Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s warm voice — equal parts college lecturer and troubadour poet — filled the restroom at Emmer & Rye. The host of American Public Media’s radio program “The Splendid Table” waxed nostalgic about the comfort of soup or joy of apple butter, or something. I can’t recall. Maybe because I was startled to be sharing the facilities with the muscular but nimble disembodied voice.
But the message was received: The team at Emmer & Rye takes food very seriously. Of course, as intense as she can get discussing her love of food, Kasper always brings exhilarated wonder to her topics. Deeply respectful, with a side of playful curiosity. It’s not often a bathroom soundtrack so directly attempts to define a restaurant’s vision.
Such an aesthetic touch can go one of two ways: earnest or corny. And the line distinguishing the two can be faint. The answer lies in whether the kitchen’s execution matches its intention.
As with its bathroom audio, Emmer & Rye’s name underscores the restaurant’s ethos. The moniker is derived from ancient grains, not a canceled CBS detective show. The commitment to celebrating heritage grains is seen on the table decorations and in the shades of beige and brown in the restaurant’s billowing curtains and wooden tables that look plucked from a house atop a windswept mesa overlooking oceanfront property in chef-owner Kevin Fink’s native Arizona. They have those, right?
To understand Emmer & Rye’s focus on from-scratch preparations, start with the restaurant’s attention to grains. Do you know what inoculated bran is? It’s what the kitchen does with the bran that remains following the milling process. They use the lactic fermentation process to create a sludgy, sandlike bed that over six hours transforms a simple medley of radishes, turnips and baby onions into a work of edible art. The preserved veggies retain their snap while brimming with a salty version of their essence ($6). You will often find the preparation in Japanese cuisine, and a small bowl of mackerel and pickled daikon radish in a pool of delicate tomato water laced with bitter nasturtium leaves ($8) reminded me of a dish I encountered at a kaiseki in Kyoto.
The team at Emmer & Rye doesn’t just bake its own bread and make its own pastas; they obsess over grains, utilizing them to their full potential. Crunchy wheat dotted a magenta chop of lamb and beet tartare colored with marigold flowers and brightened further with marigold-mint oil ($10). Sonoran wheat is puffed into a cracker resembling the texture and firmness of a rice cake to create a bed for cool shrimp and toasted tangerine ceviche topped with green tomato and onion tossed in crème fraiche ($10).
The ceviche, tartare and pickled vegetables came from a dim sum cart that circulated throughout dinner, a trend made famous by State Bird Provisions in San Francisco and one rarely seen in non-Chinese restaurants. That cart can serve as a welcome surprise topped with revelations, as it was when presented on two visits by an abundantly friendly server who offered the dishes with the pride of a farmer showing off his finest baby chicks. But another night, the mobile spectacle had all of the charm of in-flight food service delivered by someone akin to a gruff member of an airplane mechanics’ union.
Other highlights of the dim sum cart included the crackle and fluff of suntanned Johnnycakes with cheddar and roasted pork ($6), and melted fibers of butternut squash and gentle clouds of ricotta awash in black butter ($8). Could I have told you the cakes were dusted with fermented leek powder or that the daikon grated atop the squash had been rubbed with pork and beef fat? No. But I knew from the flavor alone that they were special, and learning about the dishes from a joyful and garrulous server only heightened my appreciation.
When you dine at Emmer & Rye, ask questions. Understanding the kitchen’s process is part of the overall experience. And there’s no such thing as a dumb or embarrassing question; even renowned Irish chef Trevor Moran, former sous chef at the world class Noma in Copenhagen, was spending a couple of weeks at the restaurant studying some of the restaurant’s methods. I would have marveled over sensuous knobs of sunchokes confit in aged beef tallow and pork fat and finished in butter, even if I didn’t know all of the steps or what the accompanying henbit was prior to ordering the dish blooming with sunchoke foam ($13). The strength of that heartening dish was matched by thick, slow-cooked polenta that ensnared winged confit shitake mushrooms like animals in amber ($11).
But education doesn’t always lead to enjoyment. I don’t care how the tomato horseradish broth is made when the octopus ($15) has the flavor and consistency of canned tuna chunks, and no explanation of a mushy dumpling of pork, cabbage and mushrooms ($6) would make me an enlightened believer.
Those dishes arrived on a night when gaps in team service led to false starts and missteps that were just as distracting, though harmless, as the freeway traffic seen in the distance from the windows of the restaurant on the maturing but still slightly obnoxious Rainey Street.
Those gaffes in food and experience faded to distant memory on other visits, when a measured but loose staff hit all the right marks in tone and knowledge. Even dishes that missed one night astounded another. A soupy spaghetti cacio e pepe made with challerhocker cheese from Switzerland ($15) shook itself of excess, finding a balance of creaminess and peppery bite swathed about a twirl of voluptuous tendrils of pasta.
I had a feeling Emmer & Rye would kill with their pasta dishes, so the return trips were a relief. And the pappardelle is a wonder. Ancient white Sonoran wheat was used to fashion wavy ribbons of tensile pappardelle spun with juicy pork cheek and creamy straciatella in a fresh and mild arrabiata ($16). I could alternate between the pasta dishes with bottles of a d’Orfeuilles chenin blanc ($46) and Donkey & Goat Mourvedre ($74), followed by a gargantuan in-house, dry-aged ribeye ($58) topped with mushroom butter, for a week of dinners.
Those bottles appear on a fun and nerdy wine list that includes a selection from Rare Wine Co.’s Historic Series of madeiras, such as a New York Malmsey ($14 a glass) with fruit and spice that complemented a playful chestnut and emmer chocolate cookie sandwiching a lush orb of strawberry ice cream ($5). Even the desserts abide by the strident love implied by the restaurant’s name. A brioche pudding ($8) surrounded by the crunch of chocolate crumble and candied pecan tasted like dissolving buttered bread and came with grain ice cream.
Emmer & Rye walks the talk.
Emmer & Rye
51 Rainey St. 512-366-5530, emmerandrye.com
Rating: 8 out of 10
Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Sunday: Brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: Dim sum, $4-$10; small plates, $10-$15; pasta, $14-$16; large plates, $34-$58; desserts, $5-$8.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Emmer & Rye’s attention to detail is as impressive as its flavors.