Restaurant News & Reviews

Arroyo Grande restaurant Ember embraces wood-fired flavor

Flatbreads at Ember in Arroyo Grande include this pizza featuring black trumpet mushrooms, nettles, an egg, smokey white sauce, pancetta, butternut squash and thyme.
Flatbreads at Ember in Arroyo Grande include this pizza featuring black trumpet mushrooms, nettles, an egg, smokey white sauce, pancetta, butternut squash and thyme.

From the moment it fired up its kitchen a year ago, Ember became one of the hottest tables in town.

Owned by Brian and Harmony Collins, the Arroyo Grande restaurant opened on Feb. 5, 2014, after almost five months of extensive remodeling.

The interior is predominantly crafted with reclaimed wood; some is from a barn in the Midwest, while some are “flavor sticks” used to impart an oakiness to wine. Seating options include a main dining area and several high-topped tables.

Much of the work was done by Brian’s dad, with help from Brian himself and some of the restaurant’s future staff (many of whom Collins had worked with before).

The personal attention shows. The warm earth tones and open kitchen create an inviting ambiance akin to dining in someone’s home … if that someone was a classically trained chef with some serious culinary chops.

Brian Collins grew up in Arroyo Grande before attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He then spent several years at Alice Water’s acclaimed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, an experience that “molded who I am as a chef and a restaurateur.” Upon his return to the Central Coast, he worked at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos and Lido in Pismo Beach before realizing his dream of having his own restaurant.

At Chez Panisse, “I always loved the wood-burning oven and how it was also used as a grill and rotisserie,” Collins said. “You build a fire, not just for show, but to create the coals, the embers that you cook with — it’s the energy that goes into the food.”

Ember’s kitchen features an Argentinian-style brasero oven, which combines the radiant heat of a pizza oven with the ability to adjust the food’s proximity to its heat source — somewhat akin to a Santa Maria-style barbecue. 

The restaurant’s thoughtful menu embraces a seasonal, farm-to-table approach, and as such it changes monthly.

Divided into five sections — “Soup and Salad,” “Share,” “Oven,” “Coals” and “Sweet” — the menu encourages a small-plate approach with a lot of sharing. That makes it easier to leave room for pastry chef Matthew Molacek’s desserts, definitely a good plan.

Starters run the gamut from a burrata Caprese salad with smoke-roasted tomatoes to an heirloom lettuce Caesar salad with focaccia croutons, from wood-fired squid to slow-cooked rabbit, from pasta Bolognese to light-as-air ricotta gnocchi.

Flatbreads from the “Oven” section might be as straightforward as pepperoni or six-cheese, while others might offer delicata squash with pancetta or Brussels sprouts with potato and bacon. The entrée list always includes a grilled steak and roasted chicken, plus, typically, another meat and seafood such as roasted black cod.

The bar program, managed by sommelier Rob Wyngard, features 18 rotating taps of mainly California craft drafts. The wine list offers more than 30 by-the-glass options from primarily Central Coast labels.

“We have such great wines right here in our backyard,” Collins said, an attitude that extends to his food sourcing as well. Every menu proudly names the local purveyors used, be they farmers or ranchers.

“The first goal was always to have a good neighborhood restaurant,” Collins said, “and to have had the support we’ve had from the community in our first year has been awesome.”

1200 East Grand Ave., Arroyo Grande | 474-7700 |
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 4-9 p.m., closed Monday-Tuesday.
The scene: An inviting ambiance suitable for a special occasion or casual night out; note that it can get busy, and there are no reservations.
The cuisine: Local, seasonal, from-scratch farm-to-table fare, predominantly cooked in the wood-burning oven; good wines-by-the-glass program, 18 rotating taps.
Expect to spend: Starters and small plates $10-20, flatbreads $20 and under, entrées $20-35, desserts $8-10.