Octopus and chorizo skewers on Berwick Street
Updated 21/6/2020 – added details of 2020 meals and updated the Verdict as well as the formatting. Disclosure: I used a publicly available discount for my 2020 meals. This discount was available to the general public; as ever I did not seek any special treatment just because I’m a reviewer.
Soho isn’t short of tapas restaurants – indeed, it’s an area of London absolutely overflowing with them. That hasn’t stopped a new one from opening though – Ember Yard, the latest restaurant from the group behind Salt Yard and Opera Tavern. Although it may appear similar to its stablemates at first glance, the menu not only has both Spanish and Italian influences but also focuses on dishes cooked over a charcoal grill.
Original 2013 review – Ember Yard weekend lunch
The Ember Yard charcuterie selection includes jamon iberico de bellota – cured slices of ham made from acorn-fed pigs. The board of thinly sliced pig that I tried lacked the deep woody, grassy flavour I’ve come to expect, but it was still fatty and not overpoweringly salty.
I love pumpkin, cuttlefish and nduja, so I had to try a dish that combined them all. The cuttlefish here was dressed in punchy oregano and had a firm bite and tender flesh. However, the very mild spicy heat of the nduja was still potent enough to drown out both the oregano-flecked cuttlefish and the chunks of sweet, tender pumpkin.
Quince-glazed pork ribs sounds weird, but it’s not that far removed from pork chops with apple sauce. The distinctively fruity glaze suited the tender, smoky flesh of the baby back ribs perfectly, but the rib meat’s smokiness left an odd chemical-ish aftertaste that I last encountered at BBQ Whiskey Beer. Although odd, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of these ridiculously good ribs.
Eating out can be hard for vegetarians, but the vegetable section of Ember Yard’s menu is no mere afterthought. The vegetable gratin was easily a highlight of my meal. Tender, flavoursome chunks of celery and pumpkin were served in a sheep’s cheese and smoked ricotta sauce that was thin, yet silky and creamy without being overpowering. In my dreams, Aphrodite’s breast milk tastes like this.
The burnt butter taste of the light and fluffy panna cotta would’ve made for a perfectly acceptable dessert in its own right, but the addition of a crunchy biscuit crumb crust provided a skilful contrast in texture. It wasn’t too heavy and the sweet and fruity ice cream dotted with bits of chewy raisins nonetheless provided a refreshingly icy counterpoint.
Virgin Mary cocktails are simple, but surprisingly hard to do right. The version here was suitably spicy and peppery, but also a bit too watery for my liking.
Original 2013 review – Ember Yard weekday lunch
Ember Yard’s menu is extensive, so I had to return at least one more time to try out some other dishes that caught my eye. Charcoal grilled pork is available in various forms. There are the chorizo skewers for example – tender, moist and lightly smoky with a mildly garlicky aioli.
Then there’s the pinchos morunos, a lightly smoky chunk of pork with a charred crust. It’s the texture, not the smokiness, that’s most remarkable – tender to the point of fluffiness. Pig, you died for a good cause.
And of course there’s the presa – a cut of pork from the shoulder/loin area as I understand it. Each tender medallion of meat had a charred crust and an almost rare center. The texture was great, but the meat was surprisingly bland on its own. Everything changed when taken with the smooth drops of lightly creamy sauce though, the pork then took on a sweet, honey-like flavour that was utterly beguiling.
The flaky fillet of mackerel was bland, which was all the more disappointing given the quality of its accompaniments. The pleasingly bitter greens contrasted nicely with the fluffy, zesty cream and tart, acidic clams.
No restaurant relative of The Salt Yard would be complete without the group’s trademark dish of stuffed courgette flowers. The Ember Yard’s version is as good as I’ve ever had it – two tender courgette flowers stuffed with bold, earthy and tangy goat’s cheese. Each flower was coated in a crisp, oil-free batter and then drizzled in a sweet honey that offset the potency of the cheese. Delightful as ever.
Pork fat chips with chorizo ketchup sounds like a sure-fire winner. The thick slices of whole potato were soft and fluffy and were at their best when taken with a mouthful of the soft, crunchy, chewy pork scratching-style topping. While the vaunted chorizo ketchup certainly wasn’t bad with its coarse, fluffy texture and garlicky taste, I could take it or leave it.
Mahon is apparently a Minorcan cow’s milk cheese and here it’s served with honey and a stewed plum. The creamy and mildly salty baked cheese bore a very superficial resemblance to halloumi, but was fluffier and had a chewy rind. It was fairly unremarkable, but the sweetness of the two accompaniments livened it up a little. The aniseed-esque flatbread was too overpowering though – the crisp Sardinian flatbread was a better way of shovelling the whole shebang into your mouth.
Ember Yard has always been small. With a swift bit of PR spin when it first opened back in 2013, the cramped quarters of this Soho bolthole became an asset and not a liability. Its snug confines and famously dim lighting invited bonhomie and conviviality, or at least as much bonhomie and conviviality as Londoners in the West End can manage before they’ve imbibed enough booze to paralyze a clone army of Hunter S Thompsons.
But Ember Yard is a restaurant ill-designed for an ineptly lockdowned world, one where a vaccine is for Covid-19 is still an aspiration and infection remains a real possibility. It’s so cozy I’d be astonished if there was room for even one perspex barrier, while any enforced reduction in seating capacity would mean financial ruin for its new proprietors.
