Root + Bone vs Ember Yard
EATING

Words: Anthony Power   Photography by Steve Ryan

Root + Bone vs Ember Yard

We go Mano é Mano for one-of-everything

 

Walking into the Soho restaurant, you can tell these guys know their business. It’s a beautiful, authentic dining room, with the kitchen up the back holding court — armed with a leg of Jamon adorning the pass like a hood ornament on a Rolls Royce. We bunkered into the dangerously comfortably soft leather banquettes (dangerous in that you won’t want to leave, and may not be able to) to peruse the evening menu and find out what was in store for us and our arrogant bellies.
 
 
A silence fell over the team as we took in the extensive range of fare. The realisation slowly overtook us that we were not only in for an epic feast, but that we may have bitten off more than we could chew, both figuratively and literally. This was a long menu for a ‘one-of-everything’ challenge and we were in over our heads.
 
In a lame attempt to knock a few items off the list we politely tried to let the manager know that there was no need to send out the bar snacks. We were promptly put back in our place with a stern reply (“it’s one of everything, and one of everything you shall have,”) delivered with an ever so smug “you guys are going down tonight” grin. We had embarrassed ourselves before the first plate arrived.
 
Back at the table, we gave ourselves a pep talk, collected ourselves and agreed that we could do this. We also knew we had a secret weapon, an ace in the hole so to speak, in the form (and mouth) of another friend who would be joining us mid-meal, hungry like the wolves, to surely get us over the line, should we need help.

 

 
Bar snacks began arriving on the table, along with a smoky house Negroni complete with smoked ice cubes, to whet the palette. Smoked almonds, meaty Gordal olives with a fennel, chilli and citrus punch, and oily and sweet boquerones fillets got the first round underway. Tastebuds were awake with anticipation, confidence was high.

 

 
As the second round began to unfold, the table quickly filled up with some inviting dishes. Each time we’d try to take a photo, another plate seemed to arrive. Things were getting serious, but a table filled with plates of tapas must surely make any person hungry, and waiting for the photos to be taken was torture.
 
A generous ball of burrata liberally doused in a fine virgin oil, served in all its gooey creaminess, was peppered with oregano and a palette-warming smoked chilli, the earthy foil cutting through the richness of the milky cheese. A charcuterie board loaded with a selection of Italian and Spanish cuts was devoured rapidly (some may say inhaled), as these things often are when they’re of such provenance.

 

 
A chargrilled flatbread with thyme and smoked butter took us by surprise; almost like a thin crust pizza, the smoked butter and thyme elevated it beyond a simple flatbread. Padron peppers disappeared in a similar fashion to the cured meats, while we agreed that the selection of cheeses would be best left to one side until the end of the meal — a purely tactical move in order to ensure we made it to digestives.
 
As good as all these early dishes were, a plate of Jamon Ibérico, aged for five years, stole the show. Jamon is arguably Spain’s gift to the culinary world and the honey-like, melt in the mouth fattiness that is so damn magnificent, had me wanting to fashion a sleeping bag from the wafer-thin slices, so I could climb into it and go to sleep. Not strange in the slightest.

 


 
As we rolled into the next rounds, the dishes came in a volley of left-right combinations. Haddock croquetas with samphire and a sweet roasted garlic aioli were like crack cocaine, had us wanting more and fighting over the last one, debating why croquetas always seem to be served in odd numbers. Table of four, three croquetas. It’s only ever going to end in tears for someone.
 
More dishes from the fish section joined the empty croquetas plate; lightly smoked and charred mackerel was served with fennel and black olives. A classic combo, it was skilfully executed — the fish perfectly cured without the smoke dominating the oily flesh.

 

A plate of octopus carpaccio looked the goods. Wafer thin slices of pressed tentacles marinated in harissa, with a saffron aioli and capers was good, but had just a little too much spice and paprika, slightly overpowering the cephalopoda.

 


 
Prawns. I remember working for a chef who used to say: “put prawns on a menu and they will literally walk themselves out the door”. He was right, prawns on a menu sell like hot cakes (when were hot cakes ever so popular?) Chargrill those little buggers, serve them with shaved lardo, chilli and lemon and they will grow wings and fly out the door. Be sure to eat them the way the Spaniards do — devour the meat, then suck the mushy-red brains and juices from the heads. Magnifico.

 


 
The last of the fish tapas was a chunky piece of South Coast cod, roasted in the Josper oven and served with ‘nduja and white bean stew (another classic combo that hits every high note from the Iberian Peninsula, if just a little wintery for the warm evening outside).
 
So far, so good. We were holding our own and spirits were high, helped in no small part to a few glasses of a 2015 Lealtanza Rioja, the 100% Tempranillo grape offering an intense, deep ruby red drop that would go well with just about any Mediterranean meal.

