The giddy warmth of mid-November is yielding, inevitably, to the gloom of winter. Night arrives early, the winds turn bitter cold and locavore eating means beet salad and pureed parsnips for the duration. (I love root vegetables. Ask me again in March.)
Ema, which opened five months ago in River North, is not the antidote to winter, but at least it’s a respite.
Chef CJ Jacobson, who was the inaugural chef-in-residence at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise’s groundbreaking Intro restaurant, is a California boy with a forage-friendly bent, and the restaurant, built from the ground up with Jacobson in mind, reflects that. Lighting is generously, almost aggressively, bright. Oversize windows, which slide open in good weather, coax in all available beams of sunlight, which bounce off the white-wood and white-brick walls. Walnut-colored wood tables, linen napkins, plank-look flooring and woven-basket fixtures speak to natural materials; suspended-ceiling hardware is repurposed as an industrial arbor, allowing green vines to snake overhead. (Yeah, they’re silk, but it’s the thought that counts.) This is Lettuce’s most resolutely summery interior since Summer House Santa Monica opened three years ago.
If you dined at Intro during Jacobson’s time there, you’ll have just the barest inkling of what awaits you here. At Intro, Jacobson was serving, perhaps, 60 tasting menus per night; Ema seats nearly 150 and offers an a la carte menu listing more than 30 dishes.
“I’ve learned a whole bunch,” Jacobson says. “We were about 2 1/2 months in before we finally got our heads above water. It’s been quite an adventure.”
The menu is Middle Eastern, which is not so far removed from California cooking as one might imagine. In an interview years ago with Joyce Goldstein (back when her legendary San Francisco restaurant, Square One, was still open), she opined that California, with its plethora of vegetables, nuts and olive oil, was in reality a Mediterranean country. I’m not about to put Ema up against Square One, but I think there’s a shared sentiment.
You’ll start with spreads, if only to get at that soft, warm, naan-like bread that’s included. There are hummus spreads at different spice levels, including one fortified with lamb ragu and spicy harissa, and housemade labneh (Lebanese cream cheese) with crushed almonds, lightly grilled grapes and honey. I assumed the recently added “pumpkin hummus” was a seasonal gimmick, but the spread, made from kabocha squash and drizzled with pumpkinseed oil, is delicious, accented sparingly with cinnamon and nutmeg. (“I didn’t want it too Starbucks-ed out,” Jacobson explained.)
One of Jacobson’s oddest dishes is also one of my favorites. English peas, mixed with tart, housemade yogurt and blackberry-sumac granita. The dish is served ice cold (placed over a bowl of ice, in fact), and while it strikes me as a summer dish (no doubt it’ll be off the menu soon), between the vibrant red of the shaved granita and vivid-green peas, one could view it as a Christmas-wreath presentation, if one were to squint hard enough and drink long enough.
Another favorite is the halloumi, a brined cheese with a high melting point and a cheese-curd texture; Jacobson quick-fries it in chunks, to be tossed with dates, various peppers (Fresno, bell, piquillo, marinated in fish sauce) and chicory in a textural playground. (Halloumi itself is rather bland, but the peppers compensate nicely.)
Also unusual is the risotto of bulgur grains, with accents of Meyer lemon, black walnut, Parmesan and Honeycrisp apples in irregular chunks. Visually a bore, the dish abounds with nutty flavor and chewy texture; I kept thinking what a great breakfast dish this would make.
Romanesco is billed, redundantly, as “romanesque cauliflower,” but Jacobson says no one ordered the dish under the “romanesco” title. Stalky and vivid-green, this cauli-cousin is definitely worth your attention, especially in this preparation — lightly charred and very firm, dusted with powdered Aleppo pepper and plated over yogurt and honey. As I alluded to earlier, Jacobson knows how to entice with vegetables.
Larger plates appear designed for more timid palates. There are kebabs in various forms, accented by tzatziki sauce or zhoug (spicy green pepper sauce), as the case may be. The rotisserie chicken offers clean and familiar flavors (and is the star of Ema’s carryout kiosk adjacent to the dining room), the skinless striped bass gets a vibrant accent from pistachio pesto, and the salmon — over a ginger- and jalapeno-infused broth and accompanied by fruit (sliced peaches when I tried it, marinated persimmon these days) — is perhaps the most Californian dish on the menu.
For dessert, the smooth dark-chocolate torte is covered with crushed pistachio and crisped kataifi (a Greek pastry that resembles shredded wheat); underneath, a Turkish-coffee cremeux has just a hint of cinnamon. Sesame-seed-topped honey pie is a sweet treat, and the almond cake is very good, reminding me of the Basque cake served at mfk.
And then there’s the frozen Greek yogurt, which is addictive even on a below-freezing day. It’s a bright and lightly acidic soft-serve, swirling upward from its saucer base and drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt. Jacobson’s running joke is that he’s down to two servings per day.
74 W. Illinois St.
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner daily; lunch Monday-Friday
Prices: Main courses $16.95-$24.95
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.