Ember Kitchen Creates Bold Latin Flavors
Explore four stunning floors of this stylish Ausin restaurant found within the former Seaholm Power Plant
I’ve been reviewing restaurants for a long time. So after two decades, I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting if a restaurant will delight or disappoint me. But sometimes, on rare occasion, I hit on a wild card like Ember Kitchen, a new downtown eatery that unexpectedly blew me away.
Located in the former Seaholm Power Plant, Ember recently replaced Boiler 9, the first restaurant to occupy the historic building. Built in 1949, this sprawling Art Deco icon features a four-story, 11,000-square-foot space complete with vintage brick walls, exposed industrial piping, multi-level dining rooms, and soaring three-story glass windows that overlook ancient towering boilers, an urban courtyard, and a span of modern skyscrapers. There’s even a rooftop terrace with panoramic views, plus a clandestine underground bar. It’s all quite spectacular.
Coal-fired Josper oven showcases bold dishes cooked over live embers
But it can be tricky when the ambiance of a restaurant competes with the food. Frequently, the quality of the cuisine takes a back seat to the scenery. But not at Ember, where the fantastic food is the star and the stunning backdrop plays a supporting role. Ember showcases bold Latin flavors in deliciously creative dishes. Its name is inspired by the restaurant’s centerpiece: a massive and exclusive coal-fired Josper oven imported from Spain. This unique grill turns out many of Ember’s live-fire dishes, giving them a kiss of smoke and sizzle.
At first glance, Ember’s compact menu can seem a bit quirky and perplexing. So enlist the help of one of its knowledgeable servers to guide you through it. Ember’s staff is chock-full of passionate foodies who love describing the imaginative menu and offering helpful ordering tips. But to start, you don’t have to make any decisions: Ember offers everyone complimentary warm homemade tortillas and rich creamy butter paired with a free mini-cocktail. This thoughtful gesture sets the tone for an evening of pampered and inspired dining.
One of Ember’s signature appetizers is the decadent caviar bites, tiny thimbles of corn sope filled with caviar and garnished with silky crema and a dusting of lemon zest. These indulgent nibbles are a bewitching marriage of luxurious and rustic flavors and textures. The kitchen is genius with sauces, and two appetizers showcase them brilliantly. The outstanding Morita Shrimp is served in a pool of velvety sauce made of morita chiles, butter, white wine and garlic. While sopping up the last drops, my husband quoted TV chef Guy Fieri, “I could put this on a flip-flop and it would taste good.”
The grilled steak skewer appetizer features not one but two lip-smacking sauces. Cubes of prime beef filet are interspersed with sweet peppers, resting on a swipe of zippy green Salsa Doña, then drizzled with black garlic vinaigrette. Other starters include grilled octopus, seafood crudo and two vegetarian options: a chile relleno stuffed with roasted squash and an unusual crispy tamal. Most are substantial enough for sharing or could easily serve as a satisfying main dish.
Sensational entrees and seasonal vegetables
Entrees are equally thrilling. Halibut is pan-roasted in the Josper oven, accompanied by fingerling potatoes and pickled tomatoes, surrounded by a vibrant yellow tomato butter sauce, then topped with chunky red romesco. The grilled chicken is also sensational: a half-bird brined in orange juice, chiles and honey, then grilled on the Josper and dappled with an achiote chimichurri sauce. For beef lovers, there are several steak options, plus a grilled bone-in pork chop and seared scallops.
Sides are served a la carte and shouldn’t be overlooked. Simple brocollini became a showstopper when charred and served on a smear of Spanish ajo blanco sauce, then topped with roasted red peppers, pine nuts and citrus. And potatoes turn into crispy wonders when cubes are fried in Wagyu beef fat and topped with minced garlic and scallions.
Dessert at Ember was another tasty revelation. With just two choices, I recommend ordering both. The chocolate flan cake, garnished with dulce de leche caramel sauce and candied pecans, pairs beautifully with the other sweet option of avocado-rosemary ice cream made by Austin’s own Luv Fats. It was an ethereal finale to a meal that I didn’t want to end.
Cocktails in the Subterra Bar
With its special Spanish Josper grill and its Latin inspired menu, Ember’s wine list naturally leans toward European selections from Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. And both the airy dining room bar and sultry downstairs bar, Subterra, mix firstclass cocktails. You can make a night of it at Ember, enjoying a cocktail down in Subterra before or after grazing through a terrific meal up on one of Ember’s various dining levels.
I didn’t have many expectations for Ember, which is perhaps why it caught me off guard. It unexpectedly delighted me with its excellent food and service that rivaled its spectacular setting. I love surprises. And meals like Ember’s are the best kind.
Make your reservation at www.emberatx.com.