Review: A New Perspective on Mediterranean at Ema

By Bruce Kong

Mediterranean cuisine is known for countless, flavorful dishes that can be enjoyed under the hot summer sun. Fresh herbs play a primary role in Mediterranean cuisine, shunning processed ingredients and offering a refreshing meal. And who can ever forget their signature yogurt sauce? Or what most know it to be: Tzatziki sauce.

Countries on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea use ingredients inspired by each other, so there are minor differences in each culture’s cuisine, but they are all still flavorful in spice.

But maybe it’s not just legumes, yogurt and chickpeas that make people return for more.

Foods like Greek salad, pita bread and falafel are a great selection to add to the dining table—throw hummus into that mix too. People on a calorie deficit or a Mediterranean diet can rest assured that consuming food groups involving whole grains or healthy fats will do their bodies a favor.

Hummus with drizzled olive oil.

Unsurprisingly, the countries that surface near the Mediterranean Sea make up the food we know today—offering unique ingredients and compiling recipes that capture a diner’s attention.

It’s what food does: maybe that’s why people come to Ema.

On the corner of West Illinois and Clark streets, outside of the Loop and smack in the middle of River North, sits a restaurant with an elegant entrance consisting of a classy revolving door that welcomes you to Ema.

“This is so good,” my friend said after he stuffed his mouth with pita bread-smeared hummus.

People have their own palates for food; some like to explore new things—others are conservative and stick to what they know best.

And seeing people’s faces when they’ve tried new food is fascinating. For most, it’s a generic, common reaction that merely says, “It’s good enough.” If you’re lucky, you’ll see the flaring of nostrils, with eyebrows raised and a look of glee.

When I tried hummus for the first time (before coming to Ema), it was sealed in a plastic container and placed on the shelf in a grocery store. The taste wasn’t entirely horrible, but funny enough, there are multiple brands on the shelf to choose from, which comes with a harsh veracity: most of them are made in facilities and others are homemade.

I guess you can tell the difference between store-bought and homemade hummus; people like to use the term “fresh” when describing the taste of homemade hummus. Most times, hummus made in facilities will generally follow a set of recipes that require them to make hummus in large batches and use additives for preservation purposes.

Whereas homemade hummus will allow you to alter the recipe and grant you access to make as many changes as you’d like to it. The tradeoff is that the shelf life of homemade hummus won’t be as long as you’d hope.

But at the end of the day, they’re both made with the same ingredients: chickpeas, garlic, tahini, lemon juice and cumin. That’s not to put it lightly though, hummus will still and forever be a gem to the world.

Ema’s hummus stood out when it came to presentation, albeit it’s impossible to taste presentation. A lemony profile is enough to make hummus good and spreading it onto a warm piece of pita bread is a pleasant start to a meal.

Before I put in the reservation for Ema, I asked my buddy, “What’s one thing you’ve never tried at a Mediterranean restaurant?”

His answer, as it came as no shock, was falafel. I looked at him, more so glared, and questioned his taste in food. A guy who ate at Mediterranean restaurants (not including Ema)—never bothered once to try falafel because he didn’t know what it was.

Of course, I had to order falafel. It was the only logical thing to do; if I didn’t force my buddy to take at least one bite of falafel, I’d have failed as a friend. And I think we both agreed that night that Ema’s falafel was good enough to offer on their menu.

Kefta and lemon-dill rice.

Smashed chickpeas and later fried can warm the soul; mixing it with Ema’s sweet beet tzatziki and green tahini sauce leaves a standing impression that makes you want to order a second plate. 

However, the fun doesn’t stop there. Our next dish came on a beautifully designed plate piled high with rice, herbs and skewered meat. It was enough to make our eyes bigger than our stomachs. 

Kefta is a mixture of ground meats with a healthy dose of spices, charred on a grill. Some would say it’s a different version of the American meatloaf or meatball. I beg to differ and find that statement quite insulting.

A prized dish like kefta needs to be prepared well while served with a creamy side of tzatziki sauce. Unfortunately, I found theirs to be dry and gritty.  The lemon and olive oil rice with dill paired nicely, adding a freshness to the meat.

What more can I say about Ema?

It’s done the duty of a restaurant: to serve food and ensure that their customers leave with a content belly. You’ll take nice pictures and enjoy a well-crafted cocktail from the bar; their lavish ambience makes for a pleasant dining experience, and the serving staff smiles enough to make the guests feel welcome.

At the core lansof it all, Ema is no different than your average Mediterranean restaurant or bistro. While the interior design is appealing and the crystalized lighting affects the mood—the food, much like that of a different location— remains the same.

People come to dine for the scene, and that’s okay: that doesn’t mean the food was unpalatable. It just means that the restaurant has two things to offer. And in most cases, one benefit dominates the other.

Bruce Kong is a native Wisconsinite who moved to Chicago in January. He focuses on food writing and restaurant reviews, but plans to branch out and write on other topics of interest. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2022 with a BFA in Writing and ApplIed Arts.

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