My family and I used to have an inside joke. We wanted to open a restaurant that would showcase my Israeli mother’s cooking, and we’d name all the dishes after her. There’d be the “Get Out of Bed” chicken soup, the “Please Pray for Parking” schnitzel, and of course, the “Water the Garden” salad. And we’d name the new establishment after the queen of our household, the Hebrew word for “mom”: ema.
So imagine my surprise when I turned the corner of Clark and Illinois and saw the announcements for a new restaurant from Lettuce Entertain You called, of all things, Ema. The cuisine would be “Mediterranean.” There were pictures of hummus and fresh vegetables on the signs—the food looked Israeli. I texted my family in haste: They stole our idea! “We waited too long,” my brother wrote. I felt cheated. But I was dying to eat there.
Because of its name, it’s fair to assume that Ema would be an Israeli eatery. The city could use one—aside from Skokie’s Taboun Grill, a pious kosher spot that’s closed on Saturdays, and local small-scale fast-food chains Benjyehuda and Naf Naf Grill, Chicago is lacking a quality outlet for Israeli cuisine, a mashup of Middle Eastern staples and eastern-European fare brought over during the Jewish diaspora, with an emphasis on Israel’s bounty of fresh produce. Not to mention that Ema chef C.J. Jacobson, fresh off of a stint at the inaugural helm of LEYE’s rotating-restaurant concept Intro, spent time in Israel as a professional volleyball player.
Yet as is typical of an LEYE project, any sense of exoticism or ethnic variety is downplayed to near nonexistence. Located on a stretch of River North where the skunky smell of Axe body spray is only marginally less prevalent than it is in other parts of the neighborhood, Ema is bright and spacious, with exposed brick walls painted white, wooden furnishings and columns, and leafy branches on the ceilings. In other words, it looks almost exactly like LEYE’s Summer House Santa Monica. It sounds like it too—the din of blase EDM and the loud chatter of douchebags drown out any possibility of having an audible conversation. The decor is impressive considering that Ema is located virtually inside of the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel. It isn’t just a “hotel restaurant,” though patrons have to go past the check-in counters, then through what is apparently a service hallway in order to access the restrooms.
The menu is divided up into various sections of small plates plus a couple of main courses. The spreads are the most consistently pleasurable, indicative of Ema’s potential. I tried plain hummus for my first dinner and it tasted like it came right from Trader Joe’s, but the “spicy hummus” I had the second time was much better, thick and creamy with a nice harif-style spice. The real standouts, however, were two dishes with no Israeli connection at all: a spring-onion tzatziki that tasted like French onion dip (I mean that as a compliment) and htipiti, a spread the server told me was Ethiopian (a quick online search reveals it’s Greek). Whatever, it was great, a cool red-pepper salad that paired nicely with the tzatziki. But the accompanying house bread was a letdown: smushed and lukewarm thin pita with a light za’atar coating, lacking the sumac tang essential to the spice.
A good rule of thumb at Ema is the lighter the dish, the better the food. A simple watermelon gazpacho featured citrusy, fragrant watermelon juice with spare touches of feta, mint, and radish. Bulgur risotto with sweet corn, almost like an elote-flavored jam, had a tart edge that undercut the heaviness. A cauliflower mezze had a spongy bite antithetical to the way the vegetable is typically prepared nowadays, but its honey-and-yogurt base provided a sour, sugary rush as unexpected as it was welcome. The two seafood courses I tried—mussels in a pungent broth with cumin and dill, and lemon-doused charred octopus with crispy potatoes and kale—were each superb, just the kind of thing that would actually be served at a place on the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately there aren’t just disappointments at Ema, but outright duds. A spread of avocado and sweet peas had the texture of baby food, while a salad of basmati rice and beluga lentils sorely needed seasoning. Fried eggplant was soggy and bland, and the broccoli tasted like, well, just broccoli. When it comes to kebabs, the kefta style of chicken and a mixture of beef and lamb were as strong as those I’d had in Israel, but the salmon variation was underseasoned and undercooked; meanwhile beef tenderloin was well seasoned but horribly overcooked. And all the kebabs were accompanied by a mound of plain bulgur that tasted as beige as its color. An entree, braised lamb shoulder, was sweet to the point of being inedible, as if baked under a layer of grape Fruit Roll-Ups.
The most interesting and adventurous items I ate at Ema were pastry chef Yasmin Gutierrez’s desserts, such as a salted chocolate torte and Greek frozen yogurt topped with olive oil, the latter of which I would gladly eat every morning. I took home one of the sweets—a funky halva with cherries and candied nuts, and actually ate it for breakfast the next day. As for the drinks, the cocktails were fine, but I recommend sticking to the wine list. The majority are Mediterranean bottles, a by-no-means insignificant number coming from atypical wine countries like Lebanon and Morocco.
So I guess LEYE didn’t rip off my family’s idea—Ema isn’t Israeli, but more generally Mediterranean. Yet in a weird way I kind of wish Melman and company had: I wonder if sticking to one country’s culinary traditions would have provided the focus Ema currently lacks. There are certainly signs Jacobson and his staff could get there. For now, they can at the very least rest assured that my mom liked it. v