the back of Bolete's menu. One of those, Jeffrey Frank at Liberty Gardens in Cooperville, who established his farm by supplying heirloom produce to such upscale New York restaurants as Gramercy Tavern and Tabla, has seen a growing demand for his products closer to home.
He relinquished a spot at the Union Square farmers' market in New York a few years ago for the burgeoning market in Emmaus, where "now we can't grow enough garlic scapes" and customers snap up the pricey microgreens once sold exclusively to restaurants.
He credits the rising interest, in part, to the infusion of residents from larger urban areas and to the self-propelling cycle that begins when those diners eat unique local ingredients in restaurants.
"We have better farmland than the Hudson Valley," he said, "and there's a critical mass of the population that wants this."
Whether this fledgling restaurant scene and its grassroots network will benefit or suffer, though, from the arrival of the casino and its superstar chef remains an open question. Though it has been in operation only since early June and the Sands won't release exact numbers, the Chop House has been serving well over 300 dinners on an average Saturday night, according to Lagasse's vice president of operations, David McCelvey. By most accounts, that is the busiest upscale dining room in the Lehigh Valley.
If there are lessons to be drawn from Atlantic City, where casinos have existed as self-contained islands of opulence surrounded by urban blight, the prosperity of gaming doesn't always transfer by mere reflection.
Already, there are grumblings that the powerful Lagasse marketing machine is starting to wear thin on the competition.
"He needs to put his face on everything," Sandholm groaned. "But I get sick and tired of seeing that same cartoon character everywhere I go, even in the supermarket on pots and pans."
Lagasse's ubiquitous persona and mass appeal are, of course, exactly what the casino is betting on to expand its audience, said Robert DeSalvio, president of the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.
"Somebody with the status of Emeril . . . elevates the whole property," he said, "and we can use the restaurant to attract guests that otherwise might not have come."
Indeed, in May, Lagasse signed 2,200 books at an appearance at a local bookstore. But fans of the "Bam!"-man aren't likely to encounter Lagasse often at the Chop House. He has been there twice since the opening and plans to return before the year's end, said Eric Linquest, president of Emeril's Homebase.
Those familiar with Lagasse's other, more-ambitious venues might also be in for a slight letdown. There are a few of his longtime signature flavors, from his take on New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp to broiled oysters (a la Drago's), "dirty rice" with duck, and icebox lemon pie. There's a big, glassed-in wine cellar, and the prime steaks from Allen Bros. are also worthwhile - even if they're not dry-aged as at Lagasse's other tonier restaurants. But for the most part, this is essentially a generic upscale casino steak house sprinkled with a little Creole seasoning.
"We wanted to simplify things a little bit here. We're not trying to be so sophisticated and intimidate people," said Lagasse, who's also working to open a more casual burger restaurant at the casino in November.
For devotees of the local scene, the Chop House may not be their cup of herbal tea: "It wasn't bad," Rodale said, "but it's all about Emeril, and the food was so gooey and rich." But even Rodale conceded that the star chef's presence lent a new sheen of credibility to the Lehigh Valley.
"I think it will shine a positive light," she said, "because a lot of the people I work with live in New York, and when we say, 'Oh, yeah, we've got an Emeril restaurant in Bethlehem,' they say: 'What?!'
"It makes them take a second look, that maybe there's something going on here in this former steel town."