Or as some call it geoduck, or king clam, and the Chinese call it elephant clam. Regardless of regional claim to name, this long lived animal burrows itself in the dark depths of murky waters and extends its long arm to reach surfaces to feed. Mirugai is the Japanese name for this giant clam and is considered a rare and expensive delicacy by all who love the fine flavors of a salted, briny sea combined with a soft delicate taste of thinly sliced shellfish.
In preparation, the clam shell is removed from the body and prepared for a quick blanch to remove the thin layer of skin from the long body. At Embeya, Dang finely slices the silken mirugai and pairs it with fresh pickled pomegranate and woodsy shiitake mushrooms. House puffed rice adds a layer of crunch and texture to complete the dish.
While our menu is ever-changing, we encourage all to taste and sample the simple complexity of this delicious dish.
Progressive cuisine at Embeya refers to exotic, unusual flavors or ingredients and refined techniques used to prepare and present Asian food. An inspired cook at heart, Chef Thai says this : “To be progressive you have to know tradition, only then can you build upon it”. At Embeya, Chef builds upon his experience in tradition and skill or flavor and style to bridge a refined version of cooking to his native Vietnamese and Southeast Asian dishes. That is the heart behind Embeya and Progressive Asian Cuisine.
The past is what molds a present and future. Chef Thai grew up in a very traditional Vietnamese family eating Vietnamese and southeast Asian flavors and ingredients such as thai chili, fresh herbs, noodles, and fish sauce, or rice and brothy soups. Some of his other native flavors may be considered a bit more unusual to the American palate such as dried shrimp, heart, and other animal innards, or snake, eel, and fermented ingredients. As an adult, he has found himself in many highly regarded kitchens that practice refined French techniques, like the art of making a delicate sauce to bind a perfect dish, how to turn a vegetable, or how to make the dish appear flawlessly …meticulously manicured. He learned to process whole animals with skill, speed, and precision, all the while utilizing every part possible. It was within these kitchens that he found respect for process and ingredient and the desire to push further.
Today, many of Chef’s dishes have been committed to memory not by recipe, but by the smell of the stock, to the taste of the sauce and the sound of the crispy crackling flesh of the fish. These flavors, these smells, these ingredients are extensions of His family and childhood. They are committed to heart and memory by love.
I sometimes laugh with the guests about family familiarity in dishes such as the papaya salad which has beautiful shredded strands of firm young papaya, house made beef jerky that has just the right amount of sweetness and heat, paired with traditional Vietnamese herbs and dressed just so..or the sauce alongside the spring roll, these are all dishes, flavors, and ingredients Thai grew up with. Nobody but me (and now you) would ever know that the peanut / hoisin sauce that compliments the spring roll with pork belly, rice noodle, fresh herbs, and pickled accoutrement is a refined version of his sister Thu’s sauce. The ‘thit heo kho’ (meat pork stew) is a classic in Southeast Asia and specifically Vietnam. Pork belly is cooked low and slow and accompanied by equally tender quail eggs that stay creamy in the center to bring all the flavors of the stew together. A bowl of that with the simplest side of steamed rice and I am one happy camper. Nevertheless, they are all dishes that can be found on any given family supper Sunday in the Dang household back in Virginia, where momma Dang and the rest of the family prepare a feast for all ten of her children, her children’s children, and other friends of the family.
Even with hearty homestyle flavors like these, however, Thai takes care to ensure the finest of ingredients are in the papaya salad and that the jerky is properly cured within the four walls of his kitchen. Those spring rolls? Hidden beneath rice noodle and herbs, you’ll find perfectly pickled cucumber using simple ingredients with Japanese pickling techniques known as tsukimono.
Chef Thai is taking his flavors of home and heart to heightened, more refined levels. Take for instance the Garlic chicken. This elaborate process starts with deboning a whole chicken and treating it “Peking Duck style”. The chicken is brined over night then sewn, somewhat surgically, back together for easy cooking. Chef dunks them in a hot pot of boiling water for just a few seconds to tighten up the skin. They are then hung and brushed with care every few minutes before roasting them to release all the moisture within the skin to allow for ultimate crisping with a juicy, flavorful center. The traditional side of finely sliced scallion is reinvented by topping the roasted chicken with scallion confit and a touch of salt and pepper. Simply a beautiful dish.
The cuttlefish is another refined dish that redefines cuttlefish from what some may recognize as Squid’s ugly, less tender and far less tasty step brother, and reintroduces it as a must-have star of the dish. The whole cuttlefish simmers in sesame oil until the nutty smell from the oil fills the air and the fish becomes tender. The fish is cooled and cut into fine ribbons to stylistically and proportionally match the size and scale of the heirloom carrot and yamaimo (raw Japanese yams) that compliment the dish. The yamaimo, or yams, are blanched and marinate in a pickling solution of yuzu juice, salt, sugar, and zest. This cold dish is topped with crunchy fried lotus and a dusting of black garlic that has been dehydrated and fermented for depth and complexity. There is height, color, and multi/dimensional flavor. What a vibrant and textured dish.
