The Chicago food scene has been buzzing. Rumor was that chef Laurent Gras (formerly L20) was coming back to Chicago for twenty-four hours. But for what?
Chef Thai Dang (formerly L20, RIA) and Attila Gyulai (previously Director of Operations at the Elysian) have partnered together to create what has been missing in Chicago: progressive Asian cuisine. Most associate Asian cuisine with a lax environment, decor, staff, and…food. So when I heard about Embeya, and received word that I would have the opportunity to preview it, I honestly did not know what to expect. There was mention that the evening would be semi-formal, but to “dress up if [we’d] like.” Hmm…
Embeya, it is a new restaurant that opens in a few weeks along Randolph Street. So where does chef Laurent fit into the equation? He left Chicago for New York CIty in November 2010, but has come back to Chicago for one night. July 11, 2012 was the day that master and protégé reunited. It was the day that a dream became reality.
The Embeya team consists of chef Thai, Attila Gyulai, beverage director Danielle Pizzutillo, and sommelier Griffin Lawler. As beverage director, Danielle has developed a number of very fresh drinks to accompany many of the dishes, or something to sip on after a long day at work. We had the opportunity to try the Gin (shown: sake, yuzu, and ginger with cured rhubarb skewer) and the Rum (grenadine, lime, and pineapple with foam and cherry dust). Sommelier Griffin Lawler explained that the wine list at Embeya is Riesling-focused due to the nature of the cuisine that chef has prepared. Wines that were offered during this pop-up were from all over the globe, ranging from Germany to Japan to Spain and Slovenia. The summery, sweet, and acidic flavors of the cocktails and wine definitely set the tone for the type of meal that was to come.
While drinks were sipped, canapes were passed. The three for the evening included chef’s take on banh mi (shown), an almond crusted shrimp dumpling, and an oyster served with rhubarb and lemongrass.
The meal itself was divided in two: personal portions and family style. Among the first few plates were a Kona Kampachi, with charred cherries and cucumber, and the interactively plated Scallops in the shell, with garlic noodles and summer vegetables…on a bed of fire.
What chef Thai has done with Embeya is create a menu that highlights local ingredients of southeast Asia. He appeals to the masses with things like a green papaya salad that could rival those found in Vietnam and Thailand, or a wagyu cooked so perfectly that my anti-red-meat fiancée ate every single piece and wanted more. Chef also introduces unfamiliar flavors in dishes like bone marrow stuffed squid, dover sole cooked in banana leaf, and braised bamboo with royal trumpets and maitake mushrooms.
But as odd as it may sound, the fried rice was really one of my favorite dishes of the night. Described by chef Thai as “simple, with no protein” the rice was seasoned very lightly, and was the absolute perfect complement to the intense flavors of the southeast.
Chef Thai concluded this dinner with a spread of jackfruit, dragon fruit, lychee, rambutan, and longan, all fruits native to southeast Asia. Many of us were not aware of proper technique to eating these exotic fruits, so chef demonstrated how to unveil each fruit’s hidden treasures. Chef also prepared a mango sticky rice dish that I wish I was currently eating, and a tofu custard with citrus creme.
The Embeya experience already rivals many of Chicago’s finest establishments. There is no doubt that it is what was missing in this town. And while many were excited to have three-star Michelin chef Laurent back in town, the show definitely belonged to the “little one.” Chef Thai’s dream has become a reality. July 11, 2012 was not only the day that a master and protégé reunited; it was the day that the protégé became the master.
To chef Thai Dang, chef Laurent Gras, the entire Embeya family, and Ari Bendersky at Eater Chicago, thank you for this wonderful opportunity.