My Failed Affair With Emilia's
By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., May 4, 2001
Emilia's600 E. Third St., 469-9722
Mon-Thu, 6-10pm (bar, 5pm-midnight); Fri-Sat, 6-11pm (bar, 5pm-1am)
After much careful consideration, the only possible conclusion is that this will have to be a tale of unrequited love. We've all felt it at one time or another. It's a dull, empty ache that develops when you've identified the object of your affection but have been forced to face the grim reality that no meaningful relationship is possible. In this case, it's not unrequited love for a poorly chosen partner or a movie star crush. I've fallen head over heels in love with a restaurant that is so far beyond my financial reach as to be fantastical; my heart is broken. The object of my affection is Emilia's, certainly the best of our newest crop of restaurants and, arguably, the best restaurant to open in the city in years.
Emilia's opened in the waning days of 2000 in the lovingly restored historical buildings at the corner of Third and Red River Streets known as the Waterloo Compound. The restaurant's facilities include a two-story limestone structure that for more than a century housed a saloon and mercantile business, the saloon's original wine cellar, a three-stall carriage house that has been converted into a bar, and the small, quaint Sunday House that's become a private dining room. Each space has been carefully restored, and it's apparent that no expense has been spared. The commercial kitchen and wine cellar are incredibly detailed, featuring state-of-the-art technology that any chef or sommelier would love to have at his or her disposal. The interior decor of the dining rooms is elegant and understated. Exposed limestone walls are graced with softly lit Ellen Berman original oil paintings, the tall windows are hung with rich Italian silk draperies, the tables covered with thick, patterned French linens. The cutlery and Bernardaud china are substantial and the imported Spieglau crystal was chosen especially to enhance the enjoyment of wine. The banquettes and chairs are tastefully upholstered and very comfortable. It's simply a lovely place to be.
But it's more than that. The restaurant also manages to capture Austin's casual zeitgeist, offering class without pretension, fine dining without snobbery in much the same way Jeffrey's and the Cafe at the Four Seasons have always done. The service is informed and hospitable. Perhaps the atmosphere has something to do with the disposition of the owner -- charming, garrulous Irishman Denis Tracey -- who named his new business venture for his beloved wife. The direction of the Emilia's kitchen rests securely in the capable hands of talented young chef Will Packwood. Raised in Italy and Texas, trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Packwood has the perfect venue for his subtle and sophisticated personal cuisine at Emilia's. His beautifully balanced dishes are made with the finest quality American regional and imported ingredients available (organic produce, naturally raised meats and poultry, line-caught seafood, etc.) and reflect a Mediterranean influence.
Chef Packwood's original winter menu offered an embarrassment of riches; choosing among them was difficult. We split an appetizer of smoked salmon and caviar and toasted the approaching new year with glasses of Pacific Echo sparkling wine. Our next course was a voluptuous lobster bisque ($9), assertively flavored deep bowls of creamy richness with small, sweet chunks of lobster and a topping of crème fraîche and osëtra caviar. We agreed that we'd happily drown if the liquid of our demise could be this particular soup. Both the soup and entrée courses were complemented by a bread basket full of fresh, warm rolls from the local wholesale artisan bakery, TapRoot Breads. The waiter offered generous servings of French, wheat berry, and currant rolls to be enjoyed with whipped herb butter. While my dining companions opted for a vegetarian entrée of butternut squash pasta pillows ($17) and a duck confit ($27), I chose chef Packwood's Rabbit Three Ways ($27), made up of a stuffed rabbit loin and a leg confit served over a non-traditional cassoulet of stewed rabbit and earthy Dupuy lentils. Since a Riesling was the wine component in the rabbit's sauce, wine director Matt Berendt suggested a Paul Blanck Riesling "Schlossberg" ($61) as a wine pairing. This inspired choice created one of those rare and felicitous dining experiences where the perfect pairing of food and wine raises both elements of the meal to yet another level of excellence. It was quite simply the best rabbit dish I've ever tasted.
We finished the meal with several of pastry chef Chris Lanier's elegant desserts, the stand-outs being a well-chosen cheese plate with a fruit chutney and brioche and a sampling of his ice creams and cookies. The six tiny dollops of ice cream and assortment of little cookies looked as though they belonged with a child's tea set, but the flavors were distinct and marvelous. I'd like to visit Lanier's ice cream larder with a bigger scoop some day. Reflecting on that first meal at Emilia's, I'd have to say it was one of the best meals I've ever eaten in a restaurant and certainly the most expensive single meal I've ever purchased in eight years as a restaurant reviewer. There was no question in my mind that the meal was worth its price. I calculated that if I budgeted carefully, I might be able to justify the expense of eating at my new favorite restaurant at least twice a year, saving the outings for special occasions.
In the nearly four months between my visits to Emilia's, the restaurant garnered some serious media attention. Not just rave reviews in local and regional newspapers and magazines, but national attention as well. In a very short time, it seems, the buzz about Will Packwood's Emilia's cuisine had reached New York and the offices of Food & Wine magazine. The creative young chef was chosen as one of their top 10 chefs in the nation for 2001. This is the first time an Austin chef has been recognized by Food & Wine and, in my estimation, a well-deserved honor for the chef and the restaurant. The honor reflects well on the entire Austin restaurant scene and also offers an opportunity for Austin restaurants, especially Emilia's, to play in the big leagues. Playing in the big leagues brings with it greater expectations and a much smaller margin for error. After my first experience and the flurry of praise for the restaurant, I returned to Emilia's with every expectation of another spectacularly satisfying chapter in our love affair.
