Diner: Smoldering

Kenwood's Embers needs to fan the flames

May 26, 2004 at 2:06 pm

The valet-parked Mercedes, Jaguars and BMWs out front at Embers are a dead giveaway for the country club crowd ensconced within. Open since February in a revamped strip mall down the road from the Kenwood Towne Centre, Embers is quickly becoming a dining destination for Kenwoodites, Indian Hill land barons and other upscale Eastsiders. However, despite a solid pedigree (same owner as Kenwood standby, Trio), Embers seems to be struggling to find its hot hand. Two recent visits revealed numerous hiccups in service and food preparation.

Embers bills itself as a "Steak-Seafood-Sushi" place, so I wanted to try all three. I started with the Small Sushi Platter ($12.95), an assortment of sushi that was fresh, delicious and attractively presented. On a second visit, I sampled the Vegetarian Rice Paper Wrap ($7) with shiitake mushrooms, chives, cucumber, pickled daikon, field greens and a sesame-cilantro dipping sauce, as well as the Seared Crab Cake ($9.25) with frisée salad, grain mustard mayonnaise and truffle-infused white wine cream. The wraps were packed with vegetables, nicely flavored, and well complemented by the dipping sauce. I didn't care for the crab cake: It had a too-moist consistency and a mayonnaise-like richness that recalled tuna salad.

My companion ordered the 7-oz.

Filet Mignon ($24.95), medium-rare. There were problems: The steak was charred in spots, and medium-rare turned out to be closer to rare. Loath to send it back (anybody who's worked in a kitchen knows this is a bad idea), my companion did mention it to our server. She cheerfully offered to reheat it, but maintained that the steak was correctly cooked. My companion is no Texas cattleman, but he definitely knows his way around a steakhouse, and he was not pleased. I had much better luck on my second visit, with a different friend and a different server. We ordered the same steak (medium this time), and it came out expertly prepared. An off note: The mashed potatoes that came with the steak were creamy and delicious, but lukewarm.

For my entrée, I ordered the Horseradish and Potato Encrusted Trout, ($19.95) with fontina cheese, spiced apple purée, chive sour cream and vegetable sauté. This sounded fantastic, but despite the promise of twin zip from the horseradish and fontina, it was bland and uninspiring. On my return visit, I chose the excellent Grilled Asian Style Chilean Sea Bass ($24.95), with soy and miso vinaigrette, angel hair Pad Thai and a sweet orange ginger glaze; this was flaky and delicately flavored.

For dessert, we split a Warm Chocolate Soufflé ($9.00). Served with vanilla ice cream on a plate drizzled with berry sauce, it was chocolaty, rich and not too sweet. (If you're in a hurry, order ahead during your meal, as it takes time to cook).

Service was uneven on both occasions. No bread appeared at our table until requested. The first meal was a sequence of relentless selling that left me chafing. Ordering sushi was an opening to push some sake. More wine was offered just a few too many times. Dessert? Coffee, tea? A glass of port or sherry? It was excessive even for my companion, a dyed-in-the-wool salesman who has shilled everything from software to suits. And you should have seen his face when I told him the Hollandaise sauce our server sweetly offered (and that he accepted) cost $1.95 extra. Service the second time visit was considerably improved, but I still got stung by the upsell. Those blue cheese crumbles offered with the house salad? An extra 95 cents. Hey. Embers management: Knock it off, will you? At $25 bucks an entrée, I don't expect to be nickel-and-dimed like this.

Décor is muted and elegant, with dark woods and soft lighting that create an atmosphere of calm sophistication. Nowhere near edgy or over the top, Embers is comfortable versus hip. A roomy bar area adjoins the dining room.

Afterwards, my salesman friend summed it up: "There's a reason I don't go to a restaurant until it's been open six months to a year. There are kinks." Now, I love trying new restaurants way too much to wait that long, but he's got a point. Growing pains are to be expected. But with the upscale clientele Embers is targeting, they need to focus on working the kinks out — and fast. ©

Go: 8170 Montgomery Road, Kenwood

Call: 513-984-8090

Hours: Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Expensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Sushi, seafood, rotisserie chicken.

Accessibility: Curb ramp located in handicapped parking near front entrance. Restaurant fully accessible.

Grade: B