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First Look: Boulder's Emmerson Runs on Bicoastal Star Power

The dream team includes chef Michael Gibney of "Sous Chef" fame and celebrated bartender Nancy Kwon
August 21, 2017
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by Ruth Tobias

Photos by Rachel Adams Photography (unless otherwise indicated)

The gist: “An experiment in surrender and a surrender to experiment.” That’s what restaurateur Ben Kaplan calls his latest project, and if it sounds rather grand, well, he’s earned it. For Emmerson — an innovative all-day bistro at the edge of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall — Kaplan has assembled a vanguard of pros in hospitality and the arts alike. From New York, there's chef/co-owner Michael Gibney — celebrated author of the memoir Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line as well as a formally trained painter — and pastry chef–partner Jeb Breakell, an alum of Atera, Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. (Yes, all of them.) From Los Angeles, there’s fashion-industry maven–turned–bar manager Nancy Kwon, whose national reputation also precedes her. Joining them is a wealth of local talent that includes beverage director Ben Foote, most recently of Blackbelly, and GM Tre Gerbitz (formerly of The Med and Brasserie Ten Ten), both of them co-owners as well. And they’ve all come together to create a dining experience that at once “hearkens back to pastoral society,” in Kaplan’s words — the name refers to emmer, an ancient type of farro — and thrives on wildly eclectic, of-the-moment inspiration.  

The food: Whether he’s using paints, words or ingredients, Gibney says his life’s goal is “to make the most lovely thing.” To that end, he's drawn from a wide range of influences — European, Asian, regional American — for dishes that synthesize rootsy and refined, earthy and elegant elements in striking ways. Some contain mushrooms, berries, herbs and weeds picked in the wild by one of his cooks, a certified forager, while fresh pastas, pickles and dairy products convey a homey wholesomeness. The breakfast and lunch menus radiate comfort in the form of items like duck-leg congee and pastrami-brisket Reubens. Still, the linchpin of the cuisine is sophistication, reflected in the intricacy of such dinnertime small plates as marinated broccoli stems with pickled sunchokes and sunflower-seed pesto, or Osetra caviar with nasturtium and sunflower. The same goes for desserts like shiro-miso flan with bonito caramel — as Breakell jokes, “My style is a little more salty and savory, less diabetes.” 

Flanked by a patio, the front area operates as a counter-service cafe by day, offering coffee and pastries — éclairs, croissants, tarts and other classics — as well as breakfast and lunch fare 

The drinks: “When we say Nancy’s a cocktail curator, we mean it,” says Kaplan. One glance at the list Kwon has designed proves as much, though it also suggests she could as easily have been an art-gallery curator. Page after page of full-color illustrations from Heavy Metal — the old magazine that's an aesthetic touchstone for the team — present drinks such as the Guildive, the result of “an old-school pirate phase,” as she puts it, that blends Creole-spiced shrub, Jerry Thomas bitters, house demerara syrup and orange peel to “temper down the punch in the face” delivered by navy-strength rum. The selection will change seasonally as Kwon builds the bar, which she promises will eventually house “one of the strongest spirit selections in Colorado.” And though cocktails take center stage, the collection of wine, beer, cider and sake will hardly be an afterthought, thanks to Foote and Gerbitz. 

The space: Of course, such urbane savoir faire is also reflected in the design. Filled with pale natural hues accented by pops of pink, the surroundings center on a 20-foot community table beneath an equally sculptural chandelier, running parallel to the bar. These effectively partition the cafe area — dominated by a Pop portrait of a beautiful astronaut — from the full-service, dinnertime-only seating section in back, where a small private room awaits, lined with toile designed by none other than the Beastie Boys’ Mike D. Granted, the most eye-popping feature of all may well be the foyer — as you’re about to see. And you can see it all in the flesh when Emmerson opens on August 24.

The details: 1600 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-953-9852. Opens at 7 AM daily for breakfast and remains open through lunch, happy hour and dinner until last call nightly. There's also weekend brunch service.

"We inherited this awful vestibule," laughs Kaplan, "so we thought, why don't we turn it into this self-contained thing that sets the tone for people as they transition from their crazy lives?" — Note the Victrola playing 1930s tunes and two-headed taxidermy specimens, among other curios

The Hi-Teq, a blend of tequila blanco, white rhum agricole, hibiscus liqueur and lime with a rim of dried hibiscus and sea salt — Kwon calls it "bright, tangy and citrusy," accented by the "grassy, vegetal" notes of the rhum

A salad of ember-roasted beets, smoked trout, crème fraîche, poppy seeds and the pièce de résistance — Gibney's tangy fresh cheese, also served on toast with fermented mixed berries for breakfast

Dry-aged beef carpaccio with radishes, bubu arare (pellet-shaped rice crackers) and a wonderfully pungent emulsion of oysters and Brie — based, Gibney says, on an old recipe for a soup composed "of everything people thought was fancy"

Squid-ink agnolotti bursting with the late-summer flavors of corn and tomato confit as well as crab, cauliflower and piquillo peppers 

An early menu highlight: rich oxtail ravioli in a sauce of espresso and Parmesan butter, garnished with amaretti crumbs and a splash of saba (grape-must syrup)

For sheer refreshment, Breakell pairs blueberry and cucumber sorbets with sake ice and yuzu in two forms: gelée and meringue plated to suggest the Flatirons

Shortbread studded with dehydrated black olives and basil semifreddo add a savory kick to this sprightly study in strawberries — Breakell says that he may package items like the shortbread for to-go sales at the pastry counter

The 10-seat bar, with Nancy Kwon behind the stick

Emmerson's crackerjack team of partners, clockwise from top left: Jeb Breakell, Ben Kaplan, Tre Gerbitz, Ben Foote and Michael Gibney — photo courtesy of Emmerson

The extraordinary cocktail booklet, complete with barcodes that direct readers to music selected by Kwon to set the mood for the given cocktail — photo by Ruth Tobias

new american
pastries
boulder
bistro
michael gibney
sous chef
nancy kwon