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Emmaline impresses before food even hits your table.

Image: Julie Soefer

A few days before visiting Emmaline for the first time, I finished reading Life, On The Line, Chef Grant Achatz’s memoir detailing his cancer experience and culinary education, which included extended work at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. The book most definitely whetted my appetite for the kind of innovative fine dining pioneered by both chefs, such as Keller’s famed “Oysters and Pearls,” whose name is a clever pun on the dish’s components of pearl tapioca, beau soleil oysters, and white sturgeon caviar. The French Laundry’s menu changes constantly, with only a handful of dishes remaining on the menu, and Oysters and Pearls is among them.

Thus when I saw that Emmaline offered its own version of Oysters and Pearls (dutifully describing it as an homage to Keller) I was intrigued but suspicious. Having never sampled Keller’s original, I was ill-equipped to judge Emmaline’s interpretation. The plating was certainly pretty: four bivalves on the half-shell in clover formation, each lightly dressed with browned soft-ripened robiola and caviar. With a sumptuous slurp (not the most graceful way of consuming an oyster, but the most effective in this case of properly experiencing the melange of ingredients), I tasted salty ocean, sweet dairy, and immediately felt transported to some pastoral coastal paradise on the coast of Italy. But, don’t worry, I snapped out of my dreamy reverie toute suite upon the screeching of Houston Transtar notifying me of a Silver Alert on my cell phone.  

Although my daydream was finito, the meal was far from over and in the courses that followed, shared among me, my husband, and friends, I found much more to adore about Emmaline. A supple softball of local burrata adorned with black garlic and basil, and served alongside piperade, a tomato-onion sauce of Basque origin, showcased glorious umami notes.

I also had heard much about Emmaline’s signature squid ink tagliarini, tossed with fire-roasted lobster, pancetta, broccoli florets, and lemon chili breadcrumbs, and was far from disappointed. Something about interplay of sweet crustacean meat, the tangy citrus of the breadcrumbs, and salty fat from the pancetta was so compelling, I vowed to order this dish on my next visit, and (most importantly!) enjoy it solely on my own in order to do a better study of the subtle flavors.

Rounding out our shared entrees were some pan-seared plump scallops flanked by squash and mushrooms, and nestled in “crispy forbidden rice.” The perfect execution of these proteins, plants, and grains requiring varying preparation enabled one to savor them as individual mini-masterpieces as well as to reflect how they also functioned in complementary collaboration.

The decor at Emmaline is almost as delicious as the aforementioned plates, so while nighttime brings an infectious buzz from the parties waiting for tables around the center circular bar, I also recommend having lunch or brunch in order to properly inspect and appreciate the carefully curated linens, serving ware, artwork, and furniture. These and other environmental pieces set rustic yet refined mood that renders Emmaline the epitome of approachable sophistication.

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Emmaline

$$$ American/New American, French, Italian 3210 West Dallas St.