Among family and friends I've garnered a bit of a reputation as a foodie. I'm of the opinion that this might be due to the slightly crazed gleam in my eye that appears whenever people around me start discussing all the best places to eat. In practical terms, this means that whenever I play tour guide it becomes my sworn duty to bring people round for good grub.
Uncle K & Auntie B were in town for the weekend, and after all our extended conversations about the London food scene, I knew I had to step up my game. We made plans to lunch together on Saturday and Sunday, and for our first meal I decided we ought to go someplace I was certain we'd all enjoy.
This story begins with the mutual love D & I share for tapas. After a glorious dinner we once had at Salt Yard when he came to visit me one term, I began receiving emails from the Salt Yard Group. Most of these detailed lavish dinners or gastronomic tours of Spain completely out of my student budget. I'd read over them and sigh wistfully, but one day I received an announcement from them regarding the soft opening of their brand new restaurant Ember Yard. Everything would be 50% off for a limited period! I had to go, and got E & M to come along with me. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, so I figured Uncle K & Auntie B (Who both love Spain and its cuisines) would like it there too, even if the half-price offer was over.
We started with olives and a nice bottle of wine, and pretty much ordered whatever we were told was good that day. We kicked off the meal proper with piquant orange and beetroot salad, perfect for the surprisingly sunny spring day outside. I must confess that part of the reason why I wanted to go back to Ember Yard for lunch was to take advantage of the natural light available in order to take pictures that would turn out alright. The warm, woodsy decor takes on an ultra-romantic cast in the evening when they dim the lights, but it rendered all the shots I took the first time around unattractive dark blobs. This time, I was able to capture rather better looking food photos, like this platter of char-grilled squid served with mint, pancetta and spring peas.
I'd always refused to eat squid or octopus or peas, but London has given me an excellent education in understanding that it's not so much the ingredients I dislike, just bad cooking. Here, the squid had that delightful texture - soft yet with a bit of a crunch, while the octopus was moist and enjoyable chewy. Spring peas with enough bite to them provided a sweet counterpart to the meaty pancetta, and the mint leaves lent an extra hint of freshness to each bite of squid. Two seafood dishes with such similar main ingredients might seem like overkill, but they were so distinct that we had no regrets whatsoever. The octopus came steamed and chargrilled with peperonata and mojo verde aioli, and proved to be a much richer dish, and oh-so flavourful.
Ember Yard stands out from the rest of its sister restaurants for its focus on chargrilling and roasting, harking back to a time when cooking was primitive and done over a wood fire. Of course, this being London, nothing remains quite so simple for long. The grill is bespoke, since we diners expect nothing less, and the cooking isn't done over the composite bag of coal you'd get out of the supermarket for a BBQ. Instead, only single-species charcoal and wood is used. When we were there, it was printed on our menus that apple and birch woods were being employed. While it does make perfect sense that woods made up of different combinations of compounds would give off smoke that flavors food in unique ways, our taste buds definitely weren't sensitive enough to pick up on the subtle distinctions in our food. Like primitive man, we were happy enough to have perfectly cooked fatty Iberico pork ribs to sink our teeth into. Unlike primitive man, we also had an artfully served dollop of creamy celeriac puree to go along with it. Ah, the small joys of modern life.
It's not every day that you go to a restaurant and the one item the waiter strongly recommends is the bread, but there's a time and place for everything. They're generous with the thyme, almost excessively so, but it's easy to dust some of it off. Honey and smoked butter gets spread atop the flatbread prior to grilling, and the result is delectable. We'd thought to eat the bread together with the rest of the dishes as an accompaniment, but wound up demolishing the whole thing on its own.
Grilling and roasting might be the order of the day, but not everything comes charred. Take the deep fried courgette flowers - stuffed with goats cheese and drizzled with honey. None of us had tried courgette flowers before, and had no idea what to expect, but our leap of faith paid off. Crisp petals were wrapped around a generous spoonful of soft cheese that was salty enough to match the sticky honey, and the juicy stems were delicious as well. I've since tried to make these at home after finding a a bunch of courgette flowers at a Mexican supermarket one week when they were in season, and though imperfectly done (I wound up with blobs of cheese floating in my oil. Oh well.), they brought me back to this lovely day.
Another deep fried dish we shared was the broad bean, smoked ricotta and mint croquettes with basil pesto. They disappeared so quickly. An important PSA: These are perfectly sized to be popped in your mouth, but you're pretty much guaranteed to burn your tongue if you do. So cut them in halves and enjoy them slowly after cooling them a little.
The move to communal dining has made sharing plates a fairly easy experience, until you get to dishes like burger sliders. Why, in the name of all things good, do they have to be stacked as tall as possible? Like Jenga towers, it pretty much guarantees that no matter how you cut it, sections are going to collapse all over the place and make a mess. I did the honours, and attempted to expertly wield my knife through the smoked beef burger with chorizo ketchup. Mentally, I renamed the dish "Disassembled Masterpiece" after chopping everything up, which sounds a great deal better than "Roughly Hewn Bits of Burger Scatterered Around a Plate". All things considered, everyone managed to have a bit of everything, nothing rolled off of the table and out through the door, and it tasted divine, so it was an overall success.
I sometimes fear for my arteries, especially when I'm confronted by dishes like the grilled Iberico Presa with jamon butter. The meat was good, but I couldn't stop eating the smoky, aromatic butter. One little taste turned to me nearly licking the stone plate like a starving savage to chase the last slicks of oil.
The rest of the family aren't really dessert people, which is why I always love dining with those who are. Instead of getting just one dessert, they're always amenable to getting as many desserts as there are people round the table. Any occasion where I get to taste an array of desserts is a good occasion in my book. The first dessert was brown panna cotta with spiced bicuits, raisin ice cream studded through with properly plump and juicy raisins and thyme. After the over abundance of thyme on the flatbread, I was slightly wary, but I had no cause to worry in this case. Here it was just a tiny sprig, lending an earthiness to the panna cotta, which I found amusing because it looked almost like a terrarium. There's a recipe for this that's available online. Make it if you're in the mood for something light but creamy.
Sometimes you read menus and wonder "What on earth is this thing?" People then fall into three camps: those who skip over the item because it contains something unfamiliar, those who order the item because it contains something unfamiliar and wait to be surprised, and those who ask the question aloud of someone who does know better. We fall into the last camp, and found out that Mahon is a kind of Minorcan cow's milk cheese, saltier than most because of the high salt content in the grass that the cows on the island eat. It sounded good, and tasted even better. The grilled wedge of cheese was served with half a baked plum, a small piece of honeycomb and crisp, thin cracker bread.
We rounded off the meal with something more traditional: Valrhona chocolate ganacha with salted caramel ice cream. I fully approve the rising popularity of salted caramel, and the application of it here. It was wonderful to see Uncle K & Auntie B again, and the meal gave us the perfect opportunity to catch up from when we'd seen each other the previous year. It was one to linger over, and we savoured it at a relaxed pace.