Located in the business district of Shenzhen, EMBER is China’s first restaurant by acclaimed Japanese chef Kentaro Nakahara whose wagyu dishes have elevated Japanese yakinuku barbecue to fine-dining status. Interior design practice Nature Times Art Design have channelled Nakahara’s masterful fusion of Japanese, Korean and American culinary traditions into an immersive space informed in equal measure by traditional Japanese interiors, Wabi-Sabi principles and contemporary design. Austere yet elegant, the space stands out for its naturalness, purity and calmness in reflection of the menu’s star ingredient, Wagyu, the most prized beef in the world known as much for its marbling, tender texture and luxurious taste, as for the stress-free environment that the cattle are raised in.
A self-taught butcher and beef connoisseur, Nakahara gained recognition with his high-end version of yakiniku – the Japanese version of Korean barbeque that's closely associated with beer-soaked grill pubs and cheap cuts of meat – at his Tokyo wagyu-only grill restaurant Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara and later on with the more casual Henry's Burger. Over the last few years, Nakahara has been spreading his unique culinary style beyond the borders of Japan with EMBER constituting his third international outpost.
Wrapped in glass and black steel, with only a discrete bronze logo signalling its identity, the restaurant’s sombre, sparse exterior conveys Nakahara’s no-nonsense, detailed-focused culinary philosophy. Stepping inside, through an all-black reception vestibule, visitors are immersed into a peaceful, retreat-like environment that flies in the face of the rambunctious, beer-soaked ambience of most yakiniku restaurants. In fact, by segmenting the dining area into separate rooms, from private booths to larger communal tables, EMBER feels more like a private house than a public restaurant. Connected by intersecting corridors, this configuration purposefully recalls the small shops that populate Tokyo's streets.
Inspired by Japanese-style rooms, the minimalist interiors feature woven straw surfaces that allude to tatami mats, sliding doors that are both solid and translucent, and sparse decoration, while the use of natural materials and rough textures are informed by Wabi-Sabi’s aesthetic concept. Roughly-textured steel panels, sandblasted stone walls and natural rattan surfaces are artfully juxtaposed with semi-transparent gold screens, wood veneers, and leather upholstery imbuing the spaces with warmth despite the austere sensibility. Illuminated gold leaf-swathed transoms add to the poetic interplay of light and shadow, while in some rooms, illuminated ceiling panels can be raised and lowered to dynamically simulate the sky.
In combination with the interior’s ascetic aesthetic, the atmospheric lighting design turns the restaurant into a meditative place of contemplation and reflection, as do a series of stone sculptures, minimalistic ink-wash paintings and a Zen waterscape paired with a pine bonsai next to the bar counter.