At first glance, Eem appears a relatively straightforward Thai restaurant.
Everything is familiar, yet decadent and exciting. Vibrant curries brimming with garlic, tamarind and fish sauce are the focal point of the one-page menu, with a supporting cast of exotic salads and vegetable dishes. The soundtrack of spicy Thai funk is punctured every few minutes by strained coughs and gleeful exclamations from globetrotting trust-funders who never thought they'd see jungle curry stateside.
It's on return visits, however, that you'll appreciate Eem for what it really is—a hopeful glimpse into the future of Portland's dining scene.
Many grand ideas begin humbly, but the origin of Eem is not one of them. Chef Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom, co-founder of the transcendent Northeast Killingsworth curry-and-fried chicken counter Hat Yai and the elusive Langbaan, teamed up with Matt Vicedomini, the genius pitmaster behind barbecue cart Matt's BBQ, to handle the proteins while he works his magic with the curry. Then they brought in Eric Nelson, of beloved roving "vacation cocktail" pop-up Shipwreck, to craft the drink menu. It's a Portland food superteam if ever there were one.
On the food side, the union is exemplified by the white curry with brisket burnt-ends ($16), a dish so rich and nuanced it's almost without precedent. The silky-sweet red curry at Hat Yai is impressive enough to bear the weight of an entire business on its own, but here Ninsom truly outdoes himself. The magical concoction bursts to life with sticky-sweet notes of lemongrass and fish sauce, gently fading into a radiant warmth with a sneakily spicy finish. Vicedomini's brisket bears its trademark tenderness and lightly charred exterior, with notes of molasses and vinegar, creating a perfect textural complement to the curry flavor it slowly absorbs.
The "Get Started" section is mostly veggie-based small plates that arrive quickly and vanish even faster. The beet salad ($10) comes with an addictive coconut beet cream smeared below tender chunks of its namesake, with crispy clusters of puffed jasmine rice that reward each bite a shock of salt and herbs. The chopped BBQ fried rice ($8) is another Ninsom-Vicedomini mashup that's bafflingly simple yet unbeatable in flavor, with a base of chewy fried rice and a heavy application of the various odds and ends Vicedomini left out of the standalone proteins you'll find in the "Thai BBQ" portion of the menu.
This is where the script gets flipped, with Vicedomini's smoked meats taking the spotlight and Ninsom's subtle flourishes acting as support. The dynamic excels in the barbecue pork steak ($14), a seared and sliced slab that boasts a lightly seasoned layer of char on the outside and a soft, fleshy interior that practically melts in your mouth. It comes with two sauces on the side—a minced green chile paste and a showstopping nam jim jeaw packed with tangy, garlicky flavors up front and the now-familiar blend of tamarind, fish sauce and lime.
Ninsom and Vicedomini easily could have charted a course for excellence on their own, but the addition of Nelson behind the bar completes a coalition that approaches otherworldly territory. At Shipwreck, the now-sober cocktail master spun the often cloying, overthought hinterland of tropical party drinks into something fun yet sophisticated. His greatest hits have found a home at Eem. Simpler drinks like the Jesus & Tequila (tequila, mezcal, curaçao and lime frozen yogurt; $13) and the highlight Acid Test (bourbon, hibiscus, orgeat, lemon, orange and hazelnut; $12) offer a sweet-and-sour relief to the slow-burning spice of Ninsom's curries, while more elaborate concepts, like the Nocturnal Worker (Oaxacan rum, cardamom and lime blended with banana; $15), live in the "Something Special" section.
On our visit, the pair of cocktail stations behind the bar hummed efficiently, even without Nelson at the helm. Since his bar staff has been molded in his likeness, he's opted to serve as Eem's master of hospitality, wrangling the throngs of diners that line up prior to the 5 pm start time on a nightly basis. The house was entirely full within a half-hour on each of our visits, and it's likely the crowds will only grow. As far as packed restaurants where the metaphorical paint is still fresh, Eem functions as a well-oiled machine that could easily pass as a stalwart that's been around for a decade.
As of today, Eem is a sterling example of what happens when a restaurant applies laser-sharp focus to surpass pre-opening hype. Ninsom, Vicedomini and Nelson are three of the biggest names in town, and somehow they've managed to exceed all expectations. While comparisons to supergroups in music or sports are inevitable, likening what they've achieved with Eem to Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Kevin Durant Warriors would severely discount the goodhearted nature of what's happening here.
This isn't a fallback, nor is it collusion. It's a simple celebration of the best things in life, and it's one of those rare occasions when the whole is exponentially greater than its parts. Only time will tell if other like-minded chefs follow suit and band together to hit such a high mark. If they do, well, consider us blessed.
EAT: Eem, 3808 N Williams Ave., Suite 127, 971-295-1645, eemportland.com. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.