ēmmē, James Street’s new fire-powered knockout, celebrates beauty of imperfection

Looking around ēmmē’s gorgeous interior, it’s easy to make the assumption that James Street’s fiery newcomer is another glitzy addition to the strip. But settle in at a table and stay a while and you’ll discover that the restaurant, helmed by a rising culinary talent, isn’t an intimidating fine-diner – it’s an approachable, dressed-down dining option that’s humble at heart. Armed with an all-day menu of woodfired fare and a world-roaming wine list, ēmmē (pronounced ’em’) is shaping up to not only be one of 2024’s best-looking newcomers, but also one of its most welcoming. Here’s why …
May 02, 2024, updated May 02, 2024

On the day of ēmmē’s official opening, Thomas Lian Tze got in at 4:30 am to light up the oven at the heart of his eye-catching restaurant. The sturdy centrepiece, an entirely woodfired apparatus crafted by Samuel Fraraccio aka The Brick Chef, is the engine that powers much of the kitchen activity. Of the morsels that emerge, steaming or sizzling, from the hearth, it’s the bread – puffy woodfired pita finished with a dusting of saba’a baharat salt – that is most emblematic of ēmmē’s culinary ethos, which Thomas informs us is rooted in imperfection.

“The bread comes out in whatever shape we stretch it to,” says Thomas. “It could be long, it could be round or it could be oval – at the end of the day, the most important thing is that it has to taste good.”

That basically sums up ēmmē’s offering to a tee. Here, imperfection is celebrated – it’s part of the charm. From the produce to the plating, minor blemishes are forgiven as long as every forkful is top-notch.

When Thomas finished up as head chef at Greca to spread his wings and open his own venue, his dream scenario was something that was stripped back, where flavour came first and looks came second.

“I wanted to work with a small tight-knit team where everyone’s minds were aligned – where we all wanted to cook simple meals with good produce,” explains Thomas. “Simple, local and tasty. That’s it.”

With ēmmē, Thomas has indeed crafted his dream restaurant, but he hasn’t done it alone. Thomas and business partner Sultan Amasheh have transformed the site previously home to Spoon Deli Cafe (the long-running brunch slinger at the heart of James St Market) into a real head-turner. Under Sultan’s creative direction, Alkot Studio and Tonic Projects have fashioned a venue that is stylishly minimalist and timeless, but also feels raw and organic – an aesthetic that aligns brilliantly with Thomas’ purposefully pared-back plates.

“[Sultan’s] overall vision for the design was inspired by philosophies like wabi-sabi,” says Thomas. “He wanted it to be something very simple and also elegant at the same time – we don’t need to put paintings on the wall or all of these things to make it look pretty.”

The 44-seat dining room is accoutred in a tasteful mix of textures, from the polished marble of the counter tops and rough stone of the feature wall at the entry, to the rendered concrete walls, the geometric acoustic panelling on the ceiling and the sheer, yellow-hued curtains that cast a golden glow across the venue.

Meanwhile, pieces of decor like ornate vases, minimalist sculptures and delicate flower arrangements add detail to oft-overlooked corners. As for seating, cushioned banquettes run along ēmmē’s windowed axes, while tan-leather stools at the central bar give an unimpeded view of the kitchen. Outside, an alfresco seating area and coffee bar equipped with a Synesso MVP Hydra gives early risers a chance to grab breakfast and an invigorating cup of Five Senses brew.

Thomas has been tinkering with ēmmē’s menu ever since departing Greca, spending months honing in on an offering that expresses both Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African influences. Thomas, already well versed in Mediterranean cooking, is weaving in threads of inspiration from Sultan’s own heritage, resulting in a menu that is imbued with a familial warmth.

“Take, for example, the potato and eggs,” says Thomas, singling out a signature of ēmmē’s breakfast offering. “That’s something is discovered after I spoke to Sultan’s mum – that’s what he grew up eating. So I took that dish and fine-tuned it. Another dish on the menu is the pickled eggplant with walnuts (served at ēmmē with fried egg, labneh and chilli) – that’s something Sultan ate growing up, as well.”

Right now, ēmmē is serving breakfast and lunch, with dinner to come online after Mother’s Day. In addition to Thomas’ riffs on Sultan’s childhood faves, ēmmē’s morning menu includes the likes of French toast with date caramel, whipped yoghurt and seasonal fruit, and crab and eggs with chives and Aleppo pepper.

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At lunch, Thomas and sous chef Finn Burgess (formerly of ESSA) are executing a range of simple-yet-satisfying, share-style dishes that highlight a centrepiece ingredient. Often, these key aspects are enhanced with a simple sauce or a complementary second ingredient, but are otherwise left to speak for themselves.

This light-touch formula is exemplified by the barbecue chicken with grilled shishito peppers on a bed of garlic labneh, the native dukkah-dusted barbecue broccoli with labneh, the wagyu rib skewers with native spice and spring-onion salsa, and the swordfish koftas with saffron yoghurt and pickles. As ēmmē’s ethos is anchored by freshness and seasonality, the menu will be fluid and ever-changing. Even the forthcoming dinner menu will shift, perhaps more often than its lunchtime counterpart.

“The main menu will be very similar to lunch, but we will have a lot more specials,” explains Thomas, who mentions that live marrons, lobsters and fish might feature. Also, Thomas informs us that ēmmē will soon introduce sandwiches to its daytime menu, with the sandwich dough cooked in the hulking woodfired oven.

On the drinks front, Marin Mamata from Cuttings Wine has consulted on ēmmē’s wide-ranging wine list, with the only guiding principle being exploration, education and discovery.

“I said that I didn’t want the wine list to compliment my menu, because my menu will just change non-stop,” explains Thomas.

“We’re going with what people like, but showcasing different regions. Maybe some people love to drink chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, so we can educate guests by showcasing a good chardonnay or sauvignon blanc from a region they haven’t tried.”

Beyond wine, ēmmē is serving a tight cocktail list with six concoctions on offer, as well as craft beer from Felons Brewing Co.

As James Street continues to fill in and cement its place as Brisbane’s go-to precinct for elevated dining, ēmmē is positioning itself as an approachable option for all comers. Activewear-clad wanderers seeking a post-pilates brunch spot, high-powered business lunches, shoppers stopping in between sprees, couples after an intimate date-night spot, lively group dinners – Thomas tells us that they’re all welcome.

 “Obviously we’re on James Street, but ēmmē is a place where anybody can come in, sit down, have a good time and always feel comfortable,” he explains. “At the end of the day, we do have a very beautiful space and when people see beautiful shop, they expect to pay top prices. [ēmmē] is priced to be fair – people don’t need to save money for two or three weeks to come in for one meal. They can actually afford to come in any time and enjoy good, simple food.”

ēmmē is now open to the public – head to the Stumble Guide for operating hours, contact details and booking info.

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