New in Town: Ember Urban Eatery

A former Donato’s takeout reopens quietly as a cozy American restaurant in Virginia Avenue high rise.

The sign posted at the edge of the parking lot is so blocky and homemade-looking, you might think it’s an ad for cheap firewood or a rare midwinter yard sale. You could easily miss it negotiating the soft left from East Street to Virginia Avenue into that borderland between Fletcher Place and Holy Rosary that, with Bluebeard (653 Virginia Ave., 317-686-1580), Rook (719 Virginia Ave., 317-759-5828), and the soon-to-open brunch spot Milktooth (540 Virginia Ave.), is becoming downtown’s hottest new culinary district. Whether or not it hopes to be a player in that scene, Ember Urban Eatery (435 Virginia Ave., 317-340-1868) opened with little fanfare just before Thanksgiving, offering classic American eats in the soaring Villagio at Page Pointe building. And while it may bear some resemblance to the Donato’s that used to operate in this ground-floor storefront, don’t try to order a pepperoni pizza or a side of breadsticks.

Conceived and owned by Villagio’s long-time sales and leasing agents Rob and Shelly Odendahl, the restaurant has a somewhat limited menu right now, and the beer and wine promised on the awning outside aren’t available yet, owing to final details on the restaurant’s liquor license, which the couple hopes to have in place by early January. The Odendahls have added a few design elements to make the place seem less like a pizza takeout—including some paint and handcrafted faux-floral wall art emanating from plastic boxes at the tables. A low wall between a row of booths and the bar makes the place feel a tad cramped, but all in all the restaurant is cozy, and the current offerings mostly hit the mark for generous and comforting—at a reasonable price point.

An order of “Urban Wings” was nicely smoky and meaty, without the typical overpowering heat. We still used plenty of the tasty bleu cheese dressing they came with. A “Simple” green salad, though quite small, had all of the trappings of a perfect spring salad of days gone by—crisp leaf lettuce, thin slices of celery, and shavings of green onion. And while the vinaigrette was light and refreshing, it was salty enough to make us grab our glasses of iced tea. “Dean’s Burger,” though somewhat humbly dressed with a wan leaf of iceberg lettuce and pale winter tomato, the burger itself was quite juicy and beefy, with plenty of crispy fries on the side. A bit more dressed up was the brisket sandwich, one of our waitress’ favorites, which came piled with tender, clearly long-smoked beef—though also quite salty—and a generous portion of “BBQ” cole slaw. Definitely the bargain of the night came in the form of a generous half of an Amish chicken with all the savory flavor and herbs of a good roasted chicken (distinctly different from the wings we’d had earlier). Classic scalloped potatoes offered a nice change from the ubiquitous mashed, but steamed broccoli and coins of carrots (also quite salty) seemed a tad uninspired.

For dessert, our waitress offered us just an unembellished brownie, though she noted that the owners are working with a family friend to get a rotating selection of mini-desserts on the menu. A rich layer of creamy icing meant that the brownie didn’t need any more chocolate sauce or ice cream, and while an after-dinner drink might have been nice, our waitress assured us we’d be able to get one soon.