Restaurant Review: Emmer & Rye
Rainey newcomer gets everything down to the detail
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., Feb. 5, 2016
Tue.-Wed., 5:30-10pm; Thu.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Sun., 11am-9pm
There's a reason why critics give restaurants a little time to get settled before filing a formal review. The back-of-house needs time to coordinate new teams and understand the quirks of new equipment. The front-of-house needs time to become familiar with the food and beverage programs. They both need time to work as a cohesive whole. Perhaps the popular conception of restaurant critics has us dourly expecting stumbles, but really we would like to see all restaurants shine. There's really no fun in disappointment.
Still, it's rare to see a dramatic difference from day one to month three. Things tighten up, sure, but they rarely call for an entirely new judgment. Based on my first experience of Emmer & Rye, I expected this would be a positive review – the dining room had uncommon warmth, the food all worked, and the service seemed to have high aspirations – but I still had no idea what kind of restaurant Emmer wanted to be. There were so many narratives: house-milled heirloom grains (hence the name) and nose-to-tail butchery and small-scale gardening and fermentation and local sourcing. Ack! The food was all good, but the explanation was a little exhausting.
But those things settled as soon as I sat for my first review visit. The multifaceted concept may make writing a profile of the restaurant difficult, but it makes reviewing it easy. There are so many things going on because chef/owner Kevin Fink (Noma, the French Laundry) is one of a small faction of Austin chefs who obsess over every aspect of their operation, sometimes at the expense of profitability. That dim sum carts roll alongside a small-plate menu initially seemed like gimmickry, but they are just another entry into a Trappist devotion to craft. Pretension can be forgiven if it is earned.
Part of my initial problem with the dim sum carts was that they created confusion. Every few minutes a server would try to seduce you with two or three dishes. That would be fine if the menu dishes kept true to the small definition of small plates, but there was a huge porchetta served that largely went into the doggie bag. That has been corrected and now the servers give you a brief guide as to what to expect.
The awkwardness of the service has been ironed out too under manager Chris Dufau's capable guidance. Ask for a wine recommendation tailored to what was ordered and they'll suggest something with chameleonic properties that miraculously pairs with the many flavors in Fink's arsenal. Ask for a cocktail, then throw out a few adjectives, and you will get something from bar manager Adam Stellmon's menu tailored to individual taste. We had the Army Navy ($11) with Genius gin, genius pecan orgeat, and lemon; and the New York Sour with Four Roses single-barrel, red wine, spiced honey, and egg white. Ask for a food recommendation and, well ... the servers can probably just name things randomly.
As the name implies, much of what Emmer does riffs on grains (reinforced by the wheat-tones and accents by Alicynn Fink and Kevin Stewart Architects). They can be the stars of simple snacks, such as the pork-fattened Carolina Gold johnnycakes ($6) or the tea scone empanadas filled with a trio of meats and butternut squash ($8) – both served with a dab of crème fraîche and both exhilarant. They can be worked into toothsome pasta, such as the corn pappardelle with a fundamentalist pork ragout ($16), or added for crunch in a tangy lamb tartare with wheatberries ($10). Often, they steal the show – as does the humble but complexly flavored roti served alongside a birria-like lamb carnitas ($15).
But grains are by no means the whole show. Fink and his team (including chef de cuisine Page Pressley, fermentation specialist Jason White, pastry chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph, and on one visit special guest Trevor Moran, former executive chef of Nashville's renowned the Catbird Seat) work magic with something as simple as a carrot ($6) – topped with heritage benne seeds that taste a little like contemporary sesame – or bone marrow ($9) served as butter for a simple roll. Even when Fink is working with trend ingredients, it's difficult to remember their ubiquity. Squid ($11) is served in a pork brodo ameliorated with brown butter and green garlic, creating a profile that is somewhere near an exquisite onion dip (we mean that as a compliment). Spaghetti squash ($4), beautifully lined in matchstick rows, uses the same green garlic with some extra bite from winter green onion.
One of the delights of Fink's cooking is how much renewed utility he gets out of techniques that have become contemporary punch lines. The chervil spuma (a denser version of one of those much-maligned foams of molecular gastronomy) used with a mushroom-flecked risotto ($12) relieves the rich dish from being leaden, spring shoots growing out of loam. Spuma (this time sunchoke) is used again with lardo-caramelized sunchokes ($11), but here it intensifies the nuttiness of the produce. It's clear that Fink understands that technique should be in service of the dish.
That m.o. carries over to the desserts. The tres leches ($8) is deconstructed, but in a way that emphasizes what makes the classic classic. A square of the traditional sponge cake is topped with a layer of cheesecake mimicking the customary whipped cream topping, and a vibrant malabar spinach berry glaze standing in for the cherry. The Meyer lemon tart ($8) is buried under a scoop (please God, let this be the end of quenelles) of grapefruit Champagne sorbet and topped with candied pecans. The goat's milk panna cotta ($8) looks more traditional, with a crumble of granola, but the tomato-orange preserve brings in a savoriness for those who have a tempered sweet tooth. None of those have as much pleasure, however, as the emmer and chestnut chocolate ice cream sandwich ($5).
On second thought, maybe this review isn't difficult to write after all. At one point during one of my visits, a layered potato dish came off the dim sum cart. I can't tell you what was in it or how much it cost; I didn't write any notes or take any pictures. There may be plenty to say about the skill and thought that went into that dish. But all I did was close my eyes and enjoy.
Emmer & Rye51 Rainey #110, 512/366-5530
Dinner: Tue.-Wed., 5–10pm; Thu.-Sat., 5pm-12mid; Sun., 3-8pm
Brunch: Sun., 11am-3pm