The secret’s out: Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ founder Rich Melman and Executive Partner Marc Jacobs are momma’s boys. In July 2013, the restaurant group opened the breezy River North eatery Beatrix, named for Melman’s mother. And in late June, Lettuce partnered with “Top Chef Duels” winner Chef CJ Jacobson to open a Cali- and Mediterranean-inspired spot next door, Ēma (pronounced eema), which means “mother” in Hebrew.
The 140-seat restaurant — which also sports a casual counter, Rotisserie Ēma, featuring a hummus bar, prepared salads and more — focuses on small plates including spreads and mezze and showcases kebabs, kefta and braised lamb shoulder.
The chef was the first chef in residence at Intro and is no stranger to Mediterranean cuisine, having lived in Israel for a year and worked at the Italian/Californian Campanile in Los Angeles. Yet he doesn’t stick to the traditional Med cookbook. “The palate is based in the Mediterranean, but I’m from Orange County,” he says. “I’m not going to claim to know how to make baklava better than someone from Greece.”
Here’s what else to expect at Ēma:
Spread out: The menu opens with several spreads, served with house-made pita bread lathered in olive oil and za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice. Standouts include the charred eggplant with house yogurt, lemon and Californian olive oil ($7.95) and the spicy hummus ($8.95), with marinated fresno and sweet-roasted chilies.
Pass it on: As is traditional in Mediterranean cuisine, the cold and hot mezze plates — think watermelon gazpacho and crispy halloumi cheese and dates — are meant to be shared. Jacobson’s favorite? English peas with house yogurt ($11.95), made with a blackberry-sumac granita. Be sure to also try the house-made stracciatella ($13.95). “I make it every day and it’s very soothing, so it’s kind of a zen experience,” Jacobson laughs.
The space: Painted all white, Ēma is outfitted with woven basket fixtures and an ivy-covered ceiling. Fittingly, the servers wear white, and the 36-seat patio is sure to become the spot to be this summer.
Final sip: The wine list offers a taste of the Med with a selection of red and white wine from destinations like Crete, Sardinia and Corsica. Feeling bold? Opt for something from the cocktail menu, like the Solid as Arrack, made with El Dorado 12-year rum, Batavia Arrack, lemon, bing cherry Cordial and crushed ice.
Ēma, 74 W. Illinois, (312) 527- 5586; Emachicago.com