There’s an artistry to Ember, from the attractively landscaped and lighted grounds to the sleek, streamlined dining room accented with a Robert Motherwell serigraph and a sculptural rendition of a fallen tree.
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that Charly Bournazos, who opened the restaurant in 2004 on the site of his parents’ legendary eatery, Lou’s, has a degree in architecture. Bournazos, who describes himself as a modest art collector, honed his sense of style in Manhattan in the early 1980s, where he managed The Roxy, the city’s biggest roller discotheque at the time.
The focal point of Ember’s dining room is a large open kitchen, where white-clad chefs work against a backdrop of gleaming stainless steel. Dark woods, white linens and china, and tiny drop lamps of brushed steel create a neutral, soothing palette. Lighting is soft (though a little too soft in the entrance, where I felt compelled to use my phone’s flashlight to find the door). On one side of the dining room there’s an unobtrusive horseshoe-shaped bar with nary a television in sight.
Happily, the artistry extends to the food, expertly prepared by chef George Willette, who has been at the helm for five years. Everything that came to our table was presented with style and flair, and with one small exception, everything tasted as good as it looked.
We started with pan-seared crabcakes ($13), three meaty rounds loaded with crab with just enough breading to hold them together. They were served atop chunky slices of fennel, a pleasing variation on greens that added a nice crunch, and garnished with sweet pickled onion and a lemon caper remoulade.
An appetizer of cranberry and brie spring rolls ($11) was the only dish of the evening that we didn’t love. The cranberries were pungent and sweet, but there seemed to be little brie, with the result that the rolls were on the dry side. A dip of melted St. André cheese served in a miniature tortilla bowl helped, and a drizzle of onion confit added color and taste.
With just a glance at the menu, I could have ordered for my companions. We have dined together so often that I know if the opportunity arises, one will order a duck dish and the other lamb. (For a reviewer, this is a plus, since each brings extensive experience to these dishes.) Ember’s menu offered intriguing presentations of both.
Pan-seared duck breast ($28) featured tender, flavorful breast slices and a crackly-skinned leg. It was accompanied by truffled black pepper spaetzle, tossed with haricots verts and cranberries. The spaetzle was dense and satisfying and had a slightly smoky taste.
Oven-roasted rack of lamb ($33) was two large chops set on a ribbon of rich, but not heavy, peppercorn gravy; the meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Accompanying “creamer” potatoes laced with roasted garlic and bacon were a delicious upscale version of smashed potatoes. The haricots verts we substituted for broccolini were perfectly cooked.
Scallops ($29) were pan-seared to perfection, with a nice brown glaze but still moist inside. They were served with rich and creamy shrimp risotto and fresh asparagus, all set on a light tomato-butter sauce, which was nicely acidic against the sweetness of scallops and rice.
Several menu items, including salmon and monkfish as well as meats, are cooked on a wood grill. Bournazos said a wood grill was one of the few things he was absolutely sure he wanted when he converted the restaurant from a Cape Cod-style steak and seafood house to a fine dining destination.
There’s also a “light bites” menu with an offbeat but appealing selection of pizzas — think fig or scallop and bacon — burgers, and fish and chips. It started out as the bar menu, Bournazos said, but is now served in the dining room as well.
For dessert, we shared a lemon blueberry tart ($9). The oversized treat featured a shortbread base topped with pucker-worthy lemon filling, whipped cream, and fresh blueberries set on a pool of blueberry sauce. Desserts, like everything else, are made in house.
About the only thing that can elevate an evening of such good food is good service. We had a terrific server, who gave us all the time we needed with the menu, answered our food questions authoritatively, and was friendly without being overbearing.
My reviewing companions had driven through Boston, encountering horrendous traffic on a weeknight. When they joined me, a good half-hour beyond our reservation time, one said sternly, “This had better be worth it.”