Was I dreaming when I last reviewed Emilio's on Broad Street? Was I deluded or just swept up in my own enthusiasm?
I'm not sure anymore, because when I had a meal there recently, it was substandard at best. The only things that made up for the burned garlic and undercooked rice were the large, generously poured glasses of Spanish wine. Maybe, I thought, Emilio Peiro's attention had shifted to his newer place in Brandermill, and the older restaurant had inadvertently slipped into decline. I decided the only way to find out was to take a trip across the river to see for myself.
The South Side Emilio's is brand-new and has none of the rough edges of the original. It's very dark, with deep-blue and brick-red walls lined with Spanish matador posters and a series of hanging fixtures that create little pools of bright light over the tables. It's difficult to actually see the food unless you're directly under a light, but there's live music on the weekends, a decent Spanish wine list, and a happy, boisterous crowd filling the tables and sitting on the multipatterned cushions of the long bench that runs down the center of the restaurant. It has a sort of Spain-by-way-of-Home Depot ambience: new, but somehow missing the point. Despite (or because of) the telltale traces of wear at the Broad Street location, the old place musters up more of an authentic vibe than the new one.
But with Emilio in the Brandermill kitchen, there's decidedly more attention paid to the food. My favorite shrimp dish, gambas al ajillo, is neither overcooked nor speckled with the inedible burned garlic as it was at the Broad Street location, and the salty dried cod of the esgalladas de bacalao is properly soaked and lavished with garlicky olive oil and red peppers. The paella mixta takes far less than the 45-minute cooking time the menu warns of, and although on our last visit we ended up with the seafood-only paella marisca (marisca/mixta it was noisy and an honest mistake), the tomatoey rice and unexpected green beans mesh perfectly with the clams, mussels, squid and shrimp.
But where is the saffron? Why isn't there saffron in any of the dishes on Emilio's menu? Is it really Spanish paella without saffron? And what about chorizo the smoky, garlic-laced Spanish sausage that's been making its way onto menus as diverse as Kuba Kuba, Rowland and Can Can? The El Choricero, available as a sandwich at lunchtime and described on the menu as a "hot or mild Spanish sausage with salted onions, green peppers and red peppers," was clearly ordinary Italian sausage. And it's Italian sausage that's in the arroz del sabado de mi madre as well, a rice dish that the menu says is "from Emilio's mother's recipe," although it's hard to believe a Spanish native would go out of her way to find and use a sausage so uncommon in Spain.
The plato de quesos variados, or mixed cheese platter, isn't composed exclusively of Spanish cheeses either, despite what the server says. Manchego is Manchego, but the Cabrales was an ordinary blue cheese, the Tetilla was obviously fresh mozzarella, and the cheese the server couldn't identify on another visit was plainly feta. The server was quick to point out that the cheeses change all the time, so it's hard to keep up with them, but I didn't have a problem figuring out that the mislabeling was consistent, if the names were not.
Why cut corners this way? Once hard-to-find ingredients are now available all around town, and La Tienda, a thriving mail-order business specializing in Spanish food, is just outside of Williamsburg. I'm left assuming that they think Richmonders won't know any better if the ingredients aren't authentic, but during each visit, I overheard snatches of conversations from other tables as diners reminisced about trips to Spain, and in fact, trips all over Europe. We do travel then, occasionally, from our neighborhoods here in Richmond, sometimes all the way across the ocean. And maybe it's time that this particular Richmond restaurant stopped insulting us and started impressing us once again. S
Emilio's Woodlake ($$)7016 Woodlake Commons Loop
Lunch: Monday-Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.;