Two Asian restaurants with impressive credentials opened exactly one day apart: Embeya, a West Loop Vietnamese restaurant made its debut Sept. 11; and Jellyfish, a Gold Coast pan-Asian opened on the 12th. They're ideal for their neighborhoods; Embeya offers chef-driven focus, and Jellyfish is such a party-ready, eye-candy spot, it ought to be wearing heels.
In Vietnamese, embeya means "little one," and it's the nickname of chef and partner Thai Dang, the youngest of 10 children and still a relative pup, executive-chefwise, at 28. Abetted by partner Attila Gyulai, former director of operations at the Elysian hotel, Dang has created a restaurant that, like the chef himself, seems extraordinarily polished for its tender years.
The large dining room (counting the bar area and some high-top tables, the space can seat 120) offers visual treats everywhere you look. There are the artful chandeliers that resemble sea urchins, and an elaborate ceiling sculpture that looks like a collection of frozen leaves. Seating, at wide upholstered chairs or soft-fabric banquettes, is very comfortable. Intricately carved teak panels break the space into less cavernous niches; pinpoint white spotlights mix with the amber glow from street lamps visible through two-story windows.
Dang worked under Laurent Gras at L2O (Gras, back in New York these days, flew in to cook with Dang at Embeya's pre-opening pop-up dinner in July), and some of Gras' precise plate artistry is evident in Dang's work. The menu is tightly focused, so don't come here looking for upscale versions of Argyle Street standards, though there is a very good salad of cellophane-noodle-thin papaya strings tossed with crispy shallots and house-made beef jerky. Don't expect Argyle Street bargain-basement prices, either, though prices (most entrees are less than $20) are more reasonable than the surroundings suggest.
My meals here have been like an uninterrupted highlight reel. Crisped sweetbreads tossed in fish sauce, with a red-chili kick; crunchy forbidden rice topped with thinly shaved pickled kohlrabi; Brussels sprouts, heavily caramelized in nuoc cham sauce. There are exotic dishes like thit heo kho, slow-cooked pork in aromatic broth along with cooked quail eggs and coconut; and familiar dishes such as garlic chicken, a simple-sounding dish that's actually very complex (the skin alone is lacquered and dried thrice, accounting for its irresistible crispness). The tamarind ribs were tasty but a bit too chewy; that's the closest thing I can come to a gripe.
Desserts are appropriately fruit-focused, including the classic mango and sticky-rice dish with toasted sesame seeds (Dang prefers them to peanuts) and ribbons of roasted pineapple with coconut ice cream. But don't overlook the fruit platter; Dang brings in lychee, jackfruit, rambutan and dragonfruit, made into a beautiful composed plate or available individually. For those who dare, Dang will bring out durian, the pungent fruit whose custardy texture and funky sweetness are very much an acquired taste. Which, for what it's worth, I have acquired.
Danielle Pizzutillo oversees the exceptional beverage program, which includes Belgian ales, a riesling-heavy and food-friendly wine list and some terrific craft cocktails. My favorite pours are the Tendron and Lime, a daiquirilike cocktail with young coconut accents, and the Smoke & Barrel, which improbably blends single-malt scotch, aged port and walnut bitters into something remarkably good.
Service is ... getting there. Helpful and friendly for the most part, servers occasionally will drop off a dish with no explanation of what the accompanying sauces are or how best to enjoy them. This will improve with time.
Embeya is the most upscale Vietnamese restaurant Chicago has seen since Le Colonial debuted and Pasteur was in its heyday. And very shortly, I predict, it will be the best Vietnamese restaurant in town.
Joe De Vito was the guy who made Homaro Cantu's Moto and Ing restaurants happen, and now, with different partners, he has created Jellyfish, a yin-yang concept with dual menus (cooked items and sushi creations) and dual chefs (Harold Jurado and Andy Galsan, respectively) executing them.
The second-floor restaurant is accessible via stairs or elevator. The surreal decor includes undulating wall art that may or may not suggest jellyfish to you, and a similarly abstract artwork of backlit Italian crystal behind the bar. Most seating takes place in a built-out enclosed atrium that overlooks Rush Street. Inside, you're bathed in a bluish light; outside, you can watch the martini-swigging neon amphibian of Hugo's Frog Bar while you peruse the menu.
It certainly looks the part of a craft-cocktail nightspot, but during the dinner hours at least, Jellyfish is exceedingly calm and laid-back, a refreshing novelty in a neighborhood dominated by boisterous dining rooms.
There are hits and misses among the two menus, but in general, the more you stick to nibbles, the happier you'll be. The waiters push the Rocco taco, probably because it's a guaranteed hit, a quartet of crispy wonton-shell tacos embracing hamachi, sweet radish and ponzu sauce. The steamed bao are good bets, whether stuffed with five-spice duck and peanut hoisin sauce, or with panko-crusted oysters, kimchi salad, spicy mayo and razor-thin jalapeno.
Various signature rolls include two very good ones. El Topo roll, highlighted by Scottish salmon, bufala mozzarella and fried calamari, is an odd-sounding combination that works nicely, thanks to the salty-crunchy calamari; the Kiss of Fire offers the changing hues of a rainbow roll and absolutely pristine tuna, white tuna and salmon. Skewers of wagyu beef and pork shoulder are fine; the togarashi-dusted Bang Bang chicken nuggets will be better when the kitchen eases up on the salt.
The entrees I tried were all disappointing. The spicy seafood noodle dish was a muddled mess; the East-West filet was smothered in a cloying garlic-soy sauce, perhaps to disguise its meager size. The portion was so skimpy on the $33 miso cod that I kept lifting pieces of baby bok choy, certain there had to be more fish.
There are some very pretty, thoroughly Western desserts that are worthwhile, notably the warm brownie trio and the gorgeous leche flan. The risk-taking cocktail program, by Daniel Finnigan, is the single best reason to visit this place. Check out Finnigan's work, stick to the light bites and you'll be fine.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.