Modern London is a city in turbulence, a cosmopolitan cauldron in which more things change than stay the same, where all the world comes to throw a tantrum, get rich through property and complain about schools. Its restaurant scene has generally kept up.
For the global rich who buy houses in Zone 1 that they won't live in, there has been an explosion of appalling establishments, charging through the nose for terrible food. But coming through the middle, for members of what I call the ideas class, there are places such as Ember Yard.
This, the fourth restaurant from the Salt Yard group, is the very emblem of the capital's ever-burgeoning food scene. Indulgent, greasy, central, affluent, warm, loud, more hit than miss, and boasting Spanish and Italian influences – it is exactly what you would expect from the people who gave us Salt Yard, Opera Tavern and Dehesa (of which the second is best). I needed a safe choice because Charlie and I have come here with Lisa Markwell and Mr M, a doubly terrifying experience because, first, as the editor of the Independent on Sunday, she is my boss, and, second, she knows infinitely more about food than I do, as regular readers worked out long ago.
There are large plates to share, bar snacks, charcuterie, cheese and tapas split into five fish, five meat and seven vegetables dishes. We basically order the lot. From the bar snacks, the smoked chorizo skewer (£2.50) beautifully conjoins three chunks of pig with a smooth, silky, slightly sweet saffron. The padron peppers (£4.25) are similarly sweet and spicy, and the grilled flatbread with honey, thyme and smoked butter (£2.95) has a charcoal flavour without being properly burnt, like much of the stuff here.
The fish ranges from £6.25 for a smoked-bream carpaccio to £11 for grilled new Caledonian prawns. Two excellent choices come in the mid-range: succulent cuttlefish with roast pumpkin, n'duja (spicy, spreadable sausage) and pungent wild oregano (£7.25) and octopus with pepperonata (£8.25). But the meat selection is better still.
Here we have grilled Iberico presa (the cut between the top of the shoulder and the loin) with whipped Jamon butter (£8.75), and a fabulous quince-glazed Iberico pork with a rich, autumnal celeriac purée (£6.25). It's the messiest dish that I like best: a smoked beef burger with Idiazabal (a cheese from sheep's milk) and chorizo ketchup (£7). The ketchup I could take or leave, but the chalky goodness of the melted cheese over tender, smoky beef is a special taste that will stay with you long after it hits your gut.
A salad of grilled Williams pears with fresh chestnuts and orange dressing (£6.25) is heavily over-dressed, light on chestnuts, and terrible value. But the courgette flowers stuffed with goat's cheese and drizzled with honey (£7.95), and the parsnip-buttermilk chips with manchego and then more honey (£5.50) are both archetypal of this chain of restaurants: slightly imaginative, not particularly delicate, good value and sloppily delicious.
The same is often said of Ben Tish, the chef-director behind them, who pops along to say hello, and quickly justifies his nickname – Tish the Dish – in a manner that has Mr M and I reaching for the (pretty good) cocktail list, as well as taking up his recommendations of tiramisu with lemon ice-cream. He admits to being both tired and exhilarated, what with launching a restaurant in frantic December, but strikes me as being in the early stages of building an empire, with four restaurants that can now expect to be busy throughout the year.
This one has a rather unique vibe about it. It is dim rather than dark, has a copper-green tint, and is patrolled by young, eager staff with Spanish accents. The tables, in fashionable distressed wood, are tightly packed upstairs, but downstairs there is a bar which is less frenetic and more spacious. A few weeks after launch, there is the unmistakable buzz of a new opening; and though it's not yet scaled the culinary heights of its three siblings, Ember Yard gives every indication of being a pleasing fixture for years to come. In a city where so little is constant, that is something Londoners should take heart from.
Ember Yard, 60-61 Berwick Street, London W1, tel: 020 7439 8057. £80 for two, with wine
Four more things I've been eating this week
The Sainsbury's Basics range is unimprovable: you get a whole moreish bag for about 20p. Tremendous.
Almost the only food product where I think Marks & Sparks comes up short. Their sushi is often dry and flavourless.
After scientific trials lasting for years, I have concluded that these really are the best taste known to man.
I used to be obsessed with the citrus flavour of Sauvignons from Marlborough in New Zealand; now they seem sweet going on sickly.
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