By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 17, 2012 4:00PM
A "Progressive Asian" restaurant opening in 2012 is a bit of a hard sell, especially when surrounded by Chicago's finest restaurants. Cozied up against the likes of Avec, Sepia, Blackbird and Girl & the Goat, Embeya manages to stand out—but just barely. It will have to step up its game if it wants to hang in the fight against those other hotspots.
Fine dining Asian fusion restaurants have gone in two directions over the past decade; either they have focused exclusively on the after-work, fried calamari, flavored vodka and California roll crowd or they have tried to become more authentic and more exotic. Embeya has allied itself firmly with the latter approach, and the restaurant, helmed by Chef Thai Dang (Sunda, L20), showcases ingredients that most Chicago diners will never have encountered before. Unfortunately, some of the unfamiliar ingredients form parts of oddly muted dishes that seem designed to provoke a reaction of "oh, that's not that scary" instead of "that's amazing."
A cool banana blossom salad (which the staff is so ready to explain that it's obvious they expect diners to be in the dark) is tangy, tender and refreshing, and finishes on a funky note that starts off strange but rapidly becomes addictive. Is that fish sauce, mixed in with the thai chilis and red perilla (a kind of shiso)? At $9 for a huge bowl, easily enough to feed two diners, this is a bargain.
Unfortunately, not all of the radical-sounding plates measured up to the early success. A squid stuffed with bone marrow ($14) and topped with charred scallions sounded so trendy and of-the-minute that I would expect to see it strutting down the runway at the foodie equivalent of fashion week. Unfortunately, it tasted like nothing so much as a mild pork breakfast sausage, with the squid acting as a nearly-flavorless casing. If you're looking to convince someone to eat squid and/or bone marrow for the first time, it's a great choice - if you're already a lover of either ingredient, look elsewhere.
Same story with the sea snails ($16). The elaborate, Instagram-worthy presentation got me visibly excited, though the procedure as explained by the servers (pull out the snails using lemongrass skewers, pour flavorful liquid into the shell, drink it like a shooter, eat the snail and chew the lemongrass) had more steps than deactivating a nuclear reactor. It seemed designed to ensure juice would ruin my shirt, but I've endured much worse in the pursuit of flavor. The broth was savory and beautiful, spiked with black garlic, but the sea snails tasted... a lot like the squid. When combined with pork, the earthy, metallic taste of the snails was barely discernible.
That's not to say there weren't some successes to be found at Embeya. The garlic chicken ($18), despite its bland menu description, is actually quite good, if not "the tenderest chicken i'd ever tasted," as promised by an enthusiastic server. A complicated process of boiling, drying and pan searing led to a savory, flavorful bird, topped with a scallion confit that could easily have spiced up every dish on the menu. The ribs ($16), coated with hoisin and tamarind, were equally gush-worthy and led to much finger-licking. The "young bamboo" cooked with sake and chives ($6) was a genuine revelation - I had no idea bamboo could taste like that. The huge hunks of bamboo were so flavorful and tender that I'll never eat those strange shoots strewn all over Chinese takeout ever again without wistfully remembering what "real" bamboo tastes like.
Sadly, I'd almost rather take the best dishes to go. 555 Design, the same company that created the interiors for Girl and the Goat and GT Fish and Oyster, handled the design of Embeya. Either they were faced with serious limitations of space and/or budget, or they were asleep; the cold, cavernous space is entirely nondescript. Worse (and of course this is beyond Embeya's control) an electronic billboard 20 feet across the street periodically cast a cold blue glow across my table, making me feel like I was eating inside a neon tube. The bar is a better choice, as are the tall tables hiding in the back corner by the hosts stand.
The servers, while attentive, knowledgeable and ready to gossip about the food, fell into a trap that befouls most "small plates" restaurants: if I'd followed their advice, I would have massively over-ordered. The plates, to Embeya's credit, aren't actually very small, and the suggested 2-3 appetizers and one main dish per person would have left me in a food coma.
Ultimately, I really want to like Embeya. The successes are great and Chef Dang is taking risks with his menu that you won't find elsewhere on Randolph Street. But the adventurous eaters likely to order such risky dishes may expect something more interesting for their money, or they'd rather get the real thing without the silver and service at a lower price. For my part, while it will always be bathed in a blue glow in my memory, I still can't get that darn bamboo out of my head.
Embeya is located at 564 W. Randolph St.