Have you ever seen the movie Chocolat? Released in 2000, it stars the lovely Juliette Binoche and a prelapsarian Johnny Depp in a tale of love and bonbons. As the story unfolds, a mysterious woman and her young daughter appear unannounced in a small French village one wild and wind-whipped day. The solemn, upstanding townspeople are suspicious—what is she up to? The stranger turns out to be an uncannily gifted chocolatier who opens a small shop and proceeds to enchant everyone with her candies, cookies, and sloe-eyed charm. I like that film a lot, and it has occurred to me over the years that it has more than a few parallels with the life of my friend, chef Rebecca Rather.
In 2000, when her own daughter was small, Rather upended her life by moving from the big city of Austin to the small town of Fredericksburg. She settled into the community and opened a succession of bakeries and restaurants (all of which have now changed hands or closed) that captivated the locals, Texas-style, with monster blueberry muffins, chicken pot pies, and brownies that made your eyes roll back in your head.
Why has a two-decade-old movie popped into my thoughts? Because of Rather’s newest undertaking, a bakery and breakfast-lunch spot named Emma + Ollie that she opened last September in a sweet old house a few blocks off Main. I visited the little place, named for two favorite relatives—her own great-aunt and her business partner’s grandmother—after it started up and thought it warranted an honorable mention in my annual list of best new restaurants in the March issue. Since then she has made plans to extend the days and hours and is contemplating pop-up dinners with guest chefs. All of which seemed like reason enough for a more detailed look, especially given that April marks the height of the wildflower road-trip season.
Walk up the steps, across the wooden porch, and through Emma + Ollie’s front door, and if you don’t slow down, you’ll run smack-dab into the pastry case. Reflecting Rather’s typical largesse, it’s brimming with a dozen or more daily options. There are scones that put velvet to shame and giant amber-crusted croissants that erupt in a fountain of flakes the moment you take a bite (the pastries are still warm if you get there early—the place opens at 7:30 on weekdays). The fat kolaches and muffins go fast, but that still leaves treats to take home: piercingly sweet lemon bars, debonair key lime tarts, and petite, fairy-tale-perfect chocolate cakes peeking out from cascades of pink icing. There are even a few gluten-free options. Buy a cup of coffee while you mill around, waiting for someone to vacate a table (reservations are taken only for six or more people).
Groups of friends claim the community table; smaller parties are shown to the two front rooms, where each four-top is covered in a tablecloth and white butcher paper and graced with a vase of fresh herbs. When the weather’s nice, the deck out back becomes a breezy destination. It overlooks several raised beds below, which appeared a little scraggly when I visited in February but were due to be replanted with flowers and herbs when the danger of a frost was past. Rather has also turned the large backyard of her house, a few blocks away, into a vegetable garden for the restaurant.
If you’re a believer in big, blow-out breakfasts, you’ve come to the right place. Beignets, buried in an avalanche of powdered sugar, are fried fresh all day. The buttery biscuits, sumptuous and crusty, all but plead to be dipped in Rather’s sausage-and-tomato gravy (think classic cream gravy tinted rosy pink by a smidge of fresh tomato puree). As for the thick slices of grilled sourdough bread, they find their highest and best use in tomato toast, a brilliant medley of sweet bacon jam, tart roasted tomatoes, an over-easy egg, and snowy mounds of goat cheese topped with arugula. If, on the other hand, you’re a devotee of the virtuous breakfast, there’s organic oatmeal (with or without chia seeds) and a protein extravaganza known as the Rancho Loma Bowl. This concoction consists of tidy layers of red quinoa and black beans topped with a golden-yolked fried egg and accented with tomatillo salsa and a slash of Mexican crema. For a serious pick-me-up, finish with the Turmeric Tonic, a lovely cool glass of freshly juiced lemon, ginger, and turmeric, jazzed up with cayenne and honey.
At lunch, the menu turns to the classic three S’s: soups, salads, and sandwiches. The lively fresh tomato soup doesn’t get any more all-American, and the moist chicken salad sandwich (the organic breast meat accessorized with almonds and apple) doesn’t get any more country club. But good as these options were, the best thing I tried was the fantastic pimento burger. The beef is from 44 Farms, in Cameron, the bun is house-made brioche, and the whole thing is anointed with bacon jam and nubbins of said cheese. It was so insanely tall I couldn’t even squeeze it into submission and finally had to resort to a knife and fork. Among the other sandwiches, the daily changing po’boys are fun—mine was fried oysters clad in jackets of well-seasoned batter that positively crackled when I took a bite.
The next weekend, recovered from my single-day breakfast and lunch marathon, I drove back to Fredericksburg with a friend for Sunday brunch. The weather had turned cold and misty, making us extra happy to warm our hands around cups of hot tea. (We could have also ordered a blood-orange mimosa or a glass of wine or beer from the concise list.)
Obviously, where there’s brunch, there are Benedicts—and fine ones they are, outfitted with gorgeous lemon-yellow hollandaise and homemade English muffins. Of the three choices offered, my favorites were the thick-cut bacon version and the one with sage-spiked pork sausage. The lobster Benedict was generous, but honestly, I thought the seafood was a little past its prime that day.
The biggest surprise, though, was the dish I initially dismissed as a concession to traditionalists—the chicken-fried steak. Instead of a throwaway cutlet, it was made with a thin-cut slab of pure beef tenderloin, so tender it hadn’t even needed pounding. We finished up with bourbon-soused French toast bread pudding, and again, I was astonished. In my experience, bread pudding is the blind date of desserts: the minute you’re introduced, you wish you’d never said yes. Here it is positively ethereal, all quivering and golden as if magically poised between a solid and a liquid. I suspect it may be a new, unknown state of matter.
If Emma + Ollie were in Austin, I undoubtedly would be eating there two or three times a month. And eventually, I would weigh five hundred pounds. So I’m perversely grateful that it’s located in Fredericksburg, which is an hour and a half from my house. I’ll save it for special occasions or as an excuse for a road trip or for the days when my everyday routine starts to feel predictable and I need something special to shake life up. Like the lucky townspeople in Chocolat.
Emma + Ollie
607 S. Washington, Fredericksburg
B & L Wed–Sat. Brunch Sun. $$$
Opened September 5, 2018
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice.” Subscribe today.