Never have I seen a restaurant more in love with its stove. The servers speak in hushed tones about “the Josper.” They direct your gaze to the chef’s counter, behind which “the Josper” resides. They offer to take a picture of you in front of “the Josper.” If you ask someone who was there at the beginning, they’ll tell you how the restaurant’s front door had to be removed to wedge “the Josper” through. To be sure, the sleek, coal-fired grill and oven at Ember Kitchen is impressive. It can be subtly adjusted for slow cooking but also reach a searing 1,100 degrees. But after three visits, I think its most notable achievement is less functional than inspirational. It spurred Ember’s first two chefs—María Mercedes Grubb, from Puerto Rico, and Nayely Castillo, from El Paso—to create one of the most striking menus I’ve seen in a restaurant that could easily have been a rather predictable bar and grill. The two women have now moved on to other ventures, and the restaurant is seeking a successor, but the innovative dishes they developed are still bringing in repeat visitors and attracting curious newcomers. 

If the restaurant and its fancy cooking equipment are new, however, the building they occupy is not. For decades, the massive 68-year-old Seaholm Power Plant housed the oil-fueled boilers that kept the city of Austin running. The facility was mostly decommissioned in 1989 and basically just sat there until 2005, when developers began to transform the antiquated site and bring it back to life in the form of offices, shops, and residences, including a new high-rise tower. A portion of it was remodeled as a dining venue in 2016, with the original pipes and ductwork a distinct part of the appeal. For three years, the aptly named Boiler 9 Bar + Grill occupied the space. Then, this February, Austin-based InKind, a group that helps fund restaurants nationwide, rolled out Ember Kitchen, along with a small, separate basement-level cocktail lounge specializing in all manner of agave spirits.

The exterior of Ember Kitchen
The exterior of Ember Kitchen. Photograph by Jessica Attie
Ember Filet Mignon
The filet mignon with a birria pour-over. Photograph by Jessica Attie

“May I send out a complimentary welcome drink and some fresh, hot tortillas?” asked our waiter on my first visit, after his passionate ode to the Josper. As promised, out came a petite, lemony tequila-mezcal cocktail and a plate of warm, fragrant, just-made tortillas—some blue, some yellow—tucked into a folded napkin. Accompanying them were two spreads: cultured butter with a sprinkle of flaky sea salt and whipped beef tallow (like butter but silkier) with a dusting of powdered guajillo chile and microgreens. 

We lingered over the unexpected treat—I can’t remember the last time I saw a gratis bread course in a restaurant—enjoying our perch on the second level of the industrial space. To one side we could see a wall of greenery and a fine faux cherry tree in full bloom. If we leaned over just a bit, we could watch the cooks in action in the small open kitchen below, shaking pans, ladling sauces, and brandishing giant tweezers. 

The dining room at Ember
The main floor of the dining room.Photograph by Jessica Attie

In the mood for a little more masa, even though we had just inhaled the welcome-wagon tortillas, we next checked out the caviar bites (the masa for these and other dishes is made from corn sourced in Mexico by the respected Los Angeles–based company Masienda). The presentation is a take on blini, but instead of the usual teeny pancakes, the kitchen substitutes fat masa tuffets topped with Mexican crema, lemon zest, and a generous dab of Kaluga roe. Then, our masa mania becoming truly epic, we ordered a tamal ahogado, which is a riff on Mexico’s popular torta ahogada, a.k.a. drowned sandwich (similar to a French dip). In Ember’s transformation, the tamal is a small, round, almost fluffy cake, lightly fried. You swish a bite in the vegetable-based broth (perked up with chopped walnuts and almonds) and savor its novel filling of goat cheese and sweet potato puree. 

The Josper continues to get a workout—sometimes in a starring role, sometimes in a supporting one—with the restaurant’s small but excellent seafood selection. There’s a wildly colorful salpicón (a sort of Mexican meat salad) of octopus accented by bright green dollops of avocado mousse and a highly original salsa quemada (“burnt sauce”), a stunning coal-black emulsification of charred onion, garlic, tomatoes, and tomatillos. Scallops are handled beautifully, toasty-brown around their tops and edges yet custard-soft inside, placed atop a corn mousse sided by a heap of gently roasted summer corn. (How can two sweet things work so well together? Somehow they do, aided and abetted by the vinegary pop of a pickled Fresno chile garnish.) 

A Latin-inflected shrimp scampi tricks out the garlicky sautéed crustaceans with a chile morita butter and is accompanied by rounds of warm flatbread. Halibut gets a satisfyingly coarse version of romesco sauce, heavy on the almonds. But the seafood dish I would order every time is the light, bright crudo: it changes based on the fish available, but ours was small, irregular slices of pristine Japanese sea bass served on a midnight-blue plate that was nearly overflowing with a tart, peach-hued leche de tigre marinade. 

Salpicón de pulpo.
Salpicón de pulpo. Photograph by Jessica Attie
The much-touted Josper grill.
The much-touted Josper grill. Photograph by Jessica Attie

As you would expect, the grill moves front and center with the courses for carnivores, its powerful heat producing a delectable-looking char. Just for fun, over my visits, I did an informal compare and contrast and found that while it performed admirably with all the meats we tried, to my surprise the Josper was at its best with—drumroll, please—chicken. The half bird arrived looking as if it had been rescued from a house fire, but beneath the blackened skin the flesh was miraculously pink, its flavor amped up by an achiote-touched chimichurri sauce and a guajillo-and-morita-chile brine. I quite liked the tender filet mignon with a tawny birria jus poured over it at the table, although the meat needed more salt and its deep rose center was rarer than the medium rare I ordered. The only meat I wasn’t crazy about was the tomahawk-style pork chop, which came with pretty orange supremes and a touch of mint. Undeniably dramatic, with its Frenched rib bone tilted rakishly upward, it seemed as though it would live up to the “heritage pork” label the waiter bestowed upon it, but it was in fact only marginally more flavorful and juicy than a high-quality supermarket chop. 

At a place like this, it’s normal to focus on animal protein, and I admit I was quite taken with the chicken and the filet, but my favorite flavors by far were vegetal. One was the heap of tart (very tart), al dente (extremely al dente) grilled and pickled juvenile carrots drizzled with nutty salsa macha and lying on a bed of ricotta-like requesón cheese with a glaze of piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) and strawberries. But I was truly agog at the potato extravaganza that arrived with the filet: a bed of fine, buttery mashed spuds topped by purple, red, and tan roasted potatoes. (I imagined the kitchen debating, “Mashed or roasted? Mashed or roasted? Oh, dammit, let’s just do both!”) 

As for desserts, they seem to be a work in progress. I tried a potentially interesting cake and flan combo, with a topping of dulce de leche and a garnish of fresh orange, but it was mainly sweet and not much else. 

What does the future hold for Ember Kitchen? I wondered about that as I walked out into the late-spring evening, pausing in a nearby green space amid the surrounding tall buildings to watch kids run around and play while their parents stared at their phones. As of my last visit, in late May, the restaurant was still looking for its forever chef, and no doubt a new person will soon be in charge of the Josper. But based on what I tasted, I think the present concept—half hearty grilled fare, half creative Latin food, and perfectly adapted for today’s urban Texas diner—will be hard to improve on.

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Austin’s New Powerhouse.” Subscribe today.