In the triumphant conclusion to "Green Eggs and Ham," Dr. Seuss’ learn-to-read classic, a curmudgeon who has spent the better part of the book insisting he has no use for green eggs or ham suddenly changes his perfectly rhymed tune. After trying the dish, he realizes he’d enjoy it even if it was served in the rain, after dark or in the presence of a mouse. Talk about deliciousness.
At Ember Wood Fired Kitchen, the latest restaurant from Glow Fisch Hospitality (Sesame, Five Loaves Cafe), there are no boats or goats around to test customers’ faith in the pizza crust. But there is a dessert pie that serves a similar function. Would you like pizza dough smothered with hazelnut sauce? Glistening with caramel gloss? Strewn with mini-marshmallow moss? Topped with slivered almonds at no extra cost?
I bet you would. Ember didn’t invent after-dinner pizza, but it’s the rare restaurant that can boast a crust so accomplished it shines in every possible scenario. Whether finished with tomato sauce, meatballs and cheese, or mushrooms, roasted garlic and sage, Ember’s airy, tangy crust, which are a far cry from the cracker-thin variety that’s currently fashionable, is a winner. Powdered sugar and marshmallows kissed with a creme brulee torch can’t dim its sophistication.
Unfortunately, up to this point, the sophistication on offer at this five-month-old Mount Pleasant restaurant has largely gone unnoticed. Because of its Belle Hall location, as well as its approachable menu of homey salads, sandwiches and straightforward entrees, such as roast chicken with potatoes, Ember’s fan base is dominated by very young families. Suffice to say it’s the kind of place where it’s not uncommon for customers to help other customers blow their noses.
Right about when "Jeopardy!" comes on, though, the dining room empties out and the vibe shifts. The white Eames-style chairs that initially registered as easy-to-wipe-down start to seem stylish, and wooden tables apparently chosen for their durability begin to make sense as elements of a warm and rustic design scheme. If you don’t mind apologizing repeatedly to employees for keeping them on the clock, this is an ideal time for appreciating the best of Ember’s menu. (The Ember team must think so, too, since every table is set with a cardstock tent promoting a date night special.)
And the number of items on that list has grown steadily since summertime, when dishes were all too frequently bedeviled by basic cooking errors. Problems still crop up — Ember appears to be cursed with an uneven talent pool in both front and back of house — but undersalting and overdressing are no longer givens.
Instead, the kitchen can now take pride in chewy ribbons of tagliatelle, which share a pretty ceramic bowl with coins of fennel-flecked sausage that skew sweet. Meat and starch alike are enveloped in a tomato sauce swollen with just enough cream to obliterate any workaday associations clinging to noodles with red sauce. A chiffonade of basil and finely grated parmesan cheese bring the freshness and funk needed for a royal flush of flavor. Ember is by no stretch an Italian restaurant, but few other pasta dishes in town are as innately satisfying.
Less nuanced, but just as enjoyable, are the wood-fired clams, which here are assigned to tarantella with smoky, salty nubs of pancetta. Yet the meat and shellfish are invariably outlasted by the garlic and lemon juice that prop up the preparation, which become a brisk sauce for baked strips of Ember’s superlative pizza dough. In fact, the combination of garlic and citrus is so seductive that customers can opt to add tagliatelle to their clam bowl and call it a night.
Like the dessert pizza, which is an intentionally sloppy mass of sugar in three different guises, the clams beckon toward decadence. The same isn’t so of the salads, which have the sullen taste of making good on obligations. The Caesar, for instance, has multiple grains in its croutons and avocado in its dressing, but isn’t healthful enough to compensate for its overall plainness. A feta-heavy mix of spinach, quinoa, cucumbers and tomatoes likewise fails to cohere in a joyful way, while the vinaigrette and Greek yogurt meant to enhance a plateful of arugula and roasted beets is an acidic pileup that could have been averted.
Far better in the produce sphere, as the restaurant’s name suggests, are vegetables which have made a run through the wood-fired oven. It would behoove Ember to put more trust in the alchemy of natural sugars and heat: Brussels sprouts don’t require a booster shot of brown sugar, just as the sweet potatoes could do without a dose of maple syrup.
Perhaps that’s what’s needed to tease vegetable orders out of a demographic so greens-adverse that parenting websites are thick with tips for sneaking pureed spinach into hamburgers and brownie batter. But if you can stand an untouched root crop or tuber, the payoff’s greater without the sweetener. Nothing beats the majestic wrinkly skinned carrots that accompany the chicken. (They’re also available as a standalone side dish, but only in honeyed form.)
As for the chicken, it’s just OK. A little more seasoning would help, as would a little more fat-rendering time in the eponymous oven. An oily hanger steak and slightly tough slab of salmon don’t rise above the decent level either, although it’s possible they’d fare better if paired with different partners: Gummy gnocchi drag down the fish, while a greasy kale saute doesn’t do the beef any favors.
Ember has made great strides since opening, but it still has some growing to do. In the meantime, though, there’s that glorious s’mores pie, which on one recent evening served as the highlight of a birthday being celebrated by four adults at a neighboring table. In the face of accumulating years, sometimes all it takes is a first-rate pizza to make everyone feel young again.