February 28, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Embers Is Smokin’
Pretty good pulled pork, pretty good fries at Ember Room. Photo: Steven Richter
I loved the sweet, savory, smoky allure of Kittichai, and I was an early fan and booster of the Plaza Food Hall. So for weeks before its stalled opening, I could almost taste the sticky torrid combustion to come from the fusion of Todd English and Ian “Kittichai” Chalermkittichai at Ember Room. Now I’m here. Sweeping aside the thick velvet windbreak at the door, I actually lick my lips. Given the online drama of crowds lined up down the block for its opening bash, the place is shockingly empty. Well, it’s an arctic Tuesday, on not exactly gentrified Ninth Avenue, post pre-theater rush, and it’s the first week, perhaps too soon to draw a crowd in this shabby chic zip code.
Chocolate in the marinade seems to muddy the flavor of ribs. Photo: Steven Richter
We pick up a favorite dine-out buddy from the bar, where he claims to have taught the very serious (and seriously adorable) bartender how to make a “Tongue Pleaser”: Scotch and St. Germain. “You detect just a hint of sweetness where you don’t expect it,” he tells me.
“Is that really a cocktail or were you just trying to get her attention?” I ask.
The quail is juicy, not overcooked but dull and not hot enough. Photo: Steven Richter
If only we were as tickled with what we’re eating as he is with his invented drink. Spicy hot chocolate glazed baby backs are just okay, their coating dense, but not caramelized. Mongolian barbecue supposedly flavors broiled quail with fennel and blood orange. The juicy little birds are surprisingly dowdy and dull. Thai pastrami meatballs stoked with coriander, tamarind sauce, coconut and Chinese mustard are chewy -- not really a flaw. But they are also not hot and that is a flub. Nothing is hot enough. Even the room is chilly. Nothing tastes as if it was cooked to order. Yes, marinated ox tongue (spelled “toung” on my menu) must be bathed and sliced ahead, but it’s lost its unique texture along the way and picked up a sharply saline rubble of jalapeno, black pepper and sea salt.
I like the servers’ chic black frock, more Fifth Avenue than Ninth. Photo: Steven Richter
I am mesmerized by our server. She is gorgeous. Indeed, all the women to-ing and fro-ing here are lookers, with one shoulder bared in sleek black frocks. Ours is full of more information than we need to know, but with her irrepressible freshness, I am more amused than annoyed. In fact, she is quite knowledgeable. She knows what’s in every dish and is especially passionate about the compelling painting on the back wall – a blindfolded boy leading an elephant, by the restaurant’s designer, Roy Nachum. She explains its intricacies, the odd pattern of small raised squares that look like tiles from a myopic distance.
Complex meatballs strike me as halfway between wonderful and not so. Photo: Steven Richter
Tonight she earns her tip by undoing the comedy of errors from the kitchen. Taking away icy cold tasting plates, not once, but three times. Bringing fresh silver when runners have forgotten to replace it. Removing overlooked empty platters to make room for more. One runner assigned to grab empty plates stands waiting behind my chair, not totally comfortable unless he is plate-grabbing. Never mind we’ve not finished eating.
A blindfolded boy leading an elephant mirrored in eclectic design. Photo: Steven Richter
Yet the place itself is as strikingly handsome as the women in black. Thousands of temple bells are suspended from a double height ceiling at the entrance, where gold letters spell out a philosophy of welcome in Thai, or so we are told by the hostess at the podium. In the big open kitchen, the slick grey custom-built oven of clay bricks, volcanic rock and natural stone boasts two stone woks, a grill, and seven roasting ovens, including one big enough to handle a suckling pig. Much attention has been paid to the monogram, TE, near the crown of the façade.
Cooks gather in the open kitchen in front of the monogrammed stove. Photo: Steven Richter
A pair of walls in a patchwork of rough-cut wood seem to mute the sound. Share tables have bare backless benches: the Momofuku effect. Our stern bare wooden chairs don’t encourage lounging around either.
“In the old days, the chef would be here running the show,” our companion, a star chef of the 80s, laments. “Now they’re out opening the next restaurant in Las Vegas or Singapore.” Actually, midway through our dinner, I notice English has arrived and is deep in conversation with the man behind the counter. That must be Kittichai. I assume they have decided to ignore us, as well as the newspaper critic and star chef dining at the next table. The two have got that right. I prefer to pretend I’m not recognized. But our friend is still critical. “English could at least put on a chef’s jacket and apron and pretend he’s out there running the kitchen like Jean-Georges always does.”
Short ribs are hot enough and juicy too on a dab of sweet potato puree. Photo: Steven Richter
After a stretched out lull, runners swoop in again, and we have a dish that we all love: Korean barbecued beef fried rice, peppery hot, in temperature too. It’s in a big earthenware bowl, the rice stickily clustered and rocking with flavor, just $12. A big platter of pulled Berkshire pork sandwiches, neatly quartered, arrives too – with chili jam aioli and apple slaw, rolls already stale. Hard to believe that’s a $12 entrée (others up to $30). Looks like the house doubled our pulled pork order and sent two cups of seven-spice fries too. Steven is so happy with the pork and the zingy fries, he’s not even tasting the barbecued short ribs, three large square chunks, with citrus crumbs. My one bite is juicy and rich.
“You’ve eaten so much,” our server observes. “You must be so stuffed. You probably won’t even want dessert.”
“Of course we’ll have dessert,” I say. She describes three options: a flourless chocolate cake, Meyer Lemon crêpes, and cheesecake. “There’re all very small,” she adds. Our trio votes for the cheesecake. “Perfect,” she says. “That’s really small.” It’s not that she’s stupid or mean. She’s just blissfully naïve. And the caramelized cheesecake – made with a Thai flavoring and served with coconut ice cream, raspberry puree and one raspberry -- is small indeed, but at $7 that’s hardly a felony. Though the smoke wafting toward us is certainly a misdemeanor.
I wouldn’t consider reviewing this fledgling Ember Room now. I can’t even guess how much time its chef partners are willing to devote here for their backers, Chace Restaurant Group. With great pride, English announced at the crowded opening that this is his 25th restaurant. Pongtawat Chalernkittichai, who peddled his mother’s curries from a cart after school in Bangkok, then went on to become the first Thai national executive chef of a five star hotel, has been adding to his global reach since leaving Kittichai downtown in 2008. Since then he’s opened Murmuri in Barcelona, Bangkok’s first gastro bar, Hyde & Seek and Koh by Ian Kittichai in Mumbai. But it will take more than impressive resumes to fire up the Ember Room . I can imagine savvy folks heading here before or after the theatre for a supper of small plates – just $7 to $12 -- in this handsome back room. I would be back too. But I’ll give it time to simmer awhile till I know how much either chef cares. For now I’m going home to wash the smoke out my hair.
647 Ninth Avenue between 45 and 46th Streets. 212 245 8880. Dim sum inspired brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner seven nights from 5:30 to 11:30 pm.