(Image purloined from the restaurant's website.)
Having eaten chef Brian Collins' food at the Lido Restaurant in Pismo Beach and Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, and having thoroughly enjoyed both, and having not eaten at Chez Panisse, where he also worked for six years, but of course knowing of Alice Waters' famed spot that more or less launched a cuisine, my expectations ran high as we entered Ember, his spot in Arroyo Grande everyone's raved about since it opened two years ago. That kind of grand set-up can lead to disappointment, of course.
Somehow Ember exceeded even my hopeful yearnings. That started simply with the clever layout, with the large, open kitchen right next to you as you walk through the door. Heck, if you're going to cook with lots of open flame--both a tiled pizza oven and a glowing brazier--you might as well make it a hearth, too. Of course, there's more than warming heat, then; there's a wondrous waft of whatever dishes are about to emerge, enough to make anyone hungry. Plus the cooks all seem cool despite the fire, sure to say hello and goodbye to each passerby. Quite a welcome.
We came expecting to wait--they don't take reservations--but we got a Thursday night table quickly. Then came the tricky part, limiting what to order from the menu that changes monthly (we were there for the new Nov-EMBER menu). Yes, Ember is all about the local and seasonal, but it takes a peasant's look at things, that old "simple isn't always best best the best is always simple" view. So a salad featuring Jerusalem artichokes and pickled persimmons has them both sliced paper fine, like tasty translucent panes to view the rest of the salad--arugula, toasted hazelnuts, some slivers of sublime cheese--through.
Then a roasted cauliflower (how nice this humble crucifer is hip in kitchens again) got star treatment atop a crunchy farro and pine nut pilaf itself atop some baby lettuces softened by the dish's warmth. You dip that into a yogurt that's surprisingly rich, redolent of Italian peppers crushed to give it a tinge of rosiness, and that just enough mint to say mint and not Doublemint. Collins has the medley magic down--everything blends and the flavors do better than add up, they multiply together into a humming seamless yum.
Of course we had to have a pizza. (Recall your own pleasure-inducing groan for a Full of Life flatbread moment here.) It seemed pretty impossible to pass on the wild mushroom one (chanterelles, and where are they getting them?, lobster, and black trumpet), with a smoked leek cream sauce (that tastes even better than it reads), and Truffle Tremor cheese. Indulgent, sure, but it was an evening that at least felt like fall and needed something to keep us warm for the rest of the evening.
Don't skip dessert, whatever you do. Ember offers a seared pumpkin spice cake that will ruin you for that flavor forever, so rich, real, deep. It certainly doesn't hurt the plate also offers a brown butter ice cream (a brilliant idea, well executed), pepita brittle, and little luscious dollops of maple bourbon custard. Again, the tones of the dish all sang, sweet but not saccharine, salt but not salty, some crunch, some cream.
Plus lots of local beer and wine they'll give you tastes of, and not just the usual suspects--I particularly enjoyed a robust Tannat from Paso Robles Le Vigne, for instance.
Plus plus fine service, knowledgeable, watchful, wry.
My only complaint with Ember is it's over an hour away.