While my mouth is watering here, I will mention one more deserving dish. This is something that may look simple, but explodes with flavors of chili and the sea, and has some complex steps within production. The baby clams with fried garlic, fried shallots, chili, lime, and black pepper are balanced by salt, sugar, and fish sauce. This too is served cold, chopped and paired adjacent to rice crackers which are prepared from scratch at Embeya. These crackers start as ground rice paste and left over night to dehydrate. The form of the paste changes to that consistent with a sheet of paper. The sheets are then dropped into a fryer to puff, kind of like a pork rind would. The crackers are used to scoop the clams and compliment the flavors from the fried Thai basil leaves. This is the quintessential play on two opposing textures of the airy crunch from the cracker and softer more delicate clam. So simple, yet not.
At Embeya, we deliver heart, soul, and good product. The menu is ever changing and developing with new renditions of interesting ingredients and flavor suited for all who simply love good food. See you there.
Over a year ago I was asked to be the Beverage director for Embeya. I was approaching the end of a two year tenure in the beverage department at the Elysian hotel. Bernard’s Bar. What a great low key, high class place full of fine spirits, and amazing old world cocktails now made by the one and only Tom Hogan. Tom also has amazing hair that reaches heights unknown and should have a name of its very own. We were a team that worked to prefect our spirit knowledge and selection of crafted classic cocktails.
The idea for this new project was to be Asian inspired. What better way to understand Asian product, technique, style, and culture than to take a long journey across seas and visit many southeast Asian countries.
Chef Thai and I beat feet around Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and all over the eastern coast of Japan. We ate fine, we ate street, and everything in between. I ate my first eyeball and had fried bugs (which are actually nutty and delish).
I quickly came to realize how much the majority of individuals loved to both eat and drink. In the middle of the afternoon, on lunch break in their business suits, late night, people engaged in perpetual eating and drinking.
This kind of drinking, however, was somehow less ceremonial or celebratory in practice compared to what our perspectives on afternoon imbibe would be. It is meant as a compliment to their meal, rather than an afternoon buzz. You wouldn’t, for instance, find someone in formal attire and they certainly aren’t sipping gin martinis. But they are drinking cold beer and sake and lots of it. In Japan, small glass jars of cheap sake are sold on corner stores or street side and warmed in a makeshift water bath that sits on a ratty old heater at the fish markets.
When you think about it though, SAKE at the FISH market, it makes perfect sense as a complimentary pair for your palate. Or think of a big plate of steamed clams or mussels or Thai noodles and chili sitting next to a tall icy cold beer. Yes please.
A big no show for the cocktail scene though. My concern was whether I should pay tribute to a classic Asian cocktail style or practice. Not so much. Perhaps due to high cost of alcohol. Liquor bottles of mediocre quality sold for nearly 3 times our value.
So as far as my program, I knew there would be a tight selection of fine malted grain goodness (beer) to quench the thirst of all parched patrons, as well as a specially crafted sake list. As for the cocktails, I kind of have free range.
My approach to cocktail is to incorporate my developed love for American classic style recipes and pull from some of the amazing ingredients found in these countries to create a harmonious balance of flavor. Each cocktail is unique and is created with some of the best ingredients available.
I process fruits such as jackfruit, coconut, kumquat, and lychee with similar styles and techniques found in the kitchen. Since our opening menu, I create a take on the traditional Manhattan. Paired with a rye and sweet vermouth, you’ll find a beautiful balance of heat from the rye and a soured sweetness from a plum syrup made by breaking down the natural fruit and sweating them out over an indirect heat, or double boiler. This method leaves behind a delicious syrup from the natural plum juices.
I also love to showcase a hint of what’s going on inside the cocktail…on the outside of the cocktail. While there is a time and place for lemons and limes you’ll find a garnish that represents an integral ingredient.
Last seasons Manhattan got a finely sliced and delicately folded fan of plum. Now, for the early start of fall, I serve simple beads of concord grapes to compliment the naturally extracted grape juice showcased in this seasons Manhattan, Fields of Concord.
And to have great drink you must elix with great spirit. You’ll find a rounded portfolio of select spirits. I like the classics when I like a classic…and the newer artisanal recipes that many are brewing these days when I’m feeling adventurous. Never the less, a more curated approach to spirit selection has allowed me to pair a couple of potato vodkas with a couple of ryes, a couple of wheat’s, some specialties. Or perhaps a selection of 2 or 3 London’s and dry’s, to a few international styles of gin..and so on.
I’m in an eternal pursuit of craft, creativity, flavor, and balance. Check out our classics or try something new. Whichever your preference, we invite you to join us for a bite and a sip at Embeya’s bar. Danielle Pizzutillo
I remember sitting next to Thai one cold winters night a few years back. He asked me, “should I send this?”. I glanced over Thai’s shoulder and saw his direct inquiry to stage for Chef Laurent Gras, at L20 here in Chicago. I had to smile because in the subject line, it said “opportunity to stage” yet in the body of the message he wrote nothing. He only attached his resume. I agreed that he should push send.
