The dining room's success can hardly be called a surprise, though. Spanish-born owner Fernando Nunez has been operating eateries for more than 30 years; among other endeavors, he launched the Warehouse District's popular Mallorca and was a partner in Westlake's elegant Viva Barcelona.
The decades have clearly been instructive for the suave restaurateur. First of all, Emilio's, which opened in September, is a real looker. Snuggled into the thoroughly remodeled space once occupied by Mi Pueblo, two dining rooms and a snug, dimly lit lounge radiate class, comfort, and good taste. Mouthwatering shades of paprika, saffron, and cream cover the walls; tables don a double-dip of white linens; and a tall arrangement of freshly cut flowers centers the main salon, creating a vibe both upscale and inviting.
Service rates highly too: Guests are practically tag-teamed by crews of neatly garbed servers and attendants, many with charming European accents. All this attention can result in some minor inefficiencies, as when Waiter #1 stops by to take an order after Waiter #2 has already snagged it -- but you'll never want for fresh water or clean flatware. And while the pace didn't feel the least bit rushed during a busy Saturday-night visit, we still were in and out in less than 90 minutes, leaving time for a leisurely stroll through the Christmas lights of downtown Hudson.
Of course, elegant decor and gracious service can be just so much window dressing if the food doesn't satisfy. But here, again, Emilio's meets mainly with success.
Fresh fish and seafood are the stars of the lengthy menu, along with steaks, chops, chicken, and veal, done up in a variety of out-of-the-ordinary sauces. The written offerings are supplemented by nearly a dozen daily specials that servers recite tableside. Yes, we would have preferred that those specials had been printed, so we could contemplate them -- and their prices -- at our leisure. On the other hand, we're suckers for a mellifluous accent, so it was pretty much a draw.
Exotic-sounding Spanish culinary terms and garnishes like chorizo, manchego, and piquillo peppers stud the menu like currants in a fruitcake. But don't be put off -- with few exceptions, ingredients are familiar, flavors are mellow, and the heat is kept to a gentle simmer.
Take our 16-ounce New York strip steak, for example. We've had more tender slabs of beef, but precisely trimmed and perfectly grilled to a uniform medium rare, this was a piece of meat any steakhouse would have been proud to call its own.
For a more traditional taste of Spain, consider the paella -- that classic amalgam of saffron-flavored rice, veggies, and seafood. Served piping hot, in the traditional metal vessel, the portion was vast, and the seafood -- clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and a split lobster tail -- was in generous supply, if slightly overcooked. More troublesome, though, were the errant bits of clamshell that threatened to turn the rice into a gritty minefield.
Happily, Emilio's reasonable prices -- in the $14-to-$27 range for entrées -- help temper the occasional misstep. For the money, diners get a full-meal deal, including artisanal breads from Hudson's Great Lakes Baking Company, steamed broccoli and carrots, saffron rice, crisp slices of fried potato, and a choice of homemade soup du jour or a mixed-greens salad. (Go for the soup: Lentil-ham and tomato-rice were models of slow-simmered goodness, while the salad rated merely a shrug.)
If there was ever a restaurant where appetizers are superfluous, this is probably it. Still, we hardly begrudged spending a few extra bucks on the placa fria, an ample antipasto-style starter of imported, prosciutto-like jamon serrano; ivory wedges of mild manchego; thick slabs of sweet, roasted piquillo peppers; silvery anchovy filets; a scattering of fresh basil; and stalks of marinated white asparagus, imported from Spain.
A stacked starter of avocado and raw, neatly diced salmon and tuna was another worthwhile splurge. Ripe and buttery, the avocado proved a fine foil to the plush, exquisitely fresh fish; a squeeze of fresh lemon juice added a crisp blast of citrus. The sole misstep here was the puddle of soy sauce that centered the plate, turning the last few bites of fish into salty overkill.
A lunch visit turned up other tasty options, including a trio of deeply grilled scallops, luxuriating in a bittersweet sauce of endive and honey, with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts; and a quartet of slim, al dente ravioli, filled with tiny rock shrimp and a four-cheese blend, then slathered in creamy tomato sauce and blanketed with golden, sautéed mushrooms.
For dessert, homemade flan hit all the right notes -- cool, creamy, and not too sweet -- while five poufs of whipped cream made us think of bows atop a Christmas present.
Eventually, of course, all the ribbons and wrappings have to come off. But if what's inside is anything like Emilio's, the pleasure is sure to last.
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