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The steampunk grandeur of the lobby at the Pearl’s Hotel Emma, dressed in the dichotomous trappings of old industrial majesty, hides luxury in plain sight. Its flagship restaurant Supper cultivates a similar vintage aesthetic, but it trades rivets for the wooden parlor glam of the fanciest restaurant in a booming 19th-century cattle town.
The stage is set for the same high-end expectations in both settings. It works for the hotel, and it works for the restaurant’s top-flight service atmosphere and saloon-style bar with the flair of real cocktail craft.
But it doesn’t work as well for the food, an all-purpose hotel mix of steaks, chops, fish and fowl that seems content both in presentation and flavor to color within the lines, mostly in somber earthen tones of brown and reddish brown.
Mike Sutter /Staff
That wasn’t always the case. Shortly after Supper opened in 2015, the Express-News praised it for creative small plates and called chef John Brand a “vegetable whisperer.” My own first experience in 2017 included flashes of color from peaches with chutney, a beet-and-blackberry salad, and a vegetable side of spiced carrots with coconut and avocado tiered and stacked like a Michelin entree.
Brand is still at Supper as culinary director, a role he’s also taken on in a similar capacity for the Pearl as a whole. The day-to-day execution in the kitchen at Supper falls to his staff, and therein lies the challenge of building a restaurant around one singularly talented person, then delegating the job to others. Things get lost in the disconnect.
The most disconnected dish came as a whole roasted branzino, a versatile fish that fits on a dinner plate and generally acts like a canvas for whatever the kitchen wants to create. In this case, that creation was an inchoate jumble of undercooked, knobby wheat berries, overcooked green beans and aggressively sour pickled cauliflower, none of which could compensate for a fish that tasted like its best days at the dock were long past.
Mike Sutter /Staff
Close behind on that arc of disappointment came a starter of shrimp with polenta that promised a progressive take on shrimp and grits with leeks, lemon and sage. Instead, it came off like a much humbler fast-casual rendition with what TV commercials used to call popcorn shrimp, too small to add shrimp’s customary coral bounce to the mushy base, helped not at all by a desperate garnish of poorly cut herbs and edible flower petals.
A few dishes that might have worked were handicapped by dull execution, including a gem lettuce salad that looked half-finished, with fat clumps of underdressed lettuce and outsize brioche croutons like pandemic fat pants. You’d hope that grilled chicken with pappardelle pasta might be more than the safe word for your less adventurous dinner guests, but that’s all it was, a squishy beige bowl of noodles and chicken that evoked the criticism no restaurant wants to hear: I could make this at home.
Even an ingredient that worked in one dish got beaten up in another. While a toss of cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, honey, peanuts and caramel popcorn was a bouquet of guilty pleasures, I also ordered Brussels sprouts by themselves, only to find they’d been waylaid by the same pedestrian overload of sweet and sour that tends to plague Brussels sprouts everywhere.
It shouldn’t take so many paragraphs to get to the good stuff, but usually the good stuff balances things out. Not the case at Supper.
I liked a fat, juicy lunch burger with a market basket full of veggies on top. But it’s not among the best burgers in town — not even the best at the Pearl. I also enjoyed a prime New York strip cooked a perfect medium-rare, despite a sloppy garnish of oily spinach that made the plate look like it had just come from the gym.
I liked Supper’s braised lamb stew, a rich melange of parsnips, celeriac, mint and kale with big meaty bites like getting a great deal on a winter coat in March. But with the textural mismatch of its leathery leaves, kale should have taken the night off from stew duty.
And I liked the bouncy pork meatballs with tomato sauce, sharp peppers and ricotta. They did their job as an appetizer: whet the appetite.
Mike Sutter /Staff
In the midst of all this equivocation, I rediscovered the unequivocal joy of the smoked and fried quail that marked my first trip to Supper, a light and crunchy rush of comfort with creamy mashed potatoes and sweet pickled corn relish.
136 E. Grayson St. at Hotel Emma at the Pearl, 210-448-8351, supperatemma.com
Quick bite: American fine dining at the posh Hotel Emma at the Pearl
Hit: Fried quail, crispy cauliflower
Miss: Shrimp with polenta, branzino
Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Price range: Appetizers, $12-$15; soups and salads, $12-$14; dinner entrees, $23-$58; breakfast and lunch entrees, $12-$39; desserts, $10
Alcohol: Cocktails, wine and beer
***** Excellent, an almost perfect experience
**** Good, among the best in the city
*** Average, with a few standouts
** Poor, with a redeeming factor or two
* Bad, nothing to recommend
Express-News dining critics pay for all meals.
That first spark of joy was five years ago, back when Supper was leaning into its promise as a destination restaurant within a destination hotel, a successful study in the creative anachronism of celebrating the city’s industrial past while recognizing its modern potential. But like Tony Soprano says, “Remember-when is the lowest form of communication.” Remembering isn’t enough.
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