At dinnertime, the place felt criminally noisy for a restaurant of its size, the tables too small and tightly packed, and its studied farmhouse aesthetic at odds with the menu. All of which is to say that hating Emmaline would have been the easiest thing in the world for me, and yet I simply couldn’t. There’s far too much to love. Occupying a patch of West Dallas to which both Montrose and River Oaks might lay legitimate claim, the chummy new trattoria argues persuasively for their joint custody. The atmosphere is neither wild nor sedate, the food excites without arrogance, and the location encourages a certain diversity among its clientele, thereby providing space for our wealthiest citizens to rub shoulders with, well, our near-wealthiest.
As word gets out, however—about the modestly priced menu items, the efficient service and unremitting coziness—Emmaline may well find fans among a broader public. Chef Dimitri Voutsinas is skillfully executing a lunch/dinner menu by first-time restaurateur Sam Governale of good range and appeal. Foodie types would be well-advised to scrutinize the appetizers, making a beeline in particular for the scallop carpaccio, which plates thin slivers of the sea creature with pieces of grapefruit and other citrus, a pairing as satisfying as it is unlikely. Our table was equally enamored of the oysters, served on the half-shell and floating in a cheesy broth of soft robiola dotted with caviar. Another cheese standout was the burrata accompanied by a garlicky although somewhat overwhelming piperade. I was taken too by the roasted asparagus spears served with a healthy tranche of prosciutto and topped by a quivering poached egg. As odd pairings go, the dish had nothing on the scallops, and yet it too was intriguing and delicious.
Within minutes of seating our quartet at a tiny four-top, which is to say after the water glasses but before the cocktails, a formal welcome arrived: a plateful of soul-stirring, hot, rosemary-flecked yeast rolls. These left little room for the cocktails to come, however, and none whatsoever for the ensuing appetizers. And so, against our better judgment, we bid adieu to Voutsinas’s lovely rolls all too soon, watching with sad fascination as a busboy removed them from the center of the table with great effort and the delicate, careful touch of a late-round Jenga player.
When Houstonia last spoke with Governale, a year or so ago, he was still managing Fleming’s steakhouse (River Oaks edition) but already spreading the word about an eatery of his own, one in which smaller plates would be “a focus.” One wonders if said focus changed after the tables were already bought. That would explain the mise en place awkwardness and vague hints of claustrophobia on busy nights, both of which diners will nonetheless forgive, I predict, once their entrées have been successfully loaded into place. Indeed, all may well be forgotten after just one bite of the roasted pork chop, its meat sizeable, succulent, bestrewn with root vegetables and a meltingly lovely reduction.
This is a kitchen that clearly loves its meat, an affection that’s equally evident in Emmaline’s steak frites, the pink and perfect beef just visible beneath a thin cloaking of greens. Ours is not a table that ordinarily refuses fried potatoes in any form, but substituting the chickpea fries turned out to be a winning gamble. The fat little planks were crunchy, satisfying, and flavorful enough to induce fantasies of supersizing. Still, Voutsinas does fine by traditional frites too, we discovered, having stolen a few from the adjacent plate of a French dip sandwich too dry for revival by even the most generous cup of au jus. We weren’t disappointed in the least by the house pizza, however, whose cracker-thin crust somehow supports generous dollops of ricotta, roasted cherry tomatoes and a gentle sleeting of mozzarella and provolone.
Our dinner ended with a fine chocolate espresso torta and almond gelato, and a vow to return to Emmaline on a subsequent afternoon. The place has charms at any hour, but at 4 p.m. on chilly spring days it feels almost indispensable. Only then, from a stool at the comfortable bar, can one truly appreciate the grandeur and detail of the well-designed space—all praise to local designer Amy Putnam—along with Voutsinas’s kitchen and Governale’s prodigious gift for creating seductive experiences for diners and drinkers alike. Emmaline is nothing if not blessed with a gifted brain trust.
Full disclosure: An indecent percentage of what little knowledge of Thai culture I possess comes from repeated listenings of the 1984 tune “One Night in Bangkok,” a city whose legendary knack for making hard men humble and tough guys tumble is traceable, in the song at least, to everything from temples and massage parlors to W. Somerset Maugham. Curiously, Bangkok’s night markets don’t make the list of dissipating temptations, which is odd when you consider that they’re apparently irresistible to addicts of the shopping variety. Terms like “carnivalesque” and “raucous” get big play in tag clouds, even as the markets’ colorful stalls offer everything from clothing to collectibles in an atmosphere of no-frills festivity.
Viewed in this light, Night Market seems an apt name for gastropreneur Mike Tran’s revamped eatery, and certainly less confusing than its previous moniker, Night Market Curry & Grill, whose dual devotion to Indian and Thai specialties was perhaps its undoing. (The Chinatown establishment closed last April before reopening in October with a Thai-only focus.) There is a liveliness to the design and atmosphere of the place now, a coherence to its concept, and a menu still in development but filled with promise.
Delivered to the table in a small, ladle-ready caldron, the coconut chicken soup, soft-white and velvety, was outstanding, an auspicious start to a Night Market dinner. It consisted of just meat, coconut milk, lemongrass and galangal, but seemed heaven-sent nonetheless, a veritable chicken soup for the Houston soul. Our table was split on the much-buzzed-about papaya salad, in which thin shavings of green, unripe fruit came tossed in chilis, dried shrimp, and a tamarind dressing that was either too pungent or too perfect, depending on one’s palate. No fights broke out over the egg rolls, however. All agreed they were greasy disappointments.
Among the main dishes, the red curry of prawns was a personal favorite, a fiery soup boosted by a trio of exceedingly fresh jumbo shrimp. On the other hand, there’s work to be done on the curry crab fried rice, a fun idea marred by crustacean-challenged execution. If I’d read the fine print, I might not have ordered the basil beef, its beef being of the ground sort, but the resulting oniony stir-fry proved a worthy companion piece to a slab of sticky rice. And while Night Market’s vegetarian options aren’t exactly plentiful, several dishes can be successfully rejiggered, among them a pad see ew, its flat rice noodles mingling happily with bits of egg and broccoli, all of it slathered in a savory sauce.
The portions having been large and the prices reasonable, our table opted out of Night Market’s desserts, unless you count their Vietnamese coffee, of course, that obscene-yet-irresistible caffeine-and-condensed-milk combo. So fine and potent was its preparation, we flew home on our own power, never once questioning its appearance on a Thai menu. Just as with Bangkok’s bazaars, we figured, unexpected finds are all part of the fun.