Hold your nose and high-five Embeya’s Thai Dang for offering durian, the world’s stinkiest fruit. If you skipped ahead and looked at that single item on the dessert menu, you might expect this polished project from the L2O vet and his partner, Attila Gyulai, to be full of risks and rewards. The custardy tropical fruit that emits the seductive scent of banana, pineapple, and rotting flesh is the ultimate test of the human will to endure suffering in the pursuit of the Delicious. Presenting it with sweet, coconut-infused sticky rice signifies a chef confident in his vision—and a sign he won’t mollycoddle diners with the safe and familiar.
Dang and Gyulai met at the Elysian, where the latter was the hotel’s director of operations and the former the chef de cuisine at its fine dining spot Ria (after leaving L2O). Together, they’ve built out a cavernous but sleek, darkly comfortable space inhabited by a menu that’s vaguely Asian but more Vietnamese than anything else. Dang gussies up more than a few iconic dishes from the homeland: spring rolls, papaya salad tossed with beef jerky, sausage-stuffed squid, and a handful of preparations identical to, if not inspired by, the homey, braised, caramel dishes known as kho.
It’s an interesting development considering Embeya is on Saigon Sisters’ turf, just a block south of its Lake Street headquarters. When Saigon Sisters opened its full-service restaurant, I wrote that it was a thoroughly enjoyable surprise, an audacious and novel interpretation of Vietnamese food firmly grounded in fundamentals. There are surprises at Embeya, too, though most are cosmetic, beginning the moment you walk through the doors and spy the Seuss-like chandeliers that hang over the western end of the dining room. As for the surprises on the menu, a fat scallop simmering in sake arrives on the half shell, set atop a mound of flaming salt. You can also order a quartet of seafood-mousse-stuffed snail shells threaded with lemongrass stalks. You’re instructed to pull them off and dip them in a jar of nuoc cham, the common Vietnamese condiment of sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and chile.
Less action oriented, there’s a mosaic of seared tuna dice—raw side up/cooked side up—dressed with shaved pink radishes and yuzu-chile sauce, which looks like something straight off Laurent Gras’s menu at the old L2O, and also a pretty bowl of cuttlefish noodles—which if one more restaurant puts on the menu will become officially unsurprising (see Trenchermen). This one is dressed with crunchy scraps of lotus root, carrot, and jicama, and it’s a lot more delicious to eat than another appetizer: a tiny, underseasoned serving of black forbidden rice with cashews and pickled kohlrabi.
One of Dang’s signature dishes—and what servers will likely tell you is his most popular—is a roulade of air-dried roasted chicken, deboned and rolled up on itself, and served with a dead-simple sort of chimichurri of oil, scallions, and ginger. It looks like a complicated dish, but it’s one of many rooted in classic techniques (Eastern and Western), much like the arresting-looking stuffed squid sections packed with forcemeat, which is a familiar Vietnamese surf-and-turf sausage.
That chicken is a bellwether on a deceptive menu that’s really grounded in simple food, particularly a thit heo kho: soft, slippery pork belly and boiled quail eggs cooked slow in a caramel sauce, which is the very hallmark of Vietnamese soul food. Though the sauce itself is lighter and less bitter than a more traditional version, you’ll still want to sop it up with a side of steamed rice. There’s a salmon kho on the menu as well, and a small dish of sweetbreads sweetened with palm sugar and fish sauce has essentially the same flavor profile. Add to that list a generous pile of papaya (shredded to angel-hair bore) tossed with chewy bits of beef jerky—a typical Vietnamese salad, unaggressively seasoned (unlike, say, a Thai som tam)—and you might begin to wonder why Dang bothers to describe his food “progressive.”
Simple, hearty, soulful dishes like these—along with a large bowl of fat, chewy noodles with shrimp and cilantro—had me revising my early impression of Dang’s food being all style and no substance; the kitchen gets downright primal with a stack of long, crispy ribs coated in a sticky glaze of tamarind and hoisin. Unless you order this with a side of rice you’ll be forced to sit around licking all the excess sauce from your fingers like a chimp. It’s easily the most satisfying and enjoyable thing on the menu.
To drink, there’s a cocktail list from Danielle Pizzutillo (another veteran of the Elysian) that skews far too one-dimensionally treacly even for a cuisine that cliche dictates must be accompanied by syrupy sweetness (when what it really demands is whiskey or beer). Barring that, there’s a white-dominated wine list—with over two pages of Rieslings—that is far more suited to Dang’s generally subdued flavors.
Ultimately, it doesn’t get any more dangerous than the durian, and if you’re nervous at dessert there are some cream puffs and roasted pineapple with coconut, and a selection of other tropical fruits such as rambutan and dragonfruit. The appearance of the King of Fruits is just a footnote on a larger menu that mostly avoids confrontation. In the end, that isn’t an awful thing, but it’s not particularly eye-opening either. The biggest surprise of all is what a traditional cook Dang is.