All of that makes me reluctant, believe it or not, to publish this updated review. To spoil my updated Verdict, Ember Yard isn’t as drool-inducingly good as it once was. The pivotal question is therefore not whether Ember Yard has stumbled, but why and whether the much sought-after key to restaurant longevity is forever out of its reach.
First things first
Scallops a la plancha were only modestly evocative of the sea, but they were still reasonably pleasing thanks to their respectable levels of plump chonkiness. Their tameness on the tongue made the umami sauce and sharp, sweet slices of apple all the more necessary.
Octopus and chorizo came lanced together on the same skewer. The tentacle segments weren’t springy enough, but scraped in just enough firmness to compliment the crispy slices of chorizo. The cured sausage was only mildly piquant and meaty, but its biggest flaw was the lack of enough fat. Almost any pairing of octopus and chorizo is bound to be at least somewhat pleasing, but this rendition still left me wondering about what could’ve been.
Ember Yard’s version of The Salt Yard Group’s flagship stuffed courgette flower was better executed that the version I tried at sister restaurant The Opera Tavern. While crisp, the batter was a tad too oily. The yieldingly soft flower was full to the brim with potently earthy goat’s cheese, contrasting neatly with the floral sweetness of the honey. While not quite as eye-opening as the version I first tried at the original Salt Yard all those years ago (with some of that fondness no doubt due to nostalgia), this version shows just why this dish is considered a classic.
While ribs are, of course, not solely the preserve of American barbecue restaurants, it takes a certain chutzpah to serve grilled/smoked ribs in a city that has rib royalty like Texas Joe’s. Ember Yard’s chutzpah fell flat on its face, with the bland and soulless meat of the baby back ribs heavily dependent on the tangy sweet dipping sauce and the garnishes of crushed nuts and spring onions for any sort of charm. With the closure of Bukowski Grill a few doors down, Ember Yard is now in the running for the title of Soho’s Worst Ribs.
Large and crispy churros needed more resting time if their initially scalding temperatures were any indication. They were also a tad too oily and hollow to boot. They weren’t a total loss – the crunchy shells were perfect for scooping up the bittersweet chocolate sauce.
A square of fudge proved to be a far better pud, its tangy caramel sweetness tinged with a moreish edge.
Going back for seconds
Jamon iberico de bellota didn’t have as much umami and fatty marbling as the very best examples of this ham.
Ember Yard’s iberico pork cheeks has to be one of the most unattractive-looking dishes I’ve ever photographed. Looks definitely aren’t everything though. Despite their hulking presence, the pork cheeks proved to be surprisingly light with a woodiness dappling their tender grey expanse. This meshed well with the woodiness and umami of the mushrooms, while the nutty mash and sauce added another layer of flavour. Sometimes ugly food is exactly what one needs.
Duck breast cleaved in two was dense and moist with a thin layer of fat underneath the skin. The beetroot sauce was unexpectedly sweet and treacly, complimenting the hearty poultry in a duck a l’orangey kinda way.
Moist and meaty seams of sea bream flaked off the bone easily, but the advertised ‘Basque vinaigrette’ was missing in action.
Rhubarb packed a candied-like sweetness, which largely made up for the colourless chocolate mousse and wafers.
Original 2013 Verdict
The menu at Ember Yard is a touch hit and miss at the moment, but when the kitchen gets it right, the results are sublime. There are few other places in London I’d rather go to for quirky, inventive tapas. I’ll be back and you should go too.
Updated 2020 Verdict
While Ember Yard isn’t as worryingly wobbly in quality as sibling restaurant The Opera Tavern, the variability and unevenness that was evident when it first opened back in 2013 is just as pronounced in 2020 – if not more so. Curiously, it’s the tapas-style and tapas-sized dishes which are most unsteady and lacking in satisfaction. The kitchen is on sounder footing with its larger, meatier mains which suggests that Ember Yard would be better off in abandoning its ostensible tapas theme and focus on this apparent strength. Even here though, there are trembling soft spots.
While Ember Yard’s struggle to maintain standards won’t have been helped by either the corona-shaped uncertainty hanging over all restaurants in the UK or the usual toxic mix of dizzying rents and rates, the restaurant likely has issues of its own.
As I see it, most restaurants have to master one of two broad knacks – perhaps even both – to have any chance at longevity. They must either continually adapt our society’s ever-evolving tastes into their style of cooking, finding a happy medium between the two. Or they have to find and master a winning, timeless formula. Neither is easy by any means, but the latter approach has a greater chance of success if you can develop a core clutch of regulars – devotees who return time and time again, spreading the word as they do so.
I suspect that’s a hard ask for Ember Yard, its Soho location lending itself to an itinerant clientele of tourists, restless novelty-seeking restaurant botherers and luvvies of all sorts that end up relocating from Zone 2 to Bristol or the Home Counties as soon as they are priced out of living within the M25. A hardy group of regulars is unlikely to emerge from that pool, leaving Ember Yard to chase a constantly changing churn of customers with its cooking – a task for which it seems only fitfully well-suited at best.
Perhaps culinary kismet really is just within Ember Yard’s reach, now that the Salt Yard Group’s behind-the-scenes boardroom drama is behind it. But with the coronapocalypse bearing down on all of London’s restaurants, I don’t fancy its chances.
Name: Ember Yard
Address: 60 Berwick Street, Soho, London W1F 8SU
Phone: 020 7439 8057
Opening Hours: Monday-Wednesday noon–23.00; Thursday-Saturday noon-midnight and Sunday noon-22.00.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including service, soft drinks and coffee: £50-55 approx.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ (original rating: ★★★★☆)