‘High end dining’ at eMNew restaurant offers variety with a changing menu

Posted: September 4, 2013

The Winchester Star

Em, a new restaurant on Boscawen Street in Winchester, does not have a set menu. Offerings recently included wahoo (above) and a dessert, a flourless chocolate torte. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Chef and co-owner Will Mason of Winchester prepares a dish in the kitchen of eM, which opened in August. Co-owner Liz Conn (left) mixes a martini in the Boscawen Street restaurant. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

Winchester — Chef Will Mason knew from the start that everything coming out of the kitchen at his new restaurant eM would be made from scratch.

Whether it is fresh bread, sauces, meats, side dishes, salads or even the juices used for the mixed drinks, if he or one of his employees didn’t construct it, he doesn’t want to serve it.

“Nothing comes in here prepared. We don’t even have a microwave,” said Mason, 41, a 1990 graduate of Handley High School.

Mason said he and his business partner Liz Conn are creating in their new restaurant at 19 E. Boscawen St. “a higher-end dining experience” with a modern, urban feel. The kitchen is divided by a short wall from the dining room so guests can watch the cooking process.

“It is almost part of the show,” he said. “It is definitely part of our atmosphere.”

Mason and Conn have been friends for several years and made the decision last fall to take the leap and open a restaurant together. After considering several locations, they decided on downtown Winchester as the place to establish a restaurant that would appeal to “foodies” with good food and a laid-back atmosphere, he said.

“We didn’t want to be pretentious. When your menu is written on a big chalkboard, you can’t take yourself too seriously,” Mason joked.

The name for the restaurant dates to Mason’s time at culinary school when he had to create fictitious menus and always used the name “eM.” It is also an homage to some of the women in his life — his mother Ellen Mason and two grandmothers, Eloise and Margaret. His mother and father, Pat Mason, still live in Winchester.

The small restaurant, which opened on Aug. 3, seats 41, including eight seats at the bar. It serves dinner from Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. until closing (around 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends).

The menu will be altered daily, with items that are an ever-changing mix of returning favorites and new additions, said Conn, 36, of Winchester, front-of-house manager. Each day’s menu is posted in the front window, written on a chalkboard in the restaurant and soon will be found on its Facebook page.

“We didn’t want to be confined by a set menu. We wanted to do seasonal and local fare,” she said.

Mason is clear that eM is not a “farm-to-table restaurant.” He wants to use local meat and produce whenever possible, but still have the flexibility to serve the kind of fare he wants.

For meat and seafood dishes, Mason believes the simplest methods accentuate the flavors of the proteins the most. That means many of his dishes, such as Pan-Roasted Duck Breast, start with a simple seasoning of salt and pepper.

The duck is seared to get a crispy skin, sliced on the bias and fanned on the plate, Mason said. One of the more recent variations featured a brandied blackberry sauce to create a combination of sweet and tart. Since blackberry season is ending, that will be revised.

The duck was often served with grilled asparagus and parsnip puree, said Mason of Bentonville. The latter featured parsnips cut with Yukon Gold potatoes to keep the “smooth velvety consistency.”

A fresh Seared Wahoo is also seasoned with salt and pepper before being pan-seared on each side about three minutes, or until it has a golden crust. The fish is finished in the oven, where it is basted with butter, he said.

He likes the wahoo because it has a mild flavor and a pleasingly dense consistency, but when cooked is still flaky. “We are huge proponents of white fleshy fish. We love wahoo, mahi mahi, halibut and rockfish. They all lend themselves very well to the style of food we prepare.”

The wahoo is served over wilted spinach and topped with an heirloom tomato broth and tomato caviar. The versatile broth is infused with fish stock but can be substituted with beef or chicken broth, depending on the application, he said. “It gives you that beautiful fresh tomato flavor that this time of year you simply can’t beat.”

The fish is drizzled in basil olive oil at the last minute “to give it a nice pop of color and flavor” and then topped with tomato caviar, he said.

One of the best-selling appetizers is Bay Crab Deviled Egg, Mason said. It has lump bay crabmeat added in the egg mixture before it is piped into a hardboiled egg and dusted with Old Bay seasoning. He calls the creations “decadent” because diners don’t expect to find the crabmeat in deviled eggs.

Another popular appetizer is Filet Meatballs with House-Made Tomato Sauce. Since the restaurant staff cuts its own meats to order, they try to use everything they can, Mason said. They grind strips of Angus filet, mix them with salt and pepper, finely diced shallots, roasted garlic, thyme and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

“The key is to pack them so they are not so dense, like little cannonballs in your mouth,” he said. “We try to make them nice and light.”

Many people enjoy sopping up the leftover sauce with French baguettes that are made fresh daily in-house, Conn said. The restaurant also whips its own herb butter to accompany the bread. It is mixed with white wine, shallots, roasted garlic, thyme, parsley and salt and pepper and whisked in a mixer until fluffy.

Paul Wright is the sous chef. Pastry chef Keli Royal is responsible for the desserts, which have included a Flourless Chocolate Torte (gluten-free and extra rich), a Fig Crostada (apricot glaze with fresh figs in a rustic pie crust) and a Peach Rhubarb Tart with Almond Ice Cream that is also made in- house, Mason said.

Conn has created a variety of original drinks for the bar, including some inspired by existing drinks.

The Italian 75 is based on a Prohibition-era cocktail called the French 75. It features gin, fresh lime juice, a dash of the house simple syrup and Prosecco instead of champagne floated on top, with a lime wheel garnish.

She also has a drink that is a favorite among chocolate lovers — Sitting by the Camp Fire — like “s’mores in a glass,” she said. Conn lines the rim with chocolate syrup and dips it in graham-cracker crumbs. The drink contains Godiva chocolate liqueur, marshmallow-flavored vodka and a dash of cream. The garnish is a skewer with two marshmallows toasted with a hand-held torch.

The mixed drinks complement a growing list of wines offered by the glass or bottle, she said. The bottles, which range from $38 to $90, are half-price on Tuesdays until 9 p.m.

“Our big thing has been trying to create a unique menu in the midst of a lot of uniformity in the restaurant business right now,” Conn said. “Sometimes it is not a matter of reinventing the wheel but taking the ideas and making them more interesting to us and giving them a unique spin.”

Despite a rough economy, the first month has gone well, Conn said. She and Mason knew they would be serving to a “niche market of people who love food and drinks,” which also describes the two of them.

After graduating from Handley, Mason earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Richmond. He pursued a degree in marketing and advertising before investing in a small takeout and delivery pizza place and deciding it suited him much better.

He attended Johnson and Wales, a culinary school in Norfolk, before working in restaurants in Montana, Idaho, Florida and Virginia. He worked at the Artisans Grill and then The Mimslyn Inn in Luray. He also was the general manager of McAlister’s Deli in Front Royal.

Conn grew up in Midland, Texas, and earned a bachelor’s degree in museum studies from Texas Tech. She came to Virginia after an internship at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and worked for a historical society in Frederick, Md.

While she pursued a master’s degree at Hood College, she worked at the Daily Grind in Front Royal and became the catering manager and assistant manager. She also was the catering and marketing manager at Lucky Star Lounge in Front Royal and worked at the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg.

Information

The hours at eM, 19 E. Boscawen St., are from 4:30 p.m. until closing on Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are recommended. For more information, contact 540-431-5139 or visit eatatem.com.

— Contact Laura McFarland atlmcfarland@winchesterstar.com