There is no way in hell I’d order a plate of fruit at a restaurant. A fruit cocktail and some cottage cheese—maybe I’ll order that in 50 years. But untouched, unseasoned, peel-and-eat fruit in the West Loop? Please.
And yet there I was on a Sunday night, peeling and eating. I’d opted for Embeya’s Simple Sundays menu, a five-plate, $29 meal where, on this particular Sunday, the exotic fruits were the only dessert option. The plate was set down by the world’s most unenthusiastic server, with no knife—or words—to assist in peeling the rambutan. So I dug into it with a tine of my fork.
Yet even in this moment, I couldn’t be that mad at Embeya. Even when I was drinking the thick, syrupy Field of Concord cocktail (it was like sucking down liquified Smucker’s), even when I was chewing on unmemorable shrimp dumplings, I still had some love for the place.
For this I blame—make that credit—chef Thai Dang’s ribs. These things are big like baby dinosaur bones, and they seem to hit every texture (crisp skin, toothsome meat, melting fat) and be glazed with every flavor (sweet tamarind, bracing garlic).
Credit could also be assigned to the papaya salad. “It’s not like your normal papaya salad,” a server warned me one night. I’m not entirely sure what he was talking about, because I did very much recognize this as Vietnamese papaya salad—a really nice one, where crisp and punchy papaya mingles with tiny bites of earthy beef jerky. This dish is in keeping with so much about Embeya, which doesn’t push East Asian (mostly Vietnamese) flavors forward but rather simply executes them well. Dang ably puts out tender stuffed squid packed with spicy pork stuffing, and savory bites of woodsy bamboo. His mussels are creamy—both the mussels themselves and the sweet broth—and he makes a satisfying chicken that is perhaps the only chicken I can honestly describe as served medium-rare. Dressed in a simple garlic-scallion oil, several of the chicken pieces on my plate had the slightest patch of translucency in their center. I didn’t mind; I avoided those bites but otherwise enjoyed a chicken that was juicy, hearty and easy to like.
“Easy to like” could be Embeya’s tag line. Desserts (except for that fruit, but, hey, that’s just me) are…nice. There’s a rice pudding dotted with soft bites of mango, and a cone of choux pastry overfilled with slightly chalky matcha-tea pastry cream. If these desserts—hell, any of these dishes—were people, they’d be the politically inoffensive, moderately good-looking, somewhat interesting folks you wouldn’t mind sitting next to at a dinner party. But these plates aren’t going to fascinate you (you’ve had the flavors too many times) and they’re not going to be your favorites (too much competition, especially in this neighborhood). Maybe that sounds damning; it’s not. Food like this has a place and a time, and at Embeya that time is on Sunday nights, when the pressures of a Saturday-night meal are behind you and the value of the $29 menu is too good to argue with. Even if you start with that grape cocktail. Even if you end with just fruit.