There are restaurant "concepts" — easy to define in a word or two, recognizable in format by potential customers — and then there are restaurants. For a new eatery aiming to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from a team of creative and forward-looking chefs and bakers, a pat definition isn't easy, or even desirable. That's the case at Emmerson, 1600 Pearl Street in Boulder, which will open to the public on Thursday, August 24.
While Ben Kaplan, the primary owner and driving force behind Emmerson, calls his new restaurant a "neo-bistro," that only scratches surface of what's going on in the kitchen and what guests will experience. Starting at 7 a.m. daily, pastry chef/partner Jeb Breakell will turn out pastries, croissants and other baked goods to accompany coffee from Denver's own Middle State Coffee. At 8 a.m., a hot-breakfast menu becomes available, with breakfast sandwiches, wholesome grains, egg dishes and other morning fare. Sure, there's the near-ubiquitous avocado toast (served here on house-baked bread), but there's also duck-leg congee (a Chinese rice porridge), trout roe in an "egg-on-egg" omelet, and a savory version of steel-cut oats studded with bacon lardons.
Transitioning into lunch, Emmerson's menu offers hot sandwiches, a dry-aged beef burger, a fresh pasta of the day and a few salads.
But it's at dinner that things get a little trickier to define. Without familiar signposts to guide diners (northern Italian, wood-fired cooking or modern pan-Asian, as recent examples), guests must put their faith in the hands of executive chef/partner Michael Gibney and be ready to be surprised. What, for example will the exact texture and flavor of an "nduja crouton" be? Do romanesco and romesco on the same plate go together in more ways than typographically? And are you the type of diner who doesn't mind asking about unfamiliar ingredients like saba (a type of syrup made with wine grapes) or yuzu kosho (a salty, tangy Japanese paste)? If so, you'll likely be enamored of Gibney's unusual combinations, but those looking for comfort and familiarity might find a stop for a breakfast croissant a better introduction than a full-on dinner.
"I would say I have a fairly academic background, so I would describe our food as thoughtful," says Gibney, who is a published author with post-graduate coursework on his résumé. You can bet that the "classic garniture" accompanying a plate of raw oysters sprang from his mind.
All of Emmerson, which takes its name from a type of wheat, is filled with little surprises. Hints of pink in the interior decor add a soft glow; wallpaper designed by Mike D of the Beastie Boys enlivens a private dining room with Brooklyn references (including iconic images like Nathan's hot dogs and Notorious B.I.G.); and hand-shaped coat hangers in a back hallway appear to spell out something in sign language. Kaplan worked with Aleks Kaplan (his cousin-in-law) and Amanda Arguello of Shears Adkins Rockmore to bring his vision to reality; other highlights include a lengthy community table built from two slabs of a hackberry tree trunk, a white marble bar top, and a foyer surrounded in antique curios, not the least of which is a taxidermied two-headed duckling.
At the bar, Nancy Kwon — who just moved here from Los Angeles, where she was named Best Bartender in 2015 by our sister paper, the LA Weekly — has designed a cocktail roster with a graphic-novel theme, complete with a printed menu inspired by the art of Heavy Metal. Just as Emmerson itself nods to grains, the bar program focuses on grain-based spirits — but not to the exclusion of rum, mezcal or gin.
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Kaplan calls the overall effect sexy. "We want a place where people can have a sensual experience — and then want to go home and have sex afterwards," he jokes.
But on a more serious note, he adds, "My goal is building a team, creating culture and getting people to work together as a beautiful expression of our quirkiness." Quirky, beautiful, sexy: those may be the defining words for Emmerson, a restaurant otherwise difficult to pigeonhole.
Emmerson will open for breakfast and dinner initially. Lunch, Saturday and Sunday brunch from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and happy hour from 4 to 5 p.m. daily will also be added soon.