My girlfriends and I were seated at 6:30. We discovered we'd arrived on the final night of chef Packwood's early spring menu but were delighted by the options offered there. Though the restaurant wasn't busy, it was quite some time before our orders were taken and longer still before the arrival of the amuse bouche, or pre-meal "palate teaser," sent out by the kitchen. That evening, the amuse was a little circlet of flaky puff pastry topped with a bite of fruit chutney and a tiny dollop of exquisitely rich foie gras mousse. We were appropriately amused. We'd chosen to split an appetizer, and after another long wait, the whimsically named "BLT" emerged from the kitchen: a stack of buttery buffalo mozzarella slices layered with crisp lamb's lettuce and sweet slabs of tomato confit drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. The final touch was a sprinkling of coarse salt. The contrast of flavors and textures played an amazing concert on our palates, and it disappeared all too quickly.
Due to the seasonality of top-quality lobster meat, the much heralded lobster bisque had been rotated off the menu and replaced with a Blue Crab Bisque ($9.50) with Sweet Corn Truffle Beignets. We ordered soup all around and pronounced it satisfying although there was precious little crab meat to be found and it could have used a little more salt. At this point, the bread problem developed. A waiter made the rounds of the dining room, serving bread from a basket. However, rather than offering two or three rolls at a time, we were given one roll each and to our dismay, the bread was cold to the touch. It was as if they'd just come from the refrigerator or only been recently thawed. Perhaps the temperature of the bread accounted for the seeming stinginess with it but regardless, cold bread is a minor-league gaffe. At this kind of stellar establishment, though, it should never happen.
Although several more tables had arrived while we'd been dining, the restaurant was by no means full. However, the glacial pace of our dinner continued, with yet another long wait for our entrées. When our much-anticipated meals finally arrived, they were a feast for the eye as well as the palate, the loveliest being a small tower of Seared Dayboat Scallops ($29) on a bed of saffron-anise risotto with a festive hat of herb ciffonade. The scallops had a nicely seared exterior with a delicate crust and were translucent within. The risotto and tangy lemon-parsley beurre blanc made flavorful counterpoints to the sweet shellfish. My friend generously shared one scallop with the other two of us and kept the remaining two for herself.
The vegetarian entrée was Yellow Corn-Goat Cheese Ravioli ($20) with spring peas, white truffle cream, and a garnish of shaved ricotta salata. The flavors of sweet corn, tangy goat cheese, and salty shavings of ricotta salata were brought together perfectly by the earthy cream sauce. There were four pasta pillows in a bowl with a sprinkling of peas. I'd chosen the Grilled Lamb Loin ($35) with Israeli couscous, tomato confit, baby artichokes, and haricot verts in a hearty basil-scented lamb jus. The perfectly pink slices of tender lamb were fanned in the center of the plate over maybe a quarter cup of couscous and vegetables. The marvelously rich meat juices had given their mouth-watering flavors to the large pearl couscous and small vegetable pieces, but there was so little of it to enjoy. I ended up chasing the pearls around the plate with a spoon. During the entrée, we were treated to another round of cold, hard rolls.
At this point, we were at two hours and counting, and really counting on the desserts to somehow redeem our experience a bit. Pastry chefs Chris Lanier and Christy Hughes did not disappoint. Our two favorites this trip were the Chocolate-Banana Pie ($7.50) with peanut butter ice cream and Emilia's version of Chocolate Covered Cherries ($8.50). The "pie" was actually a small tart made with the most delicately crisp hazelnut crust imaginable filled with bananas napped with a velvet dark chocolate ganache. It sported a tiny scoop of peanut butter ice cream with a thin circle of milk chocolate for a hat. The simple comfort-food components rendered a truly elegant dessert. Lanier's spin on chocolate-covered cherries turned out to be port-soaked cherries under a scoop of wonderful chocolate zabaglione gelato. How divine!
The three of us spent three hours over dinner and paid $178 with only one glass of wine among us. That's four bites of appetizer: $3.50 each. Scallops: $9.33 each. Ravioli: $5 each. My disappointment at the end of my love affair: beyond measure. Considering the high prices and small portions, I had to admit that to pursue my tryst with Emilia's would make me a fool for love. I've been a fool for love once before, and it cost me everything I valued. I'm not a woman known for prudence or frugality, but that experience taught me to face financial reality. The financial reality about my relationship with Emilia's is much the same as the real estate situation in my neighborhood. I can't justify spending $29 for three scallops no matter how exquisitely they are prepared any more than I can afford the mortgage payments on a $175,000 two-bedroom, one-bath frame house in Bouldin Creek just because the neighborhood is trendy.
Don't misunderstand. In my estimation, Emilia's is truly a great restaurant and I very much want it to succeed. I want the strata of Austin's population that can afford $35 entrées and triple-digit bottles of wine to celebrate their special occasions there, luxuriating in the food and atmosphere in my absence. That way, if I write a bestseller or win the lottery I can return for a mutually satisfying relationship.