The first things you notice when you walk through the doors of Emma, An American Bistro, a seven-month-old restaurant in Frederick, just across the Potomac River, are the cheery yellow walls decorated with paintings of giant fruits and vegetables and the massive brick wood-burning oven behind the bar.
Linger a while and you'll notice that everyone in the often-packed room seems to be having a good time and really enjoying the food.
There's the table of eight women on a Tuesday evening, laughing all night long, claiming doggie bags for their main course so they'll have room for desserts. And the lunchtime table of 12, obviously a business crowd, eagerly divvies up pizzas and small plates of mini-burgers before moving on to salads and pastas, then gossips over cups and cups of coffee.
There are men who protest the large size of sandwiches, featuring hand-cut bread, and then clean their plates. And friends who tarry over dinner with a second glass of wine. All the while, there is a lot of hugging and kissing as acquaintances greet one another.
Emma, owned by Russell and Elisabeth Fetting, quickly has become the place in northern Frederick for sophisticated cooking served up with a hometown welcome.
Russell Fetting, who has cooked in the power corridors of the U.S. State Department and a major Washington law firm, and Elisabeth Fetting, a former transportation planner, did most of the work themselves to gut and transform a strip mall's former Chinese restaurant into this sleek and cozy space.
Simple black chairs and bar stools stand in sharp contrast to the brightly colored walls and crisp white tablecloths accented with brilliant blue napkins. A single blossom floats in a goblet on each table. Racks of wine separate a quartet of tall bar tables from the main dining area. A long bar (with brass hooks for handbags or umbrellas) lines one wall, and French doors lead to a smaller eating space at the rear.
A bistro is generally described as a neighborhood place that serves local food and local wines, and by that definition, Emma certainly lives up to its name. Although some of the preparations are clearly French-inspired, such as the appetizer of snails sauteed with garlic, shallots and white wine, most of the offerings have American roots. (Even those snails come with mashed potatoes.)
The wine list isn't limited to American producers, but the selections are well chosen and most are in the $20 range, with about a dozen wines available by the glass.
Though it is rare that a young kitchen excels in everything, three visits to Emma have revealed few shortcomings in Russell Fetting's eclectic and sweeping menu, which varies from a silky shrimp and scallop bisque, served en croute, to pulled pork, Carolina-style, on brioche, and pheasant coq au vin. All of the servings are hearty -- appetizers are large enough to serve as main courses -- and the food looks as good as it tastes.
Gulf shrimp, sauteed in Louisiana spices, are plump and succulent and arrive with a leaf of deep red radicchio holding the piquant remoulade sauce. Chicken pate, made in-house, is served with a zesty orchard chutney, a slice of creamy brie (served a bit too cold) and toasted baguette slices. The bisque en croute features buttery puff pastry that is as rich as the soup. And those snails, napped with a veal sauce and then arranged around the perimeter of a pasta bowl centered with truffled mashed potatoes, can make one rethink the garlic butter standard.
Salads, lightly dressed rather than awash with toppings, are standouts. A mount of garden greens displays a sheen of balsamic vinaigrette that brightly accents rather than obscures their peppery bite. The taste of baby spinach, which accompanies a fan of roasted duck, shines through the lusty Roquefort, almond and truffle oil-lemon vinaigrette.
That wood-fired oven is more than decoration. Scallops, shrimp, portobello mushrooms and vegetables are just a few of the ingredients roasted therein. Slightly charred and redolent of smoky oak, they show up in salads and sandwiches and main courses.
Pizzas, too, get the wood-oven treatment and anywhere else might be considered designer concoctions. They are just plain good, the crust light but chewy, the toppings fresh, the cheese bubbling.
Pasta dishes are similarly creative, pairing rigatoni with oven-roasted chicken and spaghettini with truffle-scented olive oil and fried sage. The only disappointment was a dish of penne with diver scallops, wild mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes and scallions: The pasta and sauce were earthy and didn't seem to marry well with the more subtly flavored seafood.
In contrast, steak frites -- the trademark bistro dish -- was exactly right. The fat of the ribeye only added to the flavor of the beef, and the french fries and accompanying asparagus were perfectly cooked. The French can't do it better.
In a more American offering, Maine salmon was pan-seared, caramelizing its almost sweet marinade, and served with a pilaf of Minnesota wild rice.
All the desserts are made in the restaurant: a wonderfully puckery lemon tart, a creamy cheesecake and, my favorite, grilled pound cake served with fresh fruit.
The restaurant is named in honor of Russell Fetting's grandmother, who he says could cook anything. Her grandson must have learned at her knee.
Emma, An American Bistro, 177A Thomas Johnson Dr. (near U.S. 15 and Opossumtown Pike), Frederick, 301-682-5400. Reservations recommended. Appetizers at lunch, $5-$10, main courses, $8-$12; appetizers at dinner, $5-$11, main courses, $8-$25. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday- Friday; dinner, 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Accessible to handicapped individuals.
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