Todd English, the celebrity chef and restaurateur with a publicly beleaguered love life, gained infamy in recent years for his issues with commitment. And it’s hard not to wonder if his “love ’em and leave ’em” MO will plague his professional endeavors, too, as he spreads himself thin across the city’s burners. In the past year alone, he has debuted Ça Va and the Plaza Food Court. Now comes his latest darling, Ember Room, a barbecue restaurant with Asian influences, whose menu he created along with Ian Chalermkittichai.
Both English and Chalermkittichai have proven themselves talented in the kitchen. Anyone who ate at Olives or Kittichai in their heyday can attest to that. Unfortunately, this new venture doesn’t live up to either of those hot spots. Unlike Brooklyn’s Fatty ‘Cue, which deliciously fuses Far East flavors with an American sensibility, Ember Room succumbs to the pitfalls of pan-Asian takeout—plates arrive battered by sweetness and abandoned by spice.
At least the décor delights the eyes, in a sort of theatrical way befitting the restaurant’s Ninth Avenue location near Times Square. Shiny gold bells hang from the ceiling of the bi-level space, which is decorated with a wall of interconnected lanterns. Crisscrossing red ribbons wrap around seat backs. A mural of a large elephant cradling a young boy enlivens one wall; textured wood, another. A “TE”-monogrammed oven with a spinning grill greets guests as they wend their way to the main dining room.
To be fair, the borders of mediocrity don’t confine every offering. Enjoyable appetizers include paper-thin slivers of seasoned beef tongue ($10), which canoodle under microgreens, tiny niblets of jalapeño adding hidden bursts of heat. Or get a whiff of the sea as the clams ($8) boogie down in a bowl with Asian celery, red onions, and basil.
BBQ Berkshire pork belly ($10), though, sounds the overplayed alarm. The piggy trend might now be dubbed lardcore, but these slabs of fatty meat appeal more to lardwhores, the maple glaze adding a sweetness that bears little relation to the nectar of New England. Conceptually inspired Thai pastrami meatballs ($11), accented with coconut and tamarind, arrive tough and heavy. And while cooling and creamy BBQ chicken chopped salad ($8), tossed with a light coconut and ranch dressing, surprisingly hit its mark on one visit, it resembled watery Jenny Craig home delivery on another.
Entrées fare slightly better. A hunkering portion of fork-tender short ribs ($24) does the barbecue concept proud—rich and beefy, the hot shot of proteins. Duck confit sinks into a rich red-curry-sauce bath, cubes of pineapple and eggplant floating at its side. Supple and luscious, it’s a bargain at $14. Pair it with fried rice ($14 for kimchi and beef, $7 for chicken and basil) and you’ve bought yourself a decent dinner, though one more appropriate for the poolside buffet at Club Med Phuket. But don’t order the shishito peppers ($6), an acrid abomination shamed by turmeric.
Pause for a moment to ponder the most confounding dish—Asian goulash sliders with sweet-potato fries ($12). How, pray tell, does one concoct “Asian goulash?” “Well, it’s basically a sloppy joe,” our waiter fessed up, describing what eventually amounted to a cloying Bolognese sauce (maybe flavored with some Eastern spices) drooling out of three dry buns.
Yet the sliders reflect perfectly what’s up at Ember Room: a trendy concept, muddied by bizarre ingredient pairings, inauthentic recipes, and an apparent identity crisis. A full-on Monet, as Cher Horowitz might say: “From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 13, 2011