It's a Small World
Start small and keep it simple -- that's the advice I'd offer anyone wondering how to open a successful restaurant.
A restaurant doesn't need to feature a hip gimmick, or offer an enormous menu of enormously portioned dishes, or have a thousand wine bottles in its collection, or bear a name that means "incredibly self-important" in some obscure African dialect, or pay a staff of public-relations people working overtime to promote the place.
Here's what a restaurant does need: a menu that's well-rounded, makes sense and doesn't inject truffle oil into every dish; an atmosphere that tries to take into account why people will be eating in that particular establishment; a wine list that has a few expensive bottles as well as a few geared to the average wallet. And, maybe most important, a restaurant needs an owner who's there keeping an eye on it all.
Emma's Restaurant has all of this and more.
The three-month-old eatery is as small and simple as it gets. The space is small: Emma's occupies an old storefront on Sixth Avenue, with three rooms that seat a total of 44 diners (soon there will be a fourth room, which will hold eight to ten people at one table) and space for four more at the teeny bar. The menu is small, featuring just four appetizers, one soup, two salads and fewer than a dozen entrees, including two or three daily specials. The wine list is small, about three dozen bottles in all. Even the person the restaurant is named after is small, since little Emma Austin, the owners' daughter, is only three years old.
But, oh, what good things come in this small package. The interior is warm and inviting, with cozy chairs nabbed from an auction of old Brown Palace furniture, walls the color of the restaurant's butternut squash bisque, soft lighting further dimmed by antique fixtures, and enough thick fabric draped around to completely obliterate the traffic noise from one of Denver's more well-traveled arteries. The menu is well-chosen, an intriguing assemblage of dishes that touch on major ingredients -- beef, salmon, pasta, chicken and pork among them -- but aren't locked into any one style or ethnicity. Although there are few options, they all sound so good that it's difficult to choose. And while the components of each dish are familiar, there's no sense that we've had these same combinations before: Emma's always adds a little twist, such as cream cheese in the garlic mashed potatoes or a demi-glace reduced with applesauce. To go along with the food, there's the wine list, which features some nice bargains, as well as an excellent roster of affordable champagnes that should make some of the town's more frou-frou spots blush in shame.
And Emma's has its two owners, Garen and Linda Austin, one of whom is always in attendance. Linda, a former server and bartender from New York, met Garen at the Brown Palace six years ago, when she was a bartender at the Ship Tavern and he, a Denver native who once managed both Sfuzzi and the Hyatt Regency, was the general manager. Their first date found them arguing over a restaurant issue. "She was giving the dishwashers Cokes in glasses because she felt bad that they worked so hard," Garen says. "Anyone who's worked in a restaurant knows that that's against health-department rules. But instead of firing her, I married her."
They've never disagreed on what they wanted to do with their own restaurant, though, or when to start it. "We both got out of the business for a while because we knew we wanted to start a family, and the hours are tough on families," he explains. "I was a banker for a very short time and hating it before Linda said to me, 'You know what you want to do, you want to open a little place of your own, so why don't we do it?'"
So they did, knowing from the beginning that they wanted to start small and keep it simple. To realize their vision, they took over a beauty salon -- "What do you do with 4 x 6 mirrors?" Garen asks -- and hired a jeweler friend to paint faux finishes on the walls; they also snagged chefs Matt Hallendy and Ryan Hill, along with a couple of servers, from Jax Fish House, allegedly with owner Dave Query's permission. "I want to give Dave credit, because he's a very good guy," Garen says. "He also let us raid his storage shed for used equipment that would have cost us an arm and a leg."
Query isn't the only friend who's helped out the couple. When the restaurant lost a pair of servers in one night, leaving only two to serve a full house, two of the Austins' buddies came in to act as busboys for the evening.
That was during one of my visits, and even though we could see that all of the employees were racing around like mad, it's very much to the restaurant's credit that none of the details went unnoticed. Our water glasses were kept filled, steak knives appeared long before the steaks, explanations of the dishes were given without that eye-rolling "You're holding me up here with your questions" look and, with the exception of a lengthy wait for the main course that may or may not have been the servers' fault, everything went pretty smoothly.
The food was close to flawless. Starting with the starters, all of our dishes were delicious and well thought out. Creamy, tomato-red risotto -- colored not by a paste, but by freshly cooked-down tomatoes -- was accompanied by a side of impeccably fresh greens tossed in a basil-strewn vinaigrette made with lemons that had the sour baked out of them. A medium-thick dip of white cheddar and goat cheese came with crunchy, homemade crackers sweetened with corn. The tastiest appetizer, though, was also the most unusual: a slice of a tart filled with salmon, black walnuts and Gorgonzola. Although none of the ingredients particularly stood out, they all contributed to the dish's overall boldness, a strong, earthy flavor heightened by an intense, but not too sweet, port reduction.
The spinach salad was another success, thanks to more Gorgonzola. Fresh baby spinach leaves had been mixed with Bibb lettuce, several cucumber slices and two tomato wedges, all of them evenly coated in a creamy, Gorgonzola-based dressing. And while the roasted butternut squash bisque was surprisingly spicy, once we got over the initial tongue shock, we were able to relax into the soup's charms, which included a robust squash taste and a soothingly smooth texture.
The starters were -- surprise! -- small enough in both portion and price that we could enjoy a couple of them without spoiling our appetites (or wallets) for the main course. So we had no trouble polishing off the broiled sirloin, which came with chunky hand-mashed potatoes pumped up (though not overwhelmingly) with garlic and cream cheese and laced with a rich sauce spiked with Jack Daniel's. And we were able to devour an eight-ounce beef tenderloin, which arrived on a nicely textured polenta packed with wild mushrooms and goat cheese. (This last dish featured the only downside I discovered during two meals at Emma's, a watery cherry demi-glace.)
We also dug into a beautifully grilled fillet of mahi mahi, which had been cooked so well that the firm, translucent interior flesh still seemed wet from the sea. Both the sauce of charred tomatoes and chimayo, a South American vegetable that is sadly neglected here, and the onion-flavored black-bean ragout on the side added to the fish without overpowering its mild flavor. And after all that, we still managed to slurp down a pan-roasted chicken breast so tender we could have mistaken its texture for that of the accompanying udon noodles soaked in a faintly spicy, peanut-creamy sauce.
If Emma's takes simplicity too far, it's in the dessert roster, which wasn't very exciting. Still, the strawberry-rhubarb pie stuffed fresh fruit into a sweet crust, and the banana split contained three scoops of gelato, including a stunningly mousse-like chocolate.
Start small and keep it simple: If you follow those basic tenets as well as the Austins have at Emma's, you'll have a restaurant that's simply irresistible.
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