Food: Four stars
Service: Four stars
Ambience: Three and a half stars
Address: 1600 Pearl St., Suite 100, Boulder
Contact: 303-953-9852, emmersonrestaurant.com
8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday 8 a.m.-10 p..m. for breakfast, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch, 5-10 p.m. for dinner
8 a.m.-noon Friday-Saturday 8 a.m.-10 p.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch, 5 p.m.-midnight for dinner
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Moderate, with an eclectic soundtrack that played sporadically, and I was expecting a bit more acid jazz, as that seems to be constantly playing outside the restaurant during the day.
Emmerson restaurant, on Pearl Street in Boulder, opened late last summer, and it's a spot with an aggressively contemporary feel, accented by bright white marble. But before one enters, they have to pass by shelves filled with such antique esoterica as leather bound books and reptile heads. While the juxtaposition of the these peculiar items and the sleek interior seems odd at first, it seems to work. Little did I realize that this foreshadowed this restaurant's ability to pull together seemingly incongruous ingredients into a marvelously cohesive whole.
The dinner menu consists of small, medium and large plates. Starter selections include charred cucumber, Atlantic black bass crudo and lamb tartare. Among the medium plates you'll find octopus and corvina, as well as intriguing pastas. Large plates offer such main courses as a ribeye for two, honey-roasted duck breast and, for the vegetarian, a whole roasted gourd.
Service throughout a Friday evening was of the highest caliber, attentive but not intrusive, and staff's keen eye for detail included swiftly refolding napkins when diners temporarily stepped away. Timing was impeccable, no small feat given a weekend crowd.
Cocktails are a top draw. Emmerson recruited former Los Angeleno Nancy Kwon, one of the country's top cocktail specialists, to take on mixologist duties. The cocktail menu is lushly illustrated with graphics reminiscent of Frank Frazetta's fantasy drawings accented by a dash of art nouveau. Each cocktail description also contains a QR code which links to a musical accompaniment for each libation.
Yet the cocktail list could be printed on crumpled up ditto paper, and it wouldn't detract from the impressive artistry found here. My companion chose the Briar and the Rose cocktail, an ethereal concoction of gin, peach liqueur, rose water, and a subtle vinegar-infused peach and rose shrub. Floral and fruity, not only did this $12 pastel colored drink provide a wonderfully balanced taste, but it also evoked the nostalgic feel of a spring garden party. Regarding this beverage, my friend cryptically but appreciatively commented, "It's like I'm drinking the ballet," but maybe that was just the gin talking.
Small plates also provided high quality flavors, not surprising given the impressive New York pedigrees of chefs Michael Gibney and Jeb Breakell. The $5 pain d'epi, or wheat stalk bread, served as a first course. A light baguette cut and baked to resemble wheat in unprocessed form, this loaf was a visually arresting presentation. The interior was tender and light, enveloped by an excellent and not too thick crust, sided with tangy cultured butter.
On the initial sampling, $13 salt cured Columbia River salmon had a fishier flavor than may have been intended. Accompanied by a mellow cream sauce with aquavit, subsequent bites were much improved, with a fresher taste and silky feel. Rye crackers contributed a spot-on counterpoint in terms of distinctive taste and crunchy texture.
A $32 Colorado lamb chop entree successfully melded cuisine from Africa, the American South, and Asia. The only issue is that while some bone-in medium rare morsels, scented with merguez sausage-style spicing, were textbook tender, others were less so. But a suave shrimp grits side was terrifically buttery and decadent. Brussels sprouts were intriguingly seasoned with seafood-laced XO sauce, a prized Asian condiment.
Emmerson's $20 sweet potato gnocchi was hands down the best pasta dish I've tasted in years. This dish showcased the kitchen's ability to draw together disparate ingredients to create an unexpected and ultimately rewarding end result. The plate nailed the silky and sweet pasta joined by earthy maitake mushroom and pungent blue cheese. But the most innovative part was the uni, or sea urchin. I ate around the uni for the first bites, as I slowly savored the rest. Before I took my first taste of uni, I knew that its sweet and briny creaminess would tie everything else together, and I'll be darned if it didn't. I was astonished by how well these ingredients from scattered cuisines played well with one another.
While dessert wasn't as complex as other dishes, the $13 chocolate fudge, accented with juniper was just as satisfying. Deeply flavorful and not too sweet, this confection was effectively complemented by two scoops of assertive ice cream, one showcasing cocoa nibs, the other, coffee.
Emmerson is currently the most innovative restaurant in Boulder, and its bold approach is only matched by its top notch execution. Dishes such as the gnocchi demand that the diner slow down and take a more mindful approach so as not to miss any of the artful nuances inherent in the preparation.