Review emmaline tastes and feels like wine country, despite its southern name – houston chronicle o gastronomico


Must-orders: asparagus and prosciutto with poached egg; salmon crudo Nizzarda salad; First Place escarole salad; roasted chicken with cannelini bean salad and chicken jus vinaigrette; lamb pappardelle; garganelli with scampi; Backyard Wedding Cake

Four stars: superlative; can hold its own on a national stage. Three stars: excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city. Two stars: very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind. One star: a good restaurant that we recommend. No stars: restaurant cannot be recommended.

Still, I was smitten with that oak tree with its shaded patio beneath; squint at one of these outdoor tables, and you’d swear you were in Napa. I basked in the calm loveliness of the soaring dining rooms, lit by a steel-gridded window wall. I admired the three different varieties of wicker seating, each handsomer than the last, and found a certain quiet amusement in the aspirational “River Oaks living room” décor, replete with an airy sunroom and vintage paintings. (Think Eloise Nichols writ large.)

Such restrained, well-considered plates make the restaurant’s occasional flaws more mysterious. There’s a tendency toward overkill on a handful of dishes, a piling-on of strong flavors that compromises focus. In a scallop carpaccio, a flood of serrano-charged citrus juices piled with two shades of orange segments doesn’t allow the shellfish or the pink peppercorns to speak.

A gloriously soft, rich globe of locally made burrata can’t be heard above its side of stout tomato-and-roasted-pepper piperade. (It’s a very good piperade; it’s just in the wrong context.) A trembly little buttermilk panna cotta dessert is no match for a storm of citrus segments and saba glaze and sweet sauce and crushed pistachios. It’s a pretty thing but overdressed.

I found a grilled wedge salad a bit weary despite a lively blue cheese dressing, and its too-sweet marinated cherry tomatoes oddly out of place. Oysters and pearls, a nod to the famous Thomas Keller dish, tasted sharp and clashy, their Robiola cheese and strong fish eggs vanquishing the poor broiled oysters.

I wondered, too, why the soups du jour sounded so wintry three visits running, despite the summer temperatures outside. And what’s with the salad of “winter grains and greens” a server said was so popular? A restaurant that invokes “market cooking” and seasonality ought to act accordingly, in my book.

So I was glad to taste letter-perfect grilled asparagus with prosciutto and a poached egg as a first course; and an escarole salad with the lightest lemony dressing putting a sparkle on walnuts, toast cheese and peppered pancetta. The poached egg on top? Gravy.

Perhaps my biggest surprise was a roasted chicken dish that proved to be more than a placeholder for timid eaters. The bird was plump and juicy; its accessories of marinated white beans inside a stockade of mashed cannelinis an ingenious idea; and its chicken-jus vinaigrette the ideal lifting touch.

The desserts can be baroque fun, from a gelato-du-jour banana split to a so-called “Backyard Wedding Cake” that’s as unapologetically rich and nutty and dark as carrot cake, then trimmed with coconut lace and meringue and something mighty like cream cheese icing.

What makes everything come together, to my way of thinking, is the smart wine program by operating partner Sam Governale, who attracted a sizable society-set following during his years running the River Oaks-adjacent Fleming’s steakhouse on Alabama. It’s still all too unusual to find interesting wines of a by-the-glass list in Houston restaurants, and I felt fortunate to sip a crisp and slightly saline Pecorino Italian white, or a viscous, ripe Movia Ribolla Gialla from Slovenia, without having to order a whole bottle.

Even better, the gifted Evan Turner, who made the wine program at Helen Greek Food and Wine so distinctive, has just joined a floor staff that seems cordial, quick and intelligent. I heard a couple of service horror stories from the restaurant’s early days, but the place seems to be running smoothly now. And it offers a rare boon in that it is open continuously — hello, civilized late lunch! — seven days a week, until the unusually late dinner hour of 11 weeknights and midnight come the weekend.

And about that happy-hour crowd. It grew younger as the sun set, as the basket lights in the towering oak tree lit up, as darkness turned the window wall into a mirror. By the time I left, a birthday party of halter-clad, long-legged young women in short shorts had descended from an upper terrace deck and congregated, shrieking and giggling, by the valet stand.