Ember Yard is the most recent venue (2013) from the Salt Yard Group – a small chain of tapas-inspired charcuterie bars founded by a couple of bored ad execs who thought it might be a laugh to open a restaurant. Now, that doesn’t necessarily end well, and if I’d known in advance, I might not have gone. But I didn’t do my homework.
Instead, I looked at the menu, then spent the rest of the day idly dreaming about Ibérico ham.
That was the right decision, and it wasn’t actually full of assholes, but, well, they list the species of wood used on the charcoal grill, for fuck’s sake. It’s a damn good thing the food tastes amazing.
Ember Yard is just down Berwick St, on the Oxford St edge of Soho. This makes it insanely convenient and it’s busy accordingly. That said, we managed to get a walk-in table at half eight on a Friday.
The look and feel is off-the-shelf Trendy Restaurant. I figure they slice it off by the metre. Lights are dangly eclectic, shared tables are big blocks of varnished wood, dishes come on wood and slate, there’s modern art, stained glass, and bits of exposed metalwork. It works.
You know what else works? The service. Our waiting staff were pitch-perfect. Friendly without being over-familiar, with none of that London dining poseur bullshit, and barely a topknot in sight. They’d got the feel for creating a welcoming experience, and made some helpful food and wine suggestions. Good people.
The wine list is four or five pages of mostly Spanish and Italian, with brief but useful tasting notes. Making a wine list useable and approachable is not hard, but it annoys the shit out of me when people don’t bother. Well done, Ember Yard.
The food concept for Salt Yard is charcuterie-biased tapas, with a twist at each venue. For Ember Yard, that’s a giant charcoal grill. What’s not to love there? You take a look at the menu, and it’s just my kind of thing – acres of grilled cheese, platters of ham, something with buttermilk battered squid? Fuck yeah.
On the night, we were less adventurous, sharing grilled Ibérico presa (it’s some kind of neck cut), ribs, roasted potatoes, pork fat chips with chorizo ketchup, greens, and desserts. We haven’t quite given Ember Yard a full and fair hearing. To do so would require at least a bit of fish, a cheese platter, and some ham.
But no amount of going back and trying the rest will shift the fact that it’s small main course prices for small tapas portions. Sans desserts, you can still be well fed for about £20 per head, so it’s not ridiculous. But something in the experience feels awkward. Having a single fifteen-quid main feels more honest, and the accumulation less grudging than the additive flurry of little plates at just under a tenner. It’s an experience design thing, I think. I’m paying them just as much as I would elsewhere, but in a way that makes me both notice and resent it more.
It was just pink in the middle, juicy and succulent. There’s a light, smoky char on the outside that doesn’t go too deep, so it’s not acrid. Instead, the Ibérico’s fruity notes come through. It’s more like having a mouthful of rare steak than any pork I’d had before. There’s a spectrum of textures, a standard rich, roasted, pork baseline structure, and the extra delicacy of the Ibérico.
Dotted around it are these little dabs of whipped ham butter that beautifully skirt the edge of going too far. They’re salty and so very rich. This is just a great, simple piece of cooking. The things I’d have done with that butter if they’d had more secluded booths.
The ribs are carved from the same beast, but not quite as stand-out. They’re slower-cooked, fall-apart tender, and definitely tasty, but just with fewer fireworks. The chips were chips, and the chorizo ketchup rises above self-parody to actually be smoky, tasty and intense.
Desserts were a rich, sticky orange brownie with just enough bitterness to cut through the sugar, and in my case (and not at all rising above parody), a slab of grilled cheese. They’d semi-melted a thick slice of Mahón, drizzling it in a beautifully floral fresh honey, and served with a sharp grilled plum. Great combination. The cheese has enough meadowy edge and background salt to play with the honey, and the plum crashes it all together. It’s a splendid idea, and I’m stealing it.
In hindsight, we should have grabbed a charcuterie platter instead of dessert, but the Mahón made me very glad about the choice we made. Ember Yard is tasty, it’s a pleasant dining experience, and it’s crying out for a kind of user experience and/or service design review.
Yeah, I’m a bit of a twat. Get over it and go and eat the pork.