 

 
But the punches kept coming and the belly-shots began to take their toll. Chargrilled Iberico ‘presa’, a cut of pork from the shoulder of the pig (a part of the loin where it meets the shoulder blades) arrived perfectly pink, well rested and tender, while the chorizo picante was a fine specimen of Spain’s most famous sausage lightened with the addition of chickpea and piquillo pepper salad.
 
 
The flat iron steak was, like many of its menu compadres, chargrilled and smoked to perfection. A good piece of beef, well-aged and flavourful with just the right amount of chewiness, it was accompanied by artichoke, peppercorn and an aged balsamic that lent a sweet note to the smoky flavours. The sherry glazed chicken with shaved guanciale (an Italian cured pork cheek) was the body blow I was fearing — extremely moreish, tender and juicy. I was hitting a wall and looking around at the team, I could see a couple asking questions of themselves too.
 

 

Belts were loosened to allow for bellies to swell. Our mate turned up just as we needed him, only to inform us he became vegetarian just four days earlier. Thanks Travis. Luckily, plants are well repped at Ember Yard; unfortunately for Travis, we had already eaten most of them. He did claim the fried courgette flower as soon as it arrived, crisply battered, stuffed with Monte Enebro cheese and drizzled with blossom honey, which we were told is year-long menu staple across the Salt Yard group. It’s easy to see why, though sourcing such a summer ingredient in February must have its challenges.
 
By no means a lightweight to the meat and fish, the veg section had some killer hooks and jabs too in the form of butternut squash ‘malfatti’: light and fluffy gnocchi-like dumplings with charred tender stem, pine nuts and butter (that had also been smoked so it didn’t feel left out). A wild mushroom risotto was perfectly cooked al dente, with just the right amount of crunch in the rice and added earthy creaminess via meaty steaks of porcini. A tip for anyone making risotto at home: when you’re adding the stock to the rice as you cook it and get to that point where you say ‘it’s almost ready’...that’s when it is ready. The rice should have a light crunch, and it will continue to cook after you take it off the heat, so turn it off when it’s just clinging to crunchy.

 


 
In amongst all this came a hickory smoked beet salad and some baby artichokes that had clearly enjoyed growing in the warm summer and were packed with flavour. Then out of nowhere, another plate of croquetas (this time filled with Jamon, leek and Manchego) were dropped on the table like a stiff jab to the jaw, as another argument on how to share them erupted.

 


 
Full, content and grinning from ear to ear, a warm fuzzy glow overcame the table. We were nearly there. Just the desserts were left, and we discussed whether those needed to be eaten as well for the meal to qualify as a victorious Versus battle. We agreed we would have to.

 

Then came the uppercut right to the chin. Deceptively placed at the top of the menu were the large plates. We had completely forgotten about them as we worked our way down the list. Stunned, and each taking a standing eight-count from the referee, it wasn’t so much the plate of sliced, smoked duck breast (cooked perfectly rare with bright green crushed broad beans and blistered guindilla peppers) that had us praying for the bell, but the massive slab of hot smoked old spot pork belly with cider glaze and smoked apple that arrived shortly after.

 


 
The duck was lightly smoked, while the peppers provided a welcome hit of heat to waken the taste buds just enough to dig deeper. The pork belly couldn’t have been cooked more perfectly. Succulent and falling apart with the lightest of attention from our forks, the quality of the meat was evident from the flavour. We gave it our all, left it all in the ring, but (and we’re not ashamed to admit it) it was the pig that got us in the end. The huge slab was just too much for us.
 
We gave it our best shot, but the long menu combined with dishes that were all so delicious made it hard to control ourselves, and we were bested by one of the best.
 
 
And then, then came the desserts. Joder! (That’s Spanish for ‘fuck!’) Churros so fat they should be illegal with obligatory chocolate sauce, and a cherry and bitter chocolate ganache with brandy ice cream and smoked sea salt — equally criminal and destined to share a cell with its bandito, el Churros.
A pistachio cake with English strawberries was moist and rich and the fresh strawberries and sorbet were packed with flavour, no doubt also a result of the summer heat wave Britain has had. Yoghurt panna cotta, with baked apricots and Amalfi lemon sorbet, was a knockout blow, but when sweets taste so damn good, how can anyone refuse? We ate them all, plus the chocolate and Pedro Ximénez truffles, before rolling ourselves out onto the street where, miraculously, we found space for a few cheeky nightcap pints. Ember Yard may have won this round of Versus, but when the menu is this good, we’re happy to take the hit.
 

 

saltyardgroup.co.uk/ember-yard