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Reviews: Belly Q and Embeya

EASTBOUND & UP: In Randolph Street’s latest Asian rush, Bill Kim’s BellyQ dances, while Thai Dang’s Embeya is still learning to walk.

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Seventy-two hours. That’s how long Thai Dang told us he had been onsite without going home. Watching Embeya’s chef work, I imagined his whole staff lying under the dining room’s big sea urchin lights for a wee-hours catnap before scurrying off to start anew. In October, Dang took his first day off in months—to move into a loft closer to the restaurant.

The man has much to live up to. Embeya’s interior, a 7,000-square-foot office space transformed by 555 International into a soaring Asian lair, is the best design job of the year. Lime-green walls and muscular bamboo posts frame 12-foot hand-carved Balinese shutters, a rust-orange marble bar, and a dramatic acrylic sculpture that dangles dangerously over two tables. The space is sleek and spare enough that it will not feel dated in a few years.

As a former chef at L2O and Ria and heir apparent to Laurent Gras, Dang wants to start his own dialogue. Considering his credentials, his “progressive Asian cuisine” at Embeya is not where it needs to be. For every standout, such as a clever green papaya salad with crispy shallots and nubbins of beef jerky, the kitchen offers a dud like the banana blossom with royal trumpet mushrooms and red perilla or gimmicks like “sea snails,” pork stuffing in escargot shells. You’re meant to extract the pork, drizzle on garlic lemongrass nuoc cham, and smile. You’re not meant to leave them half uneaten.

I marveled at the presentation of the scallop with shimeji, sake, and soy—nesting in a scallop shell on top of ignited sea salt—more than at the taste, which I quickly forgot. That’s the problem with Embeya. Everything looks wonderful, but sometimes a scallop is just a scallop.

THE SKINNY

EMBEYA 564 W. Randolph St., 312-612-5640
ONE IS ENOUGH The Lynchpin, a smoky cocktail that mixes gin, vermouth, basil, and heirloom tomato water, is one heady potion.
TAB $30 to $40
HOURS Dinner nightly

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

When Dang is on, you get glimpses of Embeya’s promise. A magnificent hot-and-sour broth of lemongrass, lime, and coconut with mussels is basically a tom yum soup with meaty bivalves. Côte de boeuf caramelized in a soy-honey gastrique is so tender it comes apart in your chopsticks. And you’ve got to like a chef with the audacity to offer a side of bamboo—a charred, sake-braised treasure with pan-roasted maitake mushrooms—and a dessert of jackfruit and longan, tough sells to Westerners.

Embeya rolled out slowly, taking limited reservations until it found its footing. “This is a baby that’s barely crawling,” Attila Gyulai, Dang’s partner, said in October. “It will be running in a few months.” In other words, Embeya has great ambitions for its dialogue with diners—it just doesn’t know what it wants to say yet. I’ll be listening.

 

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