When the Ember Room opened up in February 2011 in Hell’s Kitchen, it did so with fanfare, parties, and with chefs Todd English and Ian Kittichai backing the project. Not long after it opened, Ember Room fell into that same problem a lot of celebrity-owned restaurants do: the food, service, and vibe all rode on names and in the end, didn’t deliver. Basically, it sucked. Now Todd English has stepped down from the Ember Room, a move he did quietly a few weeks ago, and has let Kittichai take over the kitchen. So what will become of the Ember Room? Will it continue to smolder or will it gradually cool to stillness?
Perhaps English’s move is smart, he has after all been running restaurants since the 1980s when he opened Olives in Massachusetts. Since then he has quickly moved up in the restaurateur world, starting businesses, staring on his own TV show, and writing numerous cookbooks. Maybe he just heard Ember Room’s death rattle, after all, it’s not unusual for celebrity helmed eateries to fail when the restaurant doesn’t step up to the plate. For example look at Britney Spears’s short-lived NYLA in New York or J-Lo’s Madres in California. Some restaurants, like the Heath Ledger’s Five Leaves, remain strong even when the celebrity presence is gone, and that’s usually due to its solid food and service.
Kittichai, in his thick Thai accent agrees and says, “I want to make this restaurant more impressive, more fun about eating, more fun about experiencing. Like, trying the Ladyboy [cocktail].”Aside from the whimsical drink list and recognizable Asian-flare themed dishes like lobster pad Thai, whole striped bass, and juicy volcano chicken, Kittichai has worked to recreate the menu into something people, not just tourists wanting to eat at a famous chef’s restaurant, will make an effort to go out and try.
Under Kittichai’s command, the food offerings appear to have perked up, though it still remains safe for diners not really wanting something too different or spicy. The chef also tapped into today’s current trend of comfort-fusion food by adding dishes like green curry lasagna, Thai chili mac n’cheese, and Thai tacos with shredded chicken, coconut, and a sweet chili sauce.
In the end, perhaps English’s exit was a good thing. He might have brought the crowds but it is Kittichai’s name carries weight in food-conscious circles. So we hope: English is gone but the Ember burns on.