‘Spreading pig-fat-spiked butter over more pig is my new jam’
What makes the ideal restaurant? As with the perfect partner, the answer will be very different depending on whom you ask. Some might like to wallow in a series of one-night stands with joints that seduce with head-turning tasting menus, dizzying winelists, obsequious staff and acres of starched linen, the kind of sensual experience you’ll hug to yourself over long wintry evenings. But for living happily ever after, give me a place I think I know intimately but that can still surprise me; that I can get tarted up for, but still feel happy slobbing about with in holey joggers; that offers the equivalent of a big bear hug. Now that’s the real thing.
The small Salt Yard Group has never created a restaurant I haven’t had the immediate hots for. OK, so maybe Dehesa is a bit cramped, but on a summer’s day, sitting outside with the parade of Carnaby Street floating by, it turns into a beauty; and I would happily go to Opera Tavern every week of my life if I were allowed to neck at least three of its bijou Ibérico pork burgers (voted the finest in the land by, er, me). But with every new opening, I expect the allure to wear thin. Will the latest, Ember Yard, positioned dangerously near the badlands of Oxford Street, be the one that finally turns me off?
Of course, you’ll know the answer from the scores at the top of the page (I will never not hate this bluntest of reviewing instruments). Yep, it’s infatuation, bordering on full-blown crush. It looks wonderful, and manages to avoid every Soho boîte cliche, with not a bare brick or filament lightbulb in sight. Instead, they’ve crafted something I bet will look great in 10 years: dark grey walls with bold, textural oil paintings, hints of warming copper, twinkly antiqued lamps. It’s that rarest of joints where the basement bar is almost more buzzy than the windowed ground floor; plus, I have severe pig’s leg-shaped beer-tap envy.
The menu is corset-burstingly swoonworthy. It’s not just the trademark Iberian tapas with a quick Italian fumble; this time, the smoky thumbrints of the Basque country’s asadors are all over it. They’ve even installed a specially commissioned grill, a nod to legendary Extebarri. And here’s the kicker – they list the single-species wood they use for grilling: it might be hazel, or silver birch, or staves from sherry barrels.
Almost every dish trails a wisp of fragrant smoke: fat little anchovies you can eat like lollipops; flatbread oozing smoked butter. The burger is smoked Basque beef, with sticky idiazabal cheese and frilly fried onion rings. There are ribs, falling off the bone, with a sticky quince glaze that makes my pupils dilate. Octopus is a sexy beast indeed, butch but tender, sweetened by a tangle of peperonata. (I’m pausing here for a brief, um, moment at the recollection of chips fried in Ibérico fat, all crisp, floury and dunked in chorizo ketchup.)
And the detail: the chargrilled wedge of orange in a smoked negroni; crisp sage and salty burst of capers with rustling, fried chipirones. Cheese and charcuterie are expertly sourced and kept, and there’s a typically sharp winelist. Sure, there are small flaws that stop it just short of perfection: a tendency to flavours so bullish they threaten to floor you (they appear to have sourced a Robocop–Terminator version of thyme); the group’s continued devotion to the slate tile. Cocktails are a bit barking, especially one in which Pedro Ximénez, rum and gritty chocolate shavings fight with each other in a smoke-filled glass that looks like it should contain cotton wool balls. And the bill mounts up at speed.
But none of this is enough for me to go off the place. There is one dish – presa (a shoulder cut) of Ibérico pork, served rare but crusted with char, with blobs of butter laced with jamón – that is one of my dishes of this (or any other) year. Spreading pig-fat-spiked butter over more pig is my new jam. I’ve already been back for more. Ember Yard is smokin’ hot – the very definition of a keeper.
• Ember Yard 60 Berwick Street, London W1, 020-7439 8057. Open all week, noon-midnight (10.30pm Sun). About £35-40 a head, including drinks and service.
Value for money 8/10
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