(Turn, turn, turn)
There is a season
(Turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap…’
There’s a whole series of blog posts to be written on the music on restaurants, and the way it occasionally- and happily- comments on what you’re eating: but not right now, because I need to tell you about Ember.
Here, upstairs at Milk and Sugar in the Old Library, Pete Seeger’s lyrics, reinterpreted by The Byrds, echo the words of Ecclesiastes. Thousands of years of the cycle of life and growth, of natural rhythms, of things having their allotted time and place: it seems to fit tonight.
Because that’s exactly what Ember is: a menu which changes completely each month, driven by what’s at its seasonal best, at £40 for omnivores and £30 for the meat-free option. It’s a simple enough idea, to put the ingredients centre stage: the pitfall is the lack of room to hide if those ingredients fall short.
For this, Ember’s second month, John Cook has been trailing the menu for a fortnight by the time we get a table (I had to miss the invitation to the preview event, as work was being a prize arse) and the photos have done nothing to dampen the anticipation.
It’s a quiet riot of seasonality. The Wye Valley asparagus just tender enough, the swirls of ricotta rich and thick, the fragile kale crisp: it’s all very delicate and the lemon is a gentle hug, more comforting than assertive. It’s all spankingly fresh, it’s light, it’s a promising start.
Balance, harmony is all.
Potatoes speak with a Spanish accent, no less. The country has never quite fallen for them as Britain did, and does far fewer things with them than the French, for example. You’re used to the common bravas/fritas/a lo pobre: you might be less familiar with something like these Jersey Royals in a sauce rich with cream and manchego, that Spanish ewes’ milk cheese. It is finished with some salty Ibérico sausage, a charred spring onion and a snowdrift of grated cheese. (The Ibérico charcuterie is from Spain; although most of this menu is from the immediate locality, it’s good to see John Cook hasn’t felt overly shackled by the Ember manifesto. You could, I suppose, buy some British-made cover version of this stuff, but why try to better people who have been making this stuff for centuries? The same goes for the cheese.)
The long, slow cooking has lent the potatoes a slightly fudgy texture. The hours in the sous-vide pouch with butter, garlic and tarragon have been well spent: they are finished off for service with a last-minute roasting. It’s a grand idea for a dish, and even though mine was slightly over-salted for my taste, it’s something I would eat time and again.
Rump of Welsh lamb, from Martin Player, is a happy marriage of fine meat and fine cooking. its delicate flavours avoiding any of that over-gaminess inferior meat can bring. It’s at this point others might start rhapsodising about the cuisson but I’ll pull up short of that because you definitely wouldn’t respect me in the morning.
Some decent bread for the table, so that people more refined than I (agreed, that’s most of you) won’t have to wipe their fingers through the remnants of the sauces, would be good here.
A tangle of buttery greens is just the thing, and pickled mustard seeds are there for texture more than heat. Initially I feel this is a miscalculation, a missed opportunity, that the dish would have benefited from a touch more mustard heat. That’s before I try the sauce. The heavy lifting here is done by a purée of burnt cauliflower, an unassuming-looking daub of muddy brown which is easily underestimated.
It’s not much of a looker. It doesn’t have to be: it’s deep, it’s lingering, it’s something special, and is it too fanciful to imagine young cauliflowers crossing their florets and murmuring devout wishes to The Great Cauli In The Sky in the hope they’ll end up as this stuff?
It’s a plate of simple pleasures, of fingers unashamedly dredging up every last trace. It’s so good that my friend, who professes to dislike cauliflower, is annoyed by me filching from her plate. She offers lamb in exchange, a trade-off to avoid any more cross-table incursions: yes, it’s that good.
The meat I’d describe as ‘banging’, except that I promised I’d make more use of my Word of the Day toilet paper: so let’s settle on rosy, subtly flavoured and expertly cooked, if by rosy I mean ‘blushes like a vicar on a Blackpool hen night.’
My white chocolate meringue is in that sweet spot of crunchy and chewy, which is saying something as it’s not normally something I have much liking for. With boozy fruits, thick Jersey cream and pieces of that meringue- an Eton Mess by any other name- it’s lighter than you’d think, due mainly to the basil leaves scattered throughout.
What a great use of a space which would be standing dormant overnight. Just as Sully’s has doubled as a base for Blue Honey and Keralan Karavan, this arrangement puts John Cook’s cooking front and centre. Now, you may well greet town on a Friday or Saturday evening with the same enthusiasm as Charles I did the headsman’s axe that wintry Whitehall morning. But I’d advise you to take the plunge nonetheless; besides- park in St David’s 2 and walk up through the Hayes and you can neatly avoid St Mary and High Streets, aka DC*
It’s tempting to think of Ember as your ready made antidote to the bland backdrop of chains which dominate the city centre, a chance to plant a flag for good hearty cooking. It’s an idea (‘concept’-ugh) which is beautiful in its simplicity. That, alone, is a laudable idea: when it’s executed like this, it deserves to do very well indeed. That seasonality, with this execution, is the hook, and it’s easy to see yourself awaiting each month’s menu through with Facebook and Twitter and treating yourself to some of the best cooking in the capital.
And make no mistake: that’s what this. John Cook’s food is right up there with the local elite: with Heaney’s, Milkwood, Park House, with Purple Poppadom and Asador 44. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that when John ran Arbennig, the GFG 2018 awarded his cooking the joint-highest score in the city.) This isn’t ‘fine dining’. But it is fine dining. It is precisely the kind of cooking we need in Cardiff, and even more so in the city centre.
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Milk and Sugar
The Old Library
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.