The Simple Life | Wine | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Simple Life 

At a new location, Em’s continues to “play within itself.”

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I first wrote about Em’s back in the winter of 1999, when the restaurant was located on 400 West at Pierpont Avenue. At the conclusion of that review I said, “There’s a part of me that wishes Emily Gassmann would open her restaurant for dinner so we could enjoy her cooking after the sun goes down.” Well, I got my wish. Em’s is now open at its Capitol Hill location after dark'at least for a few nights each week.

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The reason for the move, in part at least, is booze. When Gassmann opened the original Em’s, she learned that her restaurant was located too close to Pioneer Park to be eligible for a UDABC liquor license. And as she and chef-partner Jennifer Jensen quickly discovered, the inability to sell wine in particular to accompany the array of wine-friendly dishes at Em’s had a crushing effect on profit margins.

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That’s probably even truer for Em’s than some other restaurants since Em’s did'and still does'deliver high-quality upscale dining at very un-upscale prices. None of Em’s regular dinner entrees, all of which come with a good house salad, even hit the $20 mark. Morgan Valley rack of lamb, for example, is priced at $18; I’ve seen the same rack in restaurants for double that cost. Anyway, fine dining establishments depend on alcohol (mostly wine) sales to drive profits, and hopefully the new Em’s will be profitable enough to stick around a while. It’s a great addition to the Salt Lake City dining scene and a wonderful boost to its Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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At Em’s, the subtlety and simplicity of the décor partners well with the food, which is also simply subtle'maybe deceptively so. It’s the scale of restaurant that I like best: small enough to be considered intimate but just big enough so you’re not elbowing the customer next to you. Clean, crisp whiter-than-white walls and large spotless front windows (not a speck of dust on them) that look out onto Center Street make the restaurant seem bigger than it really is. Accents like the large whimsical art pieces by artist-illustrator Robert Neubecker (you’ve seen his work on the Sideways movie poster), votive candles, white tablecloths and a single tulip in each restroom help make the point that less is more.

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Unfortunately, the “less is more” approach occasionally seems to extend to service at Em’s, which can be flawed and even unfriendly. The restaurant always seems to be slightly understaffed. On the other hand, at dinner the other night, the team service approach at Em’s ranged from a distant, slow and mostly unhelpful waitress to a very friendly and helpful waiter. Still, the lackadaisical approach to customer service at Em’s isn’t enough to prevent me from eating there. So far, at least.

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That’s because like the scale of the restaurant itself, the scale and approach to food at Em’s suits my tastes perfectly. You know how athletes often talk about “playing within themselves?” Well, that’s exactly what Gassmann and Jensen do in the kitchen. They aren’t trying to be Utah’s Charlie Trotter, nor are they attempting a Capitol Hill Le Cirque or Aureole or even Metropolitan. There are few chefs who can pull off the complexity of a Charlie Trotter-style dish, but there are way too many who try. At Em’s the approach doesn’t seem to be about dazzling customers with complexity, or even artistic presentation. It’s more about letting high-quality ingredients do the talking and not burying them in unnecessarily clever concoctions.

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Take Em’s short ribs ($16), for example. My order was a single rib, braised until oh-so tender and rich in red wine, and served on a simple but flawless bed of mashed potatoes (I’m no lump-o-phobe but these spuds were creamy and lump-free) with a dark wine reduction on top. The portion was neither too small nor too large'am I the only person getting tired of trying to work my way through four pounds of food on a plate in fancy restaurants? The portion sizes at Em’s, like the flavors of the dishes, are right on the mark. Those portion sizes mean that one can enjoy an appetizer, entrée and a dessert (the raspberry crème brûlée is killer) without feeling gluttonous.

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When it comes to simple and sensational cooking, the sea scallop appetizer ($10) at Em’s is about as good as it gets. Two large perfectly cooked (almost gelatinous in the center) sea scallops are wrapped in high-quality bacon and served on a bed of sautéed spinach with a delectable sesame vinaigrette. I’ve had versions of bacon-wrapped scallops at dozens of restaurants around the world and I’ve also made them myself. But none of those compare to Em’s. This is as perfect a dish as I’ve tasted in months or maybe longer. Likewise, there’s a wild salmon roulade with creamed leeks and cabbage ($15) at Em’s that would be hard to improve upon. My companion'who cares neither for cabbage nor scallops'licked her plates clean of Em’s bacon-wrapped scallops and wild salmon roulade with creamed cabbage. Thankfully, I got a few bites in before it all disappeared.

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And then there are old favorites from Em’s 1.0 on the menu like her delicious goat cheese-stuffed tamales with chipotle cream and a bleu cheese ribeye with caramelized onions. All of these dishes are subtle, delicious, and enhanced by Em’s predictably simple but well-selected wine list. And with both wine and food prices as reasonable as they are at Em’s, you might just decide to treat yourself to a glass of Glenfiddich 15-year-old single malt after dinner in the restaurant or out on the patio. Then you can toast yourself, and Em’s, for keeping it simple.

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