Two weeks later, I dropped Thai at Reagan Airport in Washington DC for a flight Chicago bound. He came back the following week brimming with ideas and excited, not only for the sole experience of working with one of the worlds most innovative and renowned chefs, or for having the chance to work with cutting edge equipment in one of the most amazing city’s, but about the future. The idea of working with some of the worlds best ingredients, and pushing his boundaries of knowledge and technique with an outstanding team of young hungry cooks was what ailed him.
And that was that. A few corresponding emails between Thai and the chef and a month or two later, we were back at the airport. But this time I was going.
Meanwhile, Attila Gyulai was busy branding the country’s #1 luxury hotel, the Elysian, in downtown Chicago. As the Director of Operations, Attila worked to guide and mold the leading hotel to receive all of the finest and most coveted awards for dining, service, and style that became. Attila has traveled the world building refined standards for service, cuisine, and hospitality for some of the worlds most well known hotels. I was fortunate to be hired by Attila at the Elysian hotel and worked with many good people and for so many amazing guests.
Months later, the Michelin guide announced their favorite restaurants in the city.
On one side of the city, L20 was celebrating their 3 stars. Each one of those guys in that kitchen leading up to the Michelin awards had skill and finesse. I recall stories of libations, followed by many of the cooks celebrating by tattooing stars all over themselves.
On the other side of the city, Attila and his team at the Elysian hotel were celebrating 2 stars for their fine dining restaurant, RIA. I recall an equally untamed group of cooks, chefs, and servers enjoying Jameson whiskey and pickle-backs at the once Trader Vic’s.
In 2011 Chef Laurent left L20 and Thai was short to follow. Thai was then hired as a sous chef for the two Michelin rated RIA, and was promoted by Attila within eight weeks to become the Chef de Cuisine. Thai had proven to be a natural leader with intrinsic skills to be creative and refined. It was then that a bond and friendship began to form between the two. Both Attila and Thai share the same views of refined service, attention to detail, quality of food, technique, and ingredient and soon realized a need to grow and develop a name and project of their very own. With the combined effort of Attila’s experience, perseverance, and a natural drive that comes from within, paired with the talents of a fiercely creative and strong willed chef, the partners now introduce a progressive Asian restaurant called…..Embeya.
The stem of the name Embeya roots from Chef Thai’s childhood. Born in Vietnam as the youngest to 10 brothers and sisters, he was considered the “little one” of the family. As a child, Thai’s family adoringly nicknamed him “Em be”(which is pronounced, Embeya), and translates to “the little one” or “the young sibbling”. It is a name that has stuck with him throughout his life and is still used by his brothers and sisters today.
Months back, the partners set out on a road trip back to visit the Dang family in Virginia. Now mind you, this is not a traditionally sized family. Consider 6 brothers and 3 sisters who have grown, married, and created at least 2-3 offspring. It is a family tree with infinite limbs full of personalities and love. There is also love and passion for food. Every Sunday, Momma Dang cooks a special meal for the entire family. While most of us may relate to mom boiling a small pot of water for rice or noodles, Momma Dang uses large, industrial sized pots for Pho, soup, and noodle dishes that are bigger than any banquet sized equipment I have ever seen. Picture a woman with the heart of gold, a matriarch of the family, and standing roughly 5′-1″ above ground. This petite woman climbs on a step stool with the longest laddle known to man to cook, stew, and grill for a group the size of an army.
Now picture Attila, the new and welcomed addition to the family, who is probably 6 feet tall, dark and surrounded by the curious kids while playing games on one of those Sundays. It was another night filled with strong ties and family bonds that are created through food and shared dishes.
I love Attila’s account of hearing the nickname “Em Be” in its most natural form. On that Sunday, Thai’s sister joined the family a bit late. Upon her arrival and seeing Thai for the first time in a small while she said with a joyful smile, “come here Em Be”, and embraced him with a hug. It was the first time both Attila and Thai collectively connected the name to family value.
Thai learned from family at a very young age that food could be used as a tool to bring people, friends, and family together. These values have encouraged the passion and desire to create dishes from the heart and develop within the culinary world. This is the heart of Embeya.
And through the hierarchy we are four strong, creative minds that have built a family-like bond to build a dream. Behind our product and beyond what you taste, see, or smell, there is love and a shared view of excellence and appreciation for all that’s good in food and product, technique and skill, service and guest relations, or life as a whole.
This is what dreams are made of.
For us the origin began way before this, even though we have only just begun. The true beginning for a precarious Attila began while traveling the world and experiencing life in hospitality and cuisine abroad. Attila’s zeal is just as integral to the sustainability and growth of the team as his vigor.
A perfect pair. A pioneer of his own cuisine and a leader, Chef Thai was born with natural skills and the inherent ability to adapt, understand, and succeed in the culinary world. Moreover, Thai’s enthusiasm and perserverence to push and challenge himself creatively and technically is both contagious and admirable.
There is also truth that beyond every great man is a rooted woman. Komal is Attila’s support and a driving force behind all that is tangible. Her skills of managing and maintaining order to our crazy lives is vital for our sanity and proper production.
I am Thai’s friend, confidant, partner, and comrade and I have been with Thai from the start. I strive to push all creative boundaries, keep order, always finish strong, and balance my waves of thought with diligence and vivacity.
This is what dreams are made of.