564 W. Randolph St. 312-612-5640
Rating: !!! (out of four) Off to a good start
It seems like there's a new restaurant opening in the West Loop every other week these days, and Thai Dang, the chef of recently opened Embeya, is just happy to be in the middle of it all.
"Honestly, I am forever humbled," said Dang, who worked at award-winning restaurants such as Ria and Balsan at the Elysian Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria) and L2O. "Here I am on a restaurant row, Randolph Street, [near] great restaurants: Blackbird, Avec, Girl & the Goat, people I really respect." Even though many of its neighbors are special-occasion restaurants, Embeya is aiming to be destination-worthy, but also casual enough to draw in West Loop locals. With more than 100 seats, there's certainly room for both.
Dang calls Embeya "progressive Asian." After talking to him about it, I'd call it extremely personal. The menu is a thoughtful mash-up of Dang's Vietnamese heritage and travels throughout Asia. "I don't want to classify it [as] Vietnamese. I don't want to classify it [as] Chinese," he said. "What I showcase on my menu is all of my travels, through Japan and Thailand … and my family, we cook and we enjoy each other's company every weekend."
The restaurant's name is the phonetic spelling of "em be," which means "baby" or "little one" in Vietnamese. It's a nickname that, as the youngest of 10 kids, he's still occasionally called by his siblings to this day. I stopped in to see what the little one with the big new restaurant was cooking.
A spin through the revolving door lands you right in front of some Elle Decor magazine-caliber eye candy. Beyond the driftwood host stand are lighting fixtures ensconced in huge tufts of straw--inspired by sea anemones, the hostess told me as she caught my friend and I gawking at them. Through a towering wooden wall with geometric cutouts, weaving among the pretty people and scenery is Attila Gyulai, Dang's business partner. It's not only his chin-length head of dark hair—which is so lustrous that he'd surely be a Pantene model if, you know, Pantene marketed its shampoo to men—that caught my and my dining pal's attention, but also the purposeful way he worked the dining room. Prior to opening Embeya with Dang, Gyulai lead operations at luxury hotels such as the Elysian Hotel (where he met Dang) and Four Seasons. Though Embeya has the we'll-take-care-of-you feel of a glitzy hotel resto, it's without the pretense or the inflated, OMG-I'm-paying-how-much-for-this-drink prices.
Seriously, try the chicken.
By the end of this year, half of Chicago will have eaten Embeya's chicken and scallop dishes. At least that's my prediction if every server is like the ones I had. On two separate visits, two different servers recommended the scallop ($12) and garlic chicken ($18), and both preceded it with an "I know it sounds lame to recommend chicken, but ..." disclaimer. It's not the best I've ever had, as the servers attested, but it was certainly juicy and tender, with an understated sauce of scallion, ginger and garlic dripped across the plate.
Excuse me, is your plate on fire?
As for that scallop, get your camera phone ready: It arrives inside a scallop shell with flames dancing around the edges. Unlike mediocre maki that's set afire at sushi bars just for show, the flavors here live up to the flashy presentation. Soy-sake sauce is just bold enough not to overpower the delicate flavor of the perfectly cooked scallop, accompanied by pickled shimeji mushrooms so tiny and tender that they resisted any effort I made to pick them up with my chopsticks. Sweet potato noodles (similar to Korean japchae) topped with uni (sea urchin), ginger and jalapenos make a tasty sidekick.
Other dishes I tried weren't as memorable as that scallop. Tender ribs with a tamarind-toasted garlic-hoisin sauce ($16) were all tang, with not much to counter it. And though the one dessert our server endorsed with enthusiasm, sticky rice with cardamom-cured mango ($6), was a light and simple way end to the meal, I can't say it was memorable.
File these under: Not for date night
I'm still thinking about the explosion of flavor that was Dang's baby clams ($11), which are diced and mixed with peanuts, fried shallots and toasted garlic as well as Thai chilis and basil. I was happier eating it with a spoon than on the huge, chewy-in-parts rice crackers that came with it. Not the best thing to order if you're, say, meeting a Match.com date; if there's a more graceful way to eat it, my friend and I couldn't figure it out. Dang also deconstructs a Vietnamese summer roll ($9) by serving chunks of pork belly on the side of the traditional rice paper-wrapped veggies, noodles and herbs. The pork's so-crispy-it's-sharp skin reminded me of the Macao-style pork belly from Chinatown's Minghin—that's definitely a compliment—but it was as challenging to eat as the clams. Cutting up both the roll and pork into small enough pieces to combine into one bite was seriously awkward, yet eating them separately didn't seem quite right either.
Why yes, I'll have another drink
Signature cocktails ($12) such as the Tendron & Lime (coconut water, lime and vodka) are simple but made more special with garnishes, such as a crown of lime zest and a cube of caramelized coconut. The wine list taps Asia's neighbors to the west with with sparkling wines from Italy and Germany and rich reds from Spain and Austria. It all goes down so easy with Dang's dishes that you could easily end up a couple rounds in before the meal's half over.
I wasn't sure if Embeya could carry out its intention to be both a destination restaurant and a neighborhood place. But with enough flavor and showmanship to please one-time diners as well as $6 desserts and friendly bartenders to keep West Loop condo dwellers happy, it's headed in the right direction.
West Loop status update
Catch up on what's new and coming-soon on and around Randolph Street's Restaurant Row.
Recently opened ...
AUGUST: Belly Q (1400 W. Randolph St.), City Winery (1200 W. Randolph St.), RM Champagne Salon (116 N. Green St.)
JUNE: G.E.B. (841 W. Randolph St.), Alimentari (621 W. Randolph St.)
MARCH: Nellcote (833 W. Randolph St.)
Coming soon ...
OCTOBER: La Sirena Clandestina (954 W. Fulton Market), Oon (802 W. Randolph St.)
NOVEMBER: Little Goat (820 W. Randolph St.) Grace (652 W. Randolph St.)
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