Editor’s note: As of January 2019, Emmerson has closed.
If you want something different, here you go.
This restaurant is unique, from its flavors to its decor, down to the gritty details, like how its cocktail menu is designed. The entire concept of Emmerson is like nothing Boulder has ever experienced before.
It’s innovative. Surprisingly creative. It’s odd, no doubt. But in a way that completely and beautifully works.
You know, like Boulder itself.
“We wanted to do something different than what you’d expect going into a Boulder restaurant. Not to be contrarian, but to offer something new and and to broaden perspectives and experiences in the food scene. To fill a niche that wasn’t fully represented,” says Ben Kaplan, founder, who unrolled Emmerson at 1600 Pearl St. in September.
Emmerson bills itself as a grain-focused “neo-bistro.” What that means: You can’t pin these guys in one hole. And that fluidity is what defines Emmerson.
“We don’t have a concept, like ‘modern Italian’ or ‘farm-to-table.’ We just try to make great food and don’t want to have any boundaries that define us,” Kaplan says. “We want to pull inspiration from all cultures, work with local farmers to have great produce brought to the table, and we also listen to the community about what resonates or not.”
Being undefinable in the restaurant scene can go only one of two ways: either it misses the mark and people don’t get it, or it transcends, setting new standards and trends. Emmerson is the latter.
By and large how this works is the star line-up behind the scenes. Kaplan himself is involved not only with Emmerson, but also with the popular downtown restaurant Oak at Fourteenth, and he brought two superstars into the kitchen: Michael Gibney and Jeb Breakell, who both have experience working in Michelin Star restaurants.
In addition to writing the book “Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line,” Gibney worked at some of the best restaurants in NYC (Ten Downing, Governor and Le Turtle). Breakell also came from the Big Apple, where he worked at the likes of Atera, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se and Blanca. Foodies know how big of a deal this is. And if you don’t, well, your tastebuds will.
Emmerson rounds out the star-studded team with Nancy Kwon, the cocktail creator and bartender, who was named LA Weekly’s best bartender in 2015.
Although still new on the scene, Emmerson is already getting recognized. Zagat added Emmerson to its October list of the hottest restaurants in 15 American cities, and the Daily Camera newspaper called it “Boulder’s most boldly innovative restaurant.”
Emmerson uses “modernist techniques,” blended with classic French and Italian techniques, blended with inspiration from Asia and the Middle East and America — yeah, see, you can’t label it. Ultimately, the menu is approachable, delicious and playful.
“We may do a dish you’ve seen a million times, but we bring a new approach to it,” Kaplan says.
Like an angus flat iron with smoked potato — and bok choy. Or crispy brussels with kaffir lime and peanut. Kaplan thinks of it as “creative comfort food.”
Grains are a highlight here. In fact, the name of the restaurant is inspired by the “mama grain” called Emmer. For a gluten-fearing community like Boulder, that was a bold move, but Emmerson does it differently, offering breads made carefully with heirloom grains. Not just a load of white stuff plopped in the middle of the table. The first items on the menu are “Our Daily Bread” and it changes daily. Don’t miss the unique whole wheat and seaweed butter buns.
Emmerson also offers a pasta program — “how pasta is meant to be served.” It’s all freshly made and hand-rolled each day.
The beverages here deserve their own recognition, as they are as deliciously made as they are interesting. The menu feels like you’re flipping through a retro comic book; each drink has a name and its own page, with its own cartoon character. Oh, and its own QR code that corresponds to a song that goes with the drink.
It’s an elaborate presentation of a menu, yet totally fun.
“We wanted to be whimsical and not take ourselves too seriously,” Kaplan says. “There’s a bit of a perception that we take ourselves seriously because the key members of the restaurant have all worked in notable restaurants and bars in New York and LA. … But at the end of the day, the people who get us see we just love food and wanted to create a restaurant and bar that serves the food and beverages that we, ourselves, like to eat and drink.”
In the summer, Emmerson plans on opening its Pearl Street-facing patio, which will offer a happy hour.
Before you even reach the dining area, you are transported. Emmerson turned an unsightly vestibule from its previous business into a sort of time-and-space-traveling chamber of oddities. To get inside the restaurant, you must pass shelves of reptile heads, books and quirky knickknacks.
How you enter a space sets the tone for your visit, Kaplan says.
“Each thing is thought out to create an experience. You don’t just go out to have food. You go out to have an emotional experience,” he says.
Emmerson’s decor and artwork reflects the cool, unique, sophisticated and creative side of Boulder.
A sexy side. The dim glow of lights set an immediate sensual vibe. Kaplan says the goal was to express a “bad-ass feminine quality.” He says it’s hard to put into words, but they designed Emmerson to feel strong and artistic, but also exclamatory, with “the mystery of femininity and the strength of it.”
The first thing you see when you walk in the door is an oversized community table, designed to bring strangers together and create connections.
Or if you want a different kind of entertainment, grab a spot on the bar and watch the chefs work.
Breakell is “such a perfectionist and so intense, you can tell the level of training, like when you watch a musician, a master of their craft, and you spontaneously start laughing because it’s ridiculous how masterful they are,” Kaplan says. “The level of precision, focus and details — and the same is true for his creative process. The ideas he has are totally bonkers, always pushing the envelope, but then he is able to reel it back and present it in such an unpretentious and approachable way. There’s a sense of childhood whimsy and familiarity with his food.”
Despite the level of care put into the food at Emmerson, its prices remain reasonable, for Boulder. You won’t find an entree for over $28. The average price for a main course during dinner is $25. We love the $18 pan-roasted chicken with peas, mushrooms and veloute. Or if you’re on a budget, pick a few small plates, starting at $3 for oysters. Also, the $10 kale and farro salad is refreshing.
Or order a family-style, bone-in, dry-aged ribeye. These family-size cuts are the newest offering at Emmerson. They range from $80 to $100, depending on weight and type, but they’re designed to share.