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REVIEWS: Giant and Ēma Show the Best and the Blandest of Small Plates

The Logan Square newcomer impresses, while the River North spot is unfocused and unreliable.

Photos: Jeff Marini

Remember a few years ago when we all went nuts for small plates? And how we all bought into it until we realized we were spending just as much money to eat less without having any more fun. Well, Giant, the wonderful four-month-old spot from Jason Vincent, Ben Lustbader (both of Nightwood), and Josh Perlman (Avec), finally makes a definitive case for the movement.

The humble menu lists none of the cutesy categories—“smears,” “skewers,” “refreshers”—we’ve become used to. In fact, it has no categories at all. The first item, a wry play on a ubiquitous hipster offering—the uni shooter—is genius. Vincent’s kitchen purées gochujang (fermented hot pepper paste), tamari, condensed milk, and a scary amount of butter, then adds raw sea urchin roe before deep-frying the whole thing into an irresistible hushpuppy. Shareable? Nope. Every customer should order his or her own. But after popping one, you trust the rest of the menu.

Giant repays that trust over and over. Perfect homemade biscuits get spread with warm jalapeño butter. Delicate onion rings are sprinkled with Parmesan. Succulent pecan-wood-smoked baby back ribs arrive next to sheets of pickled fennel, and garlic-buttermilk potatoes bubble under a scorched gratin top. It’s all fresh and straightforward, and only vaguely cheffy.

Even when the kitchen gets showy, flavors come through crystal clear. The sweet-and-sour eggplant, which diners spoon onto homemade flatbreads along with cashews, pancetta, and aïoli white sauce, is mesmerizing. A juicy, crisp-edged swordfish loin with perfect fried clams, garlicky mayo, cherry tomatoes, and a brilliant zap of giardiniera showcases the cooks’ ambitions. Three-star fare for $19.

Giant’s perfect biscuits

Vincent and Lustbader have a thing for housemade pasta. In fact, their thin cannelloni, sheltering chunks of smoked lamb tempered with arugula pesto, mint yogurt, and porcini butter, quickly became my new favorite noodle. Too bad someone in the kitchen went cuckoo with the Parmesan grater, turning the tomato “sortallini” with guanciale, pine nuts, and smoked tomato and butter sauce into a lumpy cheese storm.

Giant nails all three of the desserts on offer, particularly the vanilla cajeta ice cream with butter-pecan crunch and strawberries, which tastes like a kind of cereal my mom would never buy when I was a kid. And bonus points for the quirky wine list, packed with eco-friendly pours, such as a minerally 2014 La Zorra “Teso” Rufete Blanca from Salamanca, Spain, fermented with wild yeast.

The sly, understated servers flirt and drop wisdom until you want them to sit down with you. They’d probably say yes.

Chicago needs restaurants like Giant—a pure expression of the smart people behind it. It is not Contemporary American or New American. It defies labels. If the owners were pressed to classify the cuisine, it would probably be something like Good Stuff We Like Right Now. In April, when Eater Chicago asked Vincent the concept for Giant, he responded: “A restaurant.” What more do you need to know?

Giant’s Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader
 

If Giant shows what small plates are capable of, Ēma demonstrates what happens when they’re seasoned with corporate blandness. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises launched its affordable new Mediterranean spot in June, and it looked good on paper. The 140-seat River North restaurant on the ground floor of the Hyatt Place hotel has been outfitted with pale woods and woven baskets; ivy hangs from the ceiling, and two marble-topped bars mirror each other across the room. The space is so airy and pleasant that when the windows are open you barely notice the exhaust of Range Rovers idling on Illinois Street.

Ēma’s chef, CJ Jacobson—the dynamic 6-foot-8 Top Chef star fresh off his successful stint at Intro—caters to a varied clientele: families at round tables dipping triangles of terrific housemade flatbread into honey-drenched smears of labneh with Marcona almonds; groups of middle-aged ladies sharing shaved romaine and freekeh salads and imploring each other to speak up; and young couples passing judgment on the scene over bracing cocktails like the Savory Hunter (mezcal, lime, lemon, ginger, and harissa).

The staff enthusiastically explains the Middle Eastern dishes. But there’s not a lot to explain. Divvied up into spreads, kebabs, mezze, greens and ancient grains, and seafood, with shareable dishes—which make up a large part of Ēma’s offerings—grouped under the heading “For the Table,” the menu is so by the book it feels as if the recipes were crowdsourced by a marketing team. Instead of going smoky, a lemony eggplant spread gets a sheen of olive oil and a softening with house yogurt. It’s pleasant but subdued into near invisibility. The housemade stracciatella (Burrata pulled into strings) deserved better than the lifeless roasted vine tomatoes that escorted it.

Ēma’s cautious approach makes you appreciate the little touches—the dehydrated chickpeas that lend a crunch to za’atar-sprinkled hummus, say, or that the kitchen has removed the jalapeño seeds from the chilies enlivening a spread made from avocado, sweet peas, lime, cilantro, and mint. But while there’s nothing wrong with the pillowy lamb-beef kefta with tzatziki and quinoa-flecked brown rice, there’s nothing memorable about it either.

I wish the menu had more offerings like the thick slabs of tuna crudo with heirloom tomatoes and avocado, plus lentils that had been cooked until crispy, then dried and sprinkled into a turmeric sauce. Or that a higher percentage of Jacobson’s creations packed the curious magic of the berbere-kissed braised lamb shoulder with dates, cherries, and a lettuce vinaigrette. In the end, what impressed me most was, of all things, the broccoli. It was deep-fried in beef tallow and flavored with lime and charred oregano. A great little snack, with or without the black garlic dashi dipping sauce.

Many dishes either get lost or go haywire. Every element of the charred octopus with fried kale, golden fingerling potatoes, black olives, and arugula comes together—then dies a thousand deaths in an absurd preserved-lemon vinaigrette. It’s as if a two-star dish fell into a bowl of lemon frosting. Then again, I would choose it over the crispy halloumi (cheese) with dates that tasted like they were refugees from 40 years of desert wandering.

Desserts? Sigh. Lettuce Entertain You pastry chef Yasmin Gutierrez seems more comfortable with the desserts she makes for Beatrix. At Ēma, she deconstructs baklavas that you wish she had just left alone. A pistachio-studded dark chocolate torte with a smear of chocolate Turkish coffee cremu (similar to chocolate pudding) and a nest of kataifi gets closer to her wheelhouse.

I respect Lettuce Entertain You for launching a (semi)healthy, affordable restaurant, banking on hummus when they could’ve gone with another steakhouse or pizzeria and easily packed the dining room. But Ēma feels unfocused: careful and dull one minute, overly complex and unreliable the next. The gaffes override the kitchen’s promise, and when it comes to small plates, you can’t make big mistakes.

Tuna crudo at Ēma

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