Chicago 'Top Chef' CJ Jacobson Cooks up Delights at Ēma

His River North Mediterranean oasis creates delicious, airy fare

Restaurant buzz fades faster than a Chicago summer, so it’s noteworthy when an eatery keeps its luster for an entire year.

With its first anniversary quickly approaching in July, Californian/Mediterranean hotspot Ēma—that’s eema—shows no sign of cooling down, thanks to executive chef CJ Jacobson’s perennial creativity. This month, the whiz—and champion of 2014’s “Top Chef Duels”—debuts new dishes and fresh takes on classics.

Cj Jacobson
CJ Jacobson (Courtesy Lettuce Entertain You)

True to its Mediterranean roots, Ēma is always breezy and light: plates piled high with veggies, vines dangling overhead, plank wood next to soft white linens and loads of natural light. But now more than ever, Jacobson, 41, is feeling the pressure to live up to that summery feel.

“Spring is one of my favorite times, especially here in Chicago because everyone is just so excited to be outside,” said Jacobson. “That sort of energy is what we try to include in our food.”

To that end, Jacobson creates colorful, sharable plates with a focus on mezze-style meals.

“When you see a table with four or five spreads on it, it looks bountiful and you know what things are,” said Jacobson. “Your mouth starts watering and you start eating with your eyes.”

Plate of gourmet food
Plating at Ema (Courtesy Lettuce Entertain You)

The refreshed menu spotlights the season’s green bounty, like the new chilled green bean salad with raw button mushrooms, lemon zest, jalapeño koshu and a mushroom aioli. Plus, Jacobson is revamping his lauded marinated peas and blueberries, but remains tightlipped as he’s not done with the recipe’s finishing touches. What you won’t find are any of the molecular gastronomic concoctions that dot so many gourmet menus. 

“I don’t need to represent a tomato in some sort of tomato jelly,” said Jacobson. “It would look silly.”

While it’s been years since his days frantically cooking on Bravo, Jacobson credits “Top Chef” with teaching him quick creativity—something patrons can reap the benefits of today. He admits to testing new inventions at the restaurant, saying, “There’re times when I challenge myself and I’ll say [to a guest], ‘Let me make something new for you.’ ”

For foodie fans, Jacobson is a consummate good sport, always up for a chat and a photo. But to answer the question he gets asked most often, he simply laughs and says, “Yes, Padma [Lakshmi, host of ‘Top Chef,’] is way hotter in person.”

Gallery: Ēma Restaurant 

All Photos Courtesy Lettuce Entertain You