Smokin’ | Ember Yard, 60 Berwick Street, London W1F 8SU
We were looking forward to visiting Ember Yard, really looking forward to visiting. Marina had given it a gushing review in her Guardian column, and a respected friend in the hospitality industry said it was his best meal of the year. Plus the Opera Tavern (also part of the Salt Yard group) is still one of our favourite restaurants.
Situated at the Oxford Street end of Berwick Street, it’s just about far away enough from the madness and tourists. Back in the mists of time when I used to work in Soho Square, Berwick Street was only really known for the tatty stalls and fruit and veg market. A lot has changed since then, the market now sells everything from Arabic to Vietnamese street food and don’t forget this is where Pizza Pilgrims first pulled up in their little van. The street is now so vibrant and diverse with vinyl shops (for our younger readers – the things music came on before CDs and downloads), traditional London pubs, bespoke tailors, vintage fashion and some exciting new restaurants including Florence Knight’s recently relaunched Polpetto.
The first (and last) thing that hits you as you enter Ember Yard is smoke, I may even run a little competition* asking how many times the words smoke/smoked/smoky/smokin’ are used in this post. The open kitchen is crackling with life, flames licking out of the wood burning oven. The wood, on this occasion, being hazel and silver birch. Almost, if not everything, on the menu is touched by smoke. Even the ice in my cocktail is smoked ice! However, we were expecting the same level of smokiness as John Salt (before Neil Rankin left) but it wasn’t as pronounced as we hoped.
The layout, in my humble opinion, is upside down. The buzzing’ basement bar would make an incredible first impression rather than just something you stumble across on the way to the toilets. If the restaurant proper and the theatre of that open kitchen was downstairs would only add to its dramatic feel. But hey, what do I know? I’m not exactly The Restaurant Man. Anyway, maybe all that smoke below ground is a ventilation nightmare or a health and safety issue.
Anyway decor upstairs and down is a slight departure from the norm, no exposed brickwork, no filament bulbs and no grungy street-style artwork. It’s all quite simple, yet elegant. A large oil painting runs along one wall, antique style lights hang from huge wooden beams and heavy pipe work. High tables dominate the centre of the room, banquette seating hug the walls and a marble-topped counter gives diners front row seats of the kitchen. There was a couple of perfect stools with a prime position for chef watching accompanied by a bonus overhead light which would have made our pictures a hell of a lot better! The staff are ace and are constantly checking on customers as they weave in and out of the tables.
We start the evening, as always, with a cocktail. That said the wine list here is great, it’s even divided into sections with full descriptions, perfect for wine novices like us. Saff ordered the very extravagant sounding Il Profumo di Maria £10 – vodka, violets, elderflower, prosecco and cherry smoke. Served with a cover that is removed to unleash a puff of smoke and leaving a perfumed floral flavour not that dissimilar to Parma Violets. My Vintage Negroni £10, was a perfect blend of Tanqueray No.10, smoked Campari, antica formula, a grilled orange with blackened edges and a golf ball sized sphere of smoked ice.
First out of the kitchen was the simple Grilled flatbread with honey, thyme and smoked butter £3.50. You could smell the honey more than taste it, but this subtle sweet taste went hand in hand with the charred crust of the bread, plus the use of thyme made a welcome change from rosemary. Then came the Ibérico pork fat chips with chorizo ketchup £4.50. Crispy outside and so fluffy inside and with a decent amount of those little crunchy chips at the bottom of the bowl which Saff and I always fight over. The chorizo ketchup didn’t taste of chorizo but it was gorgeous and reminded us of something we’ve eaten elsewhere but can’t quite put our finger on (sorry for being vague).
We skipped the charcuterie and cheese sections which, like other dishes on the menu, has an ‘am I Italian or am I Spanish’ identity problem. We also bypassed the ‘large plates’ and took the waitress’ advice and chose four items from the ‘small plates’. These were broken into fish, meat and vegetable sub sections. These are basically The Salt Yard group’s trademark Iberian tapas with the afore-mentioned Italian influence and an extra portion of smoke.
So from the fish section we played fairly safe and ordered the Oak smoked and chargrilled Shetland cod with braised cannelini beans, samphire and clams £7.50. Which came served with a bonus piece of shell, hey at least we know the clams are fresh. Marina got all mushy over the Grilled Ibérico Presa with Whipped Jamón Butter £9, so we just had to try that. I was a little disappointed, the shoulder cut of Ibérico pork came rare with a charred crust, so far so good, but the portion size was a little of the small side and the jamón butter made it too rich. The Roasted and chargrilled Ibérico pork ribs with quince glaze and celeriac purée £8, from the same meat section was much better. The dimpled smokey charred fat held the quince glaze adding a sticky sweetness to the fall-off-the-bone asado style pork, but again, too small.
Our favourite dish by far, surprisingly for a couple of carnivores, came from the vegetable section. The Roasted beetroot with blood orange, rainbow chard and hazelnut £5.50 was everything it should be. There was colour and sharpness from the blood orange, acidity and (more) smoke from the roasted beets, bitterness from the chard and not forgetting the texture from the toasted nuts. Now this was our dish to swoon over!
Desserts seemed to have an old school theme to them. Saff’s Bitter chocolate ganacha with salted caramel ice cream £5.95, was a refined version of a school dinner chocolate sponge with chocolate sauce – and no, that’s NOT a bad thing. She paired that with a glass of Pedro Ximenez Fernando de Castilla £6.50 as recommended on the menu. With its sweet smell of raisins and caramel there is absolutely no reason not to drink sherry more often.
My Brown butter panna cotta, Malaga raisin ice cream and spiced biscuit £5.95, ticked all the boxes. Rich creamy panna cotta with a perfect wobble and dark crumbled cinnamon biscuit pieces. I’ve read the panna cotta (Italian for cooked cream) is ‘nothing more than blancmange with a fancy accent’, but give me a soft smooth Italian over a pasty pink Brit any day! [Ahem! – Saff].
Marina compared restaurants to lovers, she asked ‘What makes the ideal restaurant? As with the perfect partner, the answer will be very different depending on whom you ask.’ We couldn’t agree more, if everyone liked the same thing, be it a restaurant or a partner, the world would be a very dull place. For us Ember Yard may well turn out to be a one-night-stand. But we will definitely be sneaking over to Berwick Street again (behind Ember Yard‘s back) for a date with Polpetto…
*The answer is 16.
Opening hours: Mon – Sat – Midday to Midnight
Sunday – Midday to 10:30pm
Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day – closed
Book a table here
Nearest stations: Oxford Circus – 4 mins
Tottenham Court Road – 6 min walk.
Follow them on Twitter
*We ate as guests of Ember Yard, this does not affect our review in any way. We always write with complete honesty.