By Emily Paster
Did you know that Chicago Restaurant Week is happening right now? From January 24-February 6, two hundred and eighty restaurants in the city and suburbs — including some three and four-star restaurants — are offering special pre-fixe menus of three and four course for $22 a person at lunch and $33 or $44 a person at dinner. (Tax, tip and beverages are extra.) Some restaurants offer special dishes just for Restaurant Week while others highlight some of their signature dishes on their Restaurant Week menus. You don't have to do anything special to join in the fun. Just show up — or better yet, make a reservation — at any one of the participating restaurants. Find the complete list of participating restaurants and preview their special Restaurant Week menus here.
When my husband and I lived in the city before we had kids, I followed the Chicago restaurant scene like some people follow the Bears. I knew what places were hot, which chefs were in and which were out, and how to find the best and most authentic of everything. I plotted our restaurant meals like a general planning an attack. These days, I still read restaurant reviews and stay abreast of the latest developments but more as a spectator than a participant. We just don't have time to go out as much as we used to and we get lazy out here in the suburbs.
So when something like Restaurant Week comes along and I have the chance to sample some of the best and hottest restaurants in town for a bargain price, I am on top of it. I cleared my schedule, rounded up some dining companions, and booked a handful of Restaurant Week lunches. At $22 a person, you can't afford not to go out.
Of course, I missed my first Restaurant Week lunch, which was supposed to be with my husband at the new Lettuce Entertain You concept Beatrix, because school was canceled for our kids. I proposed bringing the kids to lunch, but my husband politely indicated that dragging the kids downtown in subzero temperatures just to eat lunch was perhaps taking things a bit far. Once again, the kids (with some help from a Polar Vortex) ruin everything.
But today, luckily, nothing came between me and my highly anticipated lunch at Embeya, an elegant Vietnamese-Thai restaurant that was one of the hottest openings of 2013. Embeya is a spacious restaurant on the edge of the West Loop decorated with carved teak panels, a long marble bar and walls of windows. The chef Thai Dang worked under world-famous chefs in DC (my hometown!) and Chicago before striking out on his own at Embeya, where he applies his classical French training to his native Vietnamese cuisine. I have always loved Vietnamese food — and DC has great Vietnamese food due to the large Vietnamese population in northern Virginia — for its freshness and the depth of the flavors.
Joining me for lunch was my friend MaryBeth, a very talented baker, who I met through our mutual friend Vanessa and the Chicago Food Swap. We has a wonderful conversation about studying abroad, our kids — MaryBeth has twice as many as I do! — how we are both transplanted East Coasters who now call Chicago home and about our culinary ambitions.
To start, MaryBeth and I both had the green papaya salad with basil, crispy shallots and Vietnamese beef jerky. The papaya was shredded into translucent noodle-like strands that retained a nice crunch. The beef jerky was chewy and slightly sweet and the dressing — perhaps a rice wine vinegar? — was also slightly sweet yet tangy. It was delicious and even though the portion was quite large, light enough to leave plenty of room for the mains.
I was boxed out of the main course seafood stew by my shellfish allergy, but MaryBeth got it. That dish plainly reflected a Thai influence with its spicy coconut-scented broth. I would love to have tried it, but was content with my beef and rice noodle salad. The salad reflected everything I love about Vietnamese food: it was light and refreshing with lots of complementary textures and flavors. Maybe in retrospect I shouldn't have ordered two cold dishes, but in truth, I didn't mind even on such a cold day. It felt appropriate for lunch.
MaryBeth and I split again on the dessert. She tried the cream puff filled with green tea pastry cream and I had the almond-tofu custard with ginger and what I suspect was a plum compote. MaryBeth and I agreed that the shell of the cream puff was not special but the green tea cream was heaven. My custard arrived quivering, which was slightly disconcerting, but had a wonderful silky texture and the tart compote added zing. The slices of ginger and slivered almonds gave some bite to the silken custard.
Throughout lunch, service was smooth and highly professional, as is fitting for such a sleek, cool restaurant. Cool is the operative word here. There is nothing especially cozy or warm about Embeya. It is definitely a cool, stylish restaurant for cool, stylish people. But I think anyone who appreciates elegant, precise Vietnamese food will want to give Embeya a try. I am definitely planning to return.
Next week, however, (at least!) two more Restaurant Week lunches await me: Naha and Blackbird. Stay tuned!
Full disclosure time: This post was not sponsored in any way and I paid for my lunch at Embeya in full.