Embeya and its chef, Thai Dang
There are countless ways to fail in the restaurant business but only two clear paths to success. You can give people what they want so consistently and abundantly that quality becomes immaterial (see Garden, Olive). Or—and this is a lot trickier—you can add something new to the conversation. This needn’t be anything earthshattering, like a 12-course intravenous tasting menu or convincing diners of the similarities between, say, Argentina and Indonesia. But you better find a niche and nail it, or no one is going to be interested.
BellyQ is taking the second path, and it’s bound to succeed. Thanks to a partnership with Michael Jordan, Bill Kim—who does fast-casual noodles and dumplings at Urbanbelly and faster-casualer Asian-Latin sandwiches at Belly Shack—finally gets the big audience he deserves in the former One Sixtyblue space. The 200-seat operation has been imagined as an accessible version of the beloved Korean barbecue grime holes on West Lawrence Avenue, without the punitive service or sheen of grease that covers all objects, animate and inanimate. Kim, who was a sous chef at Charlie Trotter’s by the age of 26, has higher ambitions. BellyQ’s catch phrase is “tradition amplified,” and Kim wants to turn the place into a hub for soulful Asian cooking: Think Yusho or Slurping Turtle times ten.
And that’s exactly what is happening. BellyQ launched in August with a firm handle on its kitchen and a good knowledge of its patrons. The sprawling room’s industrial-chic elements straddle the line between calculated (grill tables, to-go counter) and giddy (karaoke room, wall of living moss); conversations bounce off a high ceiling adorned with balloon-shaped lights made of glass bottles, creating a chamber of buzz-saw white noise. Tradition ain’t the only thing amplified.
Each section of the laser-focused menu harbors at least one instant classic. From “Belly Bites,” there’s Thai-style fried chicken: crispy triple-battered boneless thighs, supple and moist in a tangy lemongrass-basil chili sauce. Among salads, the leader is chilled soba noodles with marinated Chinese eggplant, fried shallots, and plump shrimp poached in olive oil— a brilliant combination of tastes and textures. Under “Wood Burning Oven,” Kim finds a home for savory Asian pancakes like his mom’s. The showstopper, topped with kimchi, mixed greens, and double-smoked Nueske’s bacon, has more in common with crisp boutique pizza than with the soft pajeon at most Korean barbecues. Even tofu hot pots—words roughly as exciting as “accrual-based accounting”—are creamy stunners, particularly one stocked with pork belly, rice cake, mushroom, and zucchini. BellyQ gave me what I wanted before I knew I wanted it.
Bland-sounding sides, like spinach and Chinese sausage with a mound of red quinoa, manage to produce fireworks on the tongue. I didn’t care for Peter Vestinos’s saccharine craft cocktails: You don’t get a pass just because you use exotic ingredients like aloe. Desserts, though, are soft-serve ice creams of coconut water and milk placed smartly atop granita-like layers of things such as huckleberry ice—an improvement over traditional Thai shaved ice. If only the service were as satisfying. On one visit, wait staff were prompt and endearing; on another, our guy was so disinterested we thought he might text us the bill.
No review of BellyQ is complete without addressing the grill tables. My take: Don’t bother. You can get the same marrowy charred short ribs elsewhere in the restaurant without the hassle. In the shadows cast by low-hanging ventilation hoods, staffers can’t see what they’re doing, even after attaching a magnetic night–light. And when the built-in infrared grill slides closed, a knob on top makes the placement of dishes perilous. But these little flaws aside, BellyQ proves that Bill Kim is not simply a man who knows which way the wind is blowing. Right now, he is the wind.
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Seventy-two hours. That’s how long Thai Dang told us he had been onsite without going home. Watching Embeya’s chef work, I imagined his whole staff lying under the dining room’s big sea urchin lights for a wee-hours catnap before scurrying off to start anew. In October, Dang took his first day off in months—to move into a loft closer to the restaurant.
The man has much to live up to. Embeya’s interior, a 7,000-square-foot office space transformed by 555 International into a soaring Asian lair, is the best design job of the year. Lime-green walls and muscular bamboo posts frame 12-foot hand-carved Balinese shutters, a rust-orange marble bar, and a dramatic acrylic sculpture that dangles dangerously over two tables. The space is sleek and spare enough that it will not feel dated in a few years.
As a former chef at L2O and Ria and heir apparent to Laurent Gras, Dang wants to start his own dialogue. Considering his credentials, his “progressive Asian cuisine” at Embeya is not where it needs to be. For every standout, such as a clever green papaya salad with crispy shallots and nubbins of beef jerky, the kitchen offers a dud like the banana blossom with royal trumpet mushrooms and red perilla or gimmicks like “sea snails,” pork stuffing in escargot shells. You’re meant to extract the pork, drizzle on garlic lemongrass nuoc cham, and smile. You’re not meant to leave them half uneaten.
I marveled at the presentation of the scallop with shimeji, sake, and soy—nesting in a scallop shell on top of ignited sea salt—more than at the taste, which I quickly forgot. That’s the problem with Embeya. Everything looks wonderful, but sometimes a scallop is just a scallop.
When Dang is on, you get glimpses of Embeya’s promise. A magnificent hot-and-sour broth of lemongrass, lime, and coconut with mussels is basically a tom yum soup with meaty bivalves. Côte de boeuf caramelized in a soy-honey gastrique is so tender it comes apart in your chopsticks. And you’ve got to like a chef with the audacity to offer a side of bamboo—a charred, sake-braised treasure with pan-roasted maitake mushrooms—and a dessert of jackfruit and longan, tough sells to Westerners.
Embeya rolled out slowly, taking limited reservations until it found its footing. “This is a baby that’s barely crawling,” Attila Gyulai, Dang’s partner, said in October. “It will be running in a few months.” In other words, Embeya has great ambitions for its dialogue with diners—it just doesn’t know what it wants to say yet. I’ll be listening.