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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ember Woodfire Grill, Livonia

Ember Wood Fire Grill on Urbanspoon
Although a very few wood-fired pizza places in the Rochester area have been around for some time, the idea didn't really seem to take off until relatively recently; in the past two or three years, wood-fired pizzerias have been springing up around here like mushrooms after a summer rain.
For whatever reason, the trend has been confined almost entirely to the east side of the Genesee River. It's now spread south, although geographically the Great Divide continues.
Ember Woodfire Grill opened in late 2009 in a converted train station in Livonia, a few miles east of the northern tip of Conesus Lake (and well east of the Genesee, which meanders in a more southwesterly direction at this latitude, although the cultural divide represented by the Genesee in Monroe County doesn't extend this far south).
Ember is not primarily a pizza place, but it does offer pizza, baked in a wood-fired oven. Although Livonia's a little far south for me to travel for pizza, I'm willing to make an exception for wood-fired pizza, not because wood-fired pizza is necessarily better, but because it's still unusual, and because it ought to be better. If you're advertising wood-fired pizza, you're implicitly claiming to make pizza that stands out from the rest.
It doesn't always work out that way, of course. I've had wood-fired pizza that's just plain dried-out and burnt, and others that are indistinguishable from pizzas baked in a gas oven, and not even good examples of that, to boot.
But at Ember, I wasn't disappointed. This was a very nice, very enjoyable example of what can be achieved in a wood-fired oven.
Like most wood-fired pizzas, this had a thin crust, although this one might have been even thinner than most. It was crisp, crackly, and crackerlike, yet not wholly lacking in pliability.
The underside of the crust was well charred, in a spotted but more or less uniform pattern, and the edge was quite bubbly in a few places. The crust had a charred, very toasty flavor that I enjoyed, although I can imagine some people who aren't used to this style of pizza objecting that their pizza had been burned in the oven. I wouldn't call this burnt, but it did have a noticeable charred flavor.
There seemed to be a touch of oil on top of the crust, which might explain why it remained pliable, as oil will tend to soften the crust a bit. It was topped with tomatoes, mozzarella and shredded basil.
A lot of Margheritas I've had around here are dragged down by the tomatoes, which all too often are the hard, pale, tasteless baseballs you tend to find in these latitudes in the off-season. Ember largely solves that problem by using plum tomatoes, which on my pizza were flavorful and firm, neither hard nor mushy.
According to the menu, Ember uses fresh mozzarella on their Margherita pizzas, but this looked to me more like the aged, low-moisture stuff. It had a pale yellow color, rather than the pure white of fresh mozzarella, and it appeared to have been laid on in shreds rather than in the individual slices that you usually see with the fresh variety.
At first I thought the shredded basil was a bit sparse, but after a few bites I became aware of its flavor, which remained largely in the background, but which nevertheless supplied some welcome counterpoint to the sweet/acidic tomatoes and the mild, creamy cheese.
Embers offers five specialty pizzas, including a Mediterranean, chipotle BBQ chicken, steak pesto, and good ol' pepperoni. You can also create your own from among Embers' modest list of toppings.
Ember is far from just a pizza place, though. There's an extensive appetizer and tapas menu, which runs the gamut from braised pork belly to wood-fired mac 'n' cheese with bacon (I'm still scratching my head over how mac 'n' cheese can be wood-fired, though I'd love to try it). Each meal is also preceded by a selection of breads with a variety of dipping sauces and spreads.
Those looking for more traditional American fare will find offerings such as New York strip steak and pork tenderloin, often with a nouveau twist; the house meatloaf, for example, is made from a mix of veal, pork and beef, stuffed with roasted peppers and jack cheese, with a spicy espresso-brandy glaze. Each entree is accompanied on the menu by a suggested wine pairing, or a beer from Ember's well-chosen selection of microbrews.
For little ones, Ember can whip up a "classic" version of Kraft mac 'n' cheese, as well as a PB&J, corn dog, among other kid-friendly items. If you've got a tot in tow, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are good days to head to Ember, when kids get to make their own pizzas, for free.
My own young 'un wanted to get to the playground before dark, so I didn't have time to sample anything from Ember's dessert menu, but though short, it's tempting, and includes a raspberry chocolate truffle tart and oatmeal cake with chocolate peanut butter frosting. Like many of Ember's menu items, these are subject to change with the season, and are entirely house made.
Ember is located in a converted former train station, but you won't see any train memorabilia on the walls, as the owners have opted for a contemporary look, with neutral tones and a clean, even minimalist approach to the decor. The bar area is partially walled off from the dining room, but it was still pretty noisy throughout on my visit.
As I mentioned, wood-fired pizza can be a hit-and-miss proposition, as places either don't fully utilize the radiant heat of the oven, or go too far in the opposite direction and simply burn the crust. This pizza avoided both pitfalls, with a nice char and a crisp yet pliable crust. Ember's ultrathin, crackly pizza doesn't match my ideal pizza, which remains one with a thick enough crust to have a bit of chew, but the pizza, and the restaurant, are well worth a drive to Livonia. I'm giving the pizza an A-, and making a mental note to return sometime to sample some of Ember's other wares.
Ember Woodfire Grill, 21 Livonia Station, Livonia 346-0222 
Mon. - Wed. 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., Thu. - Sat. till 10 p.m. Bar hours:  Mon. - Wed. 4:30 p.m. -10:30 p.m., Thu.- Sat. till 11 p.m. Closed Sundays.

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