Dining update: Em's offers a sure cure for palate fatigue
I've developed a case of palate fatigue, or "P.F." for short. What exactly is it? I describe it as the sensation you get around the holidays after a series of large, festive meals or the obligatory eating done around social gatherings and in the name of merrymaking. As the summer ends, there have been enough birthday celebrations, wedding receptions and Weber-christening barbecues to completely numb the taste buds.
So, when those of us with a good case of P.F. encounter a plate of apparently exotic but anonymous-tasting meat drizzled with unnecessary flourishes and a huge side dish of ego, we want to wave our white napkins in the air and cry "uncle." It makes you long for dry toast and tea.
But the reprieve doesn't have to be so austere. Summer is merciful in its bounty -- and the clear, bright juices of tomatoes, peaches and all the other cornucopian lot recalibrate the senses.
Em's is one restaurant that's keenly aware of the restorative -- and addictive -- effects of a cold cucumber soup ($5), stirred with just the right amount of fresh dill and yogurt to distinguish it from the thicker tzatziki sauce. Chef-owner Emily Gassmann has done the seasonal cooking thing long before it became cool to know a fingerling from a fava. Her restaurant has been a quiet stalwart in Salt Lake City's dining scene, thanks to a fair share of loyal customers.
Diners, that is, who relish peaceful Sunday brunches of smoked salmon Benedict with dill crème fraîche and fried apples ($9) on the grapevined patio or inside the former Center Street Market building.
They like the neighborhood feel of Em's locale, tucked between the eclectic row of houses and condos on tree-lined streets of Salt Lake City's Capitol Hill area.
Mostly, of course, they come for the food. Lunch, Sunday brunch or dinner, simplicity is the mantra. And especially now when Utah's harvest season is in full swing, expect abundant dinner menu options.
I can't say the same for the house wine list, but at least you can bring your own bargain bottle. Food-wise, there's the standard menu with Em's classics, such as the goat cheese tamales starter ($7) and another full page of specials where I think Gassmann's skills shine.
Salads from both pages feature exceptionally tender and buttery greens. The flavors of every ingredient in an unctuous phyllo-crusted brie salad ($9) and a colorful baby beet and orange salad ($9) were precise and clear and neither were drenched in dressing.
Such simplicity is a boon for the P.F.-afflicted diners. But it can be difficult for a kitchen, since there is no trickery to mask mistakes. It's hard to veil the careless plopping of blue cheese or the gray searing of an otherwise delicious rib-eye steak ($21). Or instead of striking a chord, the flavors can be muted and monotone, the way a well-made spinach and ricotta ravioli played out on the plate.
Service, too, can be careless in the form of steak knives or water glasses requiring a better scrubbing. But tableside, it's generally friendly and there's no lip service when you mention the crusty utensil. Along with the ambience, the service is a casual affair. Sometimes it's efficient and unobtrusive. Sometimes it's an exercise in dealing with impatience. Despite these hiccups, Em's fans return.
Summer's influence saturated the starters. "Creamed corn" normally rings of canned food drudgery, but the kitchen turns out freshly cut kernels into a milky sweet bed for large, tender, well-seasoned seared scallops ($10). The contrast between salty and sweet delighted scallop lovers, like me, while the scallop skeptics greedily grazed on the corn.
Ricotta cheese added lightness to a gnocchi appetizer ($9). The fluffy pillows literally melted in the mouth, a bit like cotton candy, leaving the fragrant basil pesto coating each dumpling. On the regular menu, ricotta along with mozzarella cheese softly bound layers of Yukon gold potatoes, squash and other sliced farmers market vegetables in a potato lasagna ($13) that wowed my vegetarian friends and my meat-loving self.
Which isn't to say meat entrées are any less spectacular. If you imagine the difference between a powdery shade of lavender vs. that of a shiny bulbous eggplant, you get the contrast in depth and luster between Em's goat cheese and pine nut-stuffed chicken breast ($16) and a pan-roasted duck breast (cooked medium-rare) whose earthiness was a great match for the dried cherry sauce and the nuttier texture of a wild rice pancake.
The pan-roasted halibut ($22) stole my table's attention. The luxuriously creamy mashed potatoes and long waxy Romano beans that appeared with other entrées seemed oddly more at home with the white fish. The flesh flaked delicately away from itself with the tines of a fork. The vegetables added textural contrast. And the softly wrinkled olive oil-poached tomatoes gently coaxed the acidity needed to harmonize all the flavors.
Palate fatigue? What palate fatigue?
Bottom line » A quiet stalwart in Salt Lake's dining scene, the Capitol Hill eatery thrives on simple, seasonal flavors and a cozy but sophisticated neighborhood vibe. Patio dining in warm months is a treat, as is the pecan bread pudding, any pork entrées and Brie salad.
Location » 271 N. Center St., Salt Lake City; 801-596-0566
Hours » Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$$
Liquor » Beer and wine
Corkage » $10
Reservations » Accepted
Takeout » Lunch only
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » Yes
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major