Ember Room is the latest entry in Todd English's international restaurant empire that started in Boston and now seems rooted in New York City. Located two blocks from the heart of Times Square, Ember Room is an oasis of calm for tourists seeking an alternative to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and its ilk; the steady stream of Facebook messages have me thinking it's instead seeking repeat business from locals. The interior is high end but inviting, with two floors of comfortable, reasonably spaced seating. The unusual oven—with the initials "TE" etched into it (guess who?)—makes an impression as you walk past the tiny bar to your seat. The high tech music echoes the endless loop from the restaurant's web site; you can almost picture Todd English voguing to it Zoolander style.
The concept is Asian/BBQ fusion, with a nice balance of pork, beef, chicken, seafood and vegetables on a menu that's designed for sharing. Beyond bacon, nothing claims to have been smoked, but many of the items are grilled and/or have sauces reminiscent of barbecue. Chocolate babyback ribs are the main lure to the barbecue aficionado on the appetizer menu; beef shortribs are its counterpart from the entrees. A fixed price menu geared to theatergoers offers three courses for $21.
Chocolate Baby Back Ribs: A quartet of ribs purported to be babybacks were most likely smallish St Louis cut spares (an upgrade) and most likely not smoked (a downgrade). They looked attractive in twin crossed pairs with stripes of both sauce and rub on the edge of the plate. A dark brown sauce treatment initially struck me as overly generous, but it wound up not overpowering the nice crusting beneath. Before you cringe at the notion of chocolaty ribs, keep in mind that the combination of meat and chocolate is already well established in Mexican cuisine (mole sauces). Here, the execution made sense, mostly because the chocolate isn’t at the forefront; there’s more of a hoisin and Sriracha flavor/texture than anything resembling Hershey’s syrup. It worked. Below the sauce and crust, the inner rib meat was clearly moist though clearly short of juicy. The meat was well past tender (though clearly short of mushy), overdone for some and ideal for others. Flavor lacked smoke but had enough going on in the pork and rub departments. Add the balance of heat and sweet in the sauce, and these ribs were enjoyable. At $7 for four ribs, they were a good value and a decent start to the meal.
Shrimp Satay: Three skewers ($10) presented large, thick shrimp stretched out at least six inches, allowing plenty of surface area. That surface had a buttery sheen and a hint of browning, but nothing interesting spicewise, saucewise, flavorwise or otherwise unless butter's your thing. The inner texture was just right, providing tenderness and snap. The lemongrass slaw accompaniment delivered a nice visual contrast that would have been an impressive flavor foil too if the shrimp had some oomph.
Baked Manila Clams: A medium bowl supplied baked clams ($8) that were fresh, moist and tender. I liked that they were presented in the shell above the layer of sauce that was confined to the bottom of the bowl, allowing each guest to decide whether to dip or not. I didn't like that many (about a third) of the clam shells were empty, but the missing clams were fished out of the bottom easily enough. So thick and full bodied—more than making up for the oomph missing from the shrimp—that it would never be called mere broth, the sauce was one of the highlights of the meal. More of a brick color than the chocolate sauce, this one similarly combined sweet and heat, more compellingly so. I’d recommend serving grilled bread along with it to soak up the last drops.
Shortribs: The three boneless rib hunks atop whipped sweet potatoes looked more like cupcakes (Drake’s cream cups, circa 1976 to be exact) than meat, but there was no chocolate here. Each beef portion had a sandy topping that was neither nuts nor rub. Whatever it was, it brought color and texture contrast to the equation, but not much flavor. The beef was very tender but very dry, much drier than any shortrib has a right to be, making the bok choy the best element of the dish.
Red Chile Glazed Sea Bass: This entrée ($24) stood minimally adorned, with only the lightest of brushed-on glaze (and extra stripes on the plate for optional dipping) to accent the natural flavor of the fish. Like two of the dishes before it, the glaze combined heat and sweet, but this time with a much thinner, much more restrained application. The tender fish had a nice bounciness instead flakiness. I think it was cooked perfectly, but I also think it was monkfish, not sea bass. The bumpy, snappy mouthfeel and neutral flavor were dead giveaways. I still would have ordered this dish had it been listed as monkfish, but still.
Chicken fried rice: More of a full fledged dish than the expected side, this portion was the equivalent of a large fried rice order at a Chinese restaurant. And the chicken chunks weren’t just accents but large enough (thumb size) to almost require cutting and numerous enough to account for about a third of the overall volume. The tradeoff was flavor: the sweet basil, chili and oyster sauce that sounded so good on the menu weren’t all that noticeable on the plate. If you value meat and portion size, this one’s a winner. If you value flavor, it’s a push.
Sugar Snap: Warm, crisp sugar snap peapods in an aluminum bucket were lightly oiled and heavily hit with chile pepper flakes and coarse salt. In a word, these were fantastic. Who would have thought that the best flavor/texture combination would be from a vegetable? On my next visit, I can see myself polishing off nothing more than an order or two of these at the bar with a cold beer as a chaser.
The Bottom Line
Not barbecue enough, not Asian enough and not consistent enough for me, but Ember Room showed intermittent flashes of success in a beautiful space. If you take advantage of the fixed price option, it's an affordable luxury.
Village Voice review of Ember Room
Yelp reviews of Ember Room
Urbanspoon reviews of Ember Room