2020 would have seemed to be the worst time to enter the restaurant world, but that’s what Ben Kelley and a host of partners did when they opened Emmett’s Cafe in their edge-of-German-Village location in October.
I admit I didn’t think much of it at first. There were plenty of more familiar favorites that needed our support during pandemic times. Also, Emmett’s isn’t as convenient a location for us to get to, especially in an era of takeout (freshly cooked food is only naturally going to suffer the longer you have to transport it.) Finally, nothing specifically jumped out at me on the menu, save for the slightly intriguing twist of Aussie-based coffee drinks on the menu.
Appearances are often deceiving, and in this case they definitively were. The coffee drinks are good, but the menu items have more than exceeded our expectations.
I heard from others that the Breakfast Burrito was a must-try. I was skeptical (I mean, a breakfast burrito is a breakfast burrito, right?) And my general belief is if you’re going to do one, you’re better off at a Mexican restaurant.
But I bit. And I bit and I bit and I bit some more until I was all done.
In fact, several times we have bit on this burrito and other Emmett’s Cafe goodies and we can safely say this is some of the most delicious fare you can grab in the metro these days. The referenced burrito’s ingredients come off as gourmet (including crispy prosciutto, tater tots, and chipotle aioli), but the final experience comes off as completely satisfying as opposed to being feeling fancy for fancy-sakes. The just about equally as good Meat & Tato also sports some gourmet-style ingredients (arugula, house-pickled onions, and an Everything Roll from the always welcome Matija Breads.)
We’re happy when we find breakfast items without egg on the menu (instead of having to ask to remove the egg) and Emmett’s has two such items in their bowls – the very good South High Salad and the even better Harvest Salad. Even their Treats, while not large in number, are big on flavor, such as their Choco-Tahini Crispy and the Lemon Rosemary Bar.
Emmett’s has proven so popular that they’re on their way to opening up a second location, at the Open Air facility in Clintonville, with Wolf’s Ridge Brewing’s new brewing/dining venture Understory and Butcher Shop Fitness facility as neighbors.
Deceiving indeed…in a good way.
Continuing the deception theme is the current restaurant scene. If my spouse and I had taken a time machine from our last upscale dine-in dinner experience in the Columbus metro (Veritas, in 2019) directly to Emmett’s Cafe this last Sunday and their back patio space, things would’ve looked normal at first glance.
But as we have found out, a pandemic wreaks havoc, and its toll has been blatantly felt in the restaurant industry. The work force that was there in ‘19 isn’t two years later, and restaurants are struggling because of it. Many employees have moved on, choosing to move into different lines of work, going into business for themselves, or even re-enrolling in college to improve their skills. I’m sure a few have been delaying going back as long as possible into a work landscape which has often shown how little regard a loud minority of people has for service workers. A few, sadly, have succumbed to the pandemic itself (one study showed that Line Cooks had a 30-60 percent greater chance of dying due to COVID-19 than a typical year.)
Since we didn’t get to Emmett’s via a souped up DeLorean powered by a Mr. Fusion, those circumstances resided in the back of our minds as we partook in a special early anniversary celebration dinner at the Summer Supper Popup, hosted last Sunday at Emmett’s Cafe by restaurant chefs and veterans of the local food scene, Lara Yazvac Pipia and Catie Randazzo.
We expected things to be a bit of a feel out process for both us, but thankfully, being outdoors helped out with any trepidation dining out with so many people around. We figured this feeling would be more so for the chefs, who we guessed hadn’t done anything like this type of meal for a while.
Sure enough, things probably ran a little more slowly than desired (proceedings started a little later and ran about 45 minutes later than originally slated.) Outside of rustiness, the size of Emmett’s Cafe’s kitchen (not the biggest in the world) probably impeded things in terms of preparation of both food and the dishes themselves..
But frankly, that wasn’t a concern for us. We were in no rush; rather, we were here to enjoy great food and each others’ company. And the extra time actually worked out for us in that we did not feel full until we were literally diving into our last dish (a delightful rendition of an Eaton Mess dessert, a dish that turned out to be the driving force for putting this special dinner together.) Bonus points to Mother Nature, who came through in the clutch and provided diners seated outside with as perfect an early evening weather-wise as you can expect in Central Ohio.
Chefs Pipia and Randazzo promised some deceiving takes on summer picnic classics, and their creations did not disappoint. In many ways, the duality of the dishes reflected that very theme I had written about earlier in this blogpost. The first take on the normally fruit-forward Ambrosia instead gave diners a savory blast of tomato and basil. Meanwhile, the Corn resembled the vegetable visually, but turned out to be a sublime ricotta dumpling, bathed lovingly with a broth combining corn, shio koji, seaweed dashi, popcorn-infused ghee, dots of cilantro oil, and more than a dash of inspiration.
Tied with the Corn for most favorite dish, the Funnel Cake again surprised us not with sweet and greasy but rather savory, sharp and crispy, sportingly perfectly fried summer squash batter and a bright tomato jam. Other dishes stayed more true to form, but upped the fancy quotient. Ants On A Log was Chef Randazzo’s contribution from her former restaurant, Ambrose and Eve.
Meanwhile, the Potato Salad was pepped up with a turmeric-marinated egg yolk and a plethora of textures, while Chef Pipia’s Franks & Beans proved to be an intriguing blend of cannelini beans, wonderfully cooked Monkfish (from Coastal Local Seafood and Argentine Chorizo from her own Tio Toto’s recipe. The crunchy loaf chunks from Omega Bakery added a lovely texture contrast and a way to sop up the liquid.
All dishes proved well-paired with the optional wine-pairing we added onto our meal. The servers did a good job of keeping water decanters filled and clearing off our tables in a timely manner. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the chefs were able to accommodate my spouse’s food allergies, which isn’t easy to do on a specialized pop-up menu.
Near the end of our dinner, we were treated to a heartfelt moment from Chef Randazzo, who revealed that pandemic times had proven tough for her, so much so that she had lost her mojo for cooking. However, the support of family and friends had carried her through and that she was happy to be back in the fold again.
We, too, are happy Chef Catie is back, and happy that her and Chef Lara and the folks at Emmett’s are doing such a wonderful job during trying times.
We also are not deceived by the current status of the restaurant industry as a whole. A certain percentage of the population still believe things are like 2019, to the industry’s detriment. On the other hand, we’re of a mind to do all we can to have a lovely dine out anniversary dinner around this time next year.
And oh yeah, we’ll be at Emmett’s quite a bit too. By the way, have I told you about their amazing tater tots?