HIGH-CONCEPT COUPLE: Co-owners Jeri Ryan and Christophe Emè (above) shaped Ortolan's decor so it could embrace both the earthy feel of a herb wall in the bar (below) and the Versailles-like luxury of the main dining room (below).
Emè's food is plenty stylish, too.
BEAM US UP: Jeri Ryan first gained visibility on Star Trek: Voyager. Now she runs the show at Ortolan.
Christophe Emè first arrived in the United States in 2001, and it didn't take him long to figure out what American restaurant patrons want. His two-part formula: Keep making the exquisite food he turned out while cooking in three-star kitchens in his native France. But dump the pretentious service style that prevails at so many high-end French restaurants in the U.S. and help customers feel comfortable instead.
He made it happen, fast. Less than four years after setting foot in this country, Emè's fabulous food, presented with a casual flair, is on display nightly at his new restaurant, Ortolan, which opened this past February in Los Angeles.
Food and service weren't the only things Emè intuitively grasped about making it big in America. He was also sharp enough to head for a great culinary city like L.A., take the reins of a high-profile kitchen, make the right connections for himself and only then open a place of his own.
He especially got the make-the-right-connection part of the equation right. The primary one was business partner and Ortolan co-owner Jeri Ryan, the shapely actress whose career includes such long-running TV roles as the catsuit-wearing Borg babe Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, and as corporate lawyer-turned-English-teacher Ronnie Cooke on the FOX network's high-school drama, Boston Public. Ryan has graced the covers of magazines ranging from TV Guide to Maxim.
That the 36-year-old Emè has his own chef-driven restaurant means he's living out one fantasy held by many RH readers. His relationship with Ryan means it's probably more like two. Throw in the fact that Emè was chosen a Food and Wine 2005 "Best New Chef" and pretty much everything most male chefs dream about doing, he's done in just the last year. So just how good is this guy, and how does his new restaurant measure up so far?
Emè's culinary background is rock-solid. He grew up working at the Michelin two-starred Auberge des Templiers in his native Loire Valley in France and cooked alongside the likes of Marc Veyrat at the three-star Auberge de L'Erida and Philippe Legendre at the three-star Taillevent in Paris. He also helped Taillevent owner Jean-Claude Vrinat open the Normandie Grill at the Hotel Oriental in Bangkok.
After landing in the U.S., he worked briefly in New York City at Geoffrey Zakarian's Town, then moved to Los Angeles to head the kitchen at the fabled L'Orangerie.
If you've never had the pleasure of dining at L'Orangerie, take our word for it: This venerable restaurant epitomizes the old-school French restaurant experience. The maitre'd and a hovering fleet of waiters make the rich and powerful feel right at home, while everyone else feels both cared for yet eversoslightly intimidated. But no matter who they are, every guest gets really good French food, thanks to now-legendary owners Virginie and Gèrard Ferry's skill in identifying fine young French chefs and installing them in L'Orangerie's kitchen.
Emè was brought on board in this spirit and spent 15 months there. Of his tenure, Los Angeles magazine food writer Patric Kuh opined, "We once may have been impressed by where Emè has worked, but now we want to know how he cooks when he doesn't have the infrastructure-of a Michelin three-star restaurant around him." Good question. The magazine's boldface-verdict: "With a haute young chef at the stove, L'Orangerie is hitting new highs."
Even though Emè spent his time in L'Orangerie's kitchen, he managed to pick up on the dining room vibe there. That experience gave him a clear idea of how he'd do it differently when he struck out on his own.
"Ortolan is designed to be sophisticated but unpretentious," says the chef. "I prepare the same haute cuisine as before, but in a setting that is more modern and casual. It's a place where you can wear a suit or come in jeans."
Ortolan's patrons dine on Emè's up-to-date
French food in a relaxed and stylish setting.
Ryan's on the same page. "Our goal was to create a fun, relaxed place where Christophe's exquisite presentations could be enjoyed without any semblance of stuffiness," she says. Ryan and Emè worked with Kristofer Keith of design firm Spacecraft to create an interior that is approachable and inviting to contemporary L.A. diners. Ortolan's five distinct spaces contribute to that feel. The main dining room holds 50. The Vault room seats 34 more. Ortolan's bar can handle 28 guests, 14 more can hang out in the fireplace lounge and an outdoor patio has a 20-guest capacity. It's a lot of seats when you're serving the type of ambitious food Emè puts out here.
Which is? He describes it as seasonal, progressive French. Emè's signature squab with macaroni and cheese ($36) is on the menu, as are plenty of French dishes that wander between the traditional and the cutting edge. The 10-course tasting menu goes for $120.
How's the food? "If Emè and his staff keep it up," writes Los Angeles Times food critic S. Irene Virbila, "Ortolan could well be on its way to becoming the French restaurant that has it all."
It's certainly has it all in the star power category. Ryan isn't just a co-owner. She's highly visible and accessible, frequently working the floor, seating customers, answering the telephone and occasionally bussing a table. In most cities, her presence alone would be enough to fill the seats, even where the average check is $85.
Celebrity sightings are commonplace in L.A. Even so, if marquee names mean anything in the restaurant business, Ortolan is going to be a hit. Especially with the kind of food Emè puts out.