Ember: 'The menu is modern without being eccentric'
Ember, Milltown Centre, Milltown Road, Co Dublin (01) 444 3783
I've been hearing good things about Greg O'Mahoney's cooking from my friend Susan James for years.
She's from Castlegregory, Co Kerry, and we'd been talking about eating at his restaurant there, the Milesian, but somehow never got around to it. There's a new chef at the Milesian now, and O'Mahoney has made the move to the big shmoke, hanging out his shingle in the prosperous suburb of Milltown - which may have a BMW dealer (Murphy & Gunn) and a smart food store with a sideline in Liz Earle skincare products and a café that serves good coffee (Wilde & Green) but until now has not had a restaurant to call its own.
So O'Mahoney has arrived in the neighbourhood to fill the gap and, by the look of it, he has money behind him, because at Ember the interior is slick and polished and does not look like a start-up on a shoestring at all. There are the slick parquet floors, for one thing, and the leather chairs, and the solid bar, and a kitchen down at one end of the room that looks as if it might actually be spacious enough to accommodate a brigade of chefs working alongside one another in comfort.
We had planned to come early to catch the early bird offer, but the last sitting for that is at 6.15pm, so we were confined to the à la carte - no hardship in terms of the food offering but a significant increase in price over the €22/€27 two/three- course early bird. There are plenty of neighbourhood restaurants that offer an early bird deal all night mid-week but Ember is not one of those, although we wondered if it might have been busier if it did - on a Wednesday night, the place was less than half full, our fellow diners mainly well-heeled retirees.
The menu reads very well. It's shortish and modern without being eccentric, with plenty of options for the conservative as well as the more adventurous diner. That's a smart strategy for a neighbourhood restaurant, when so many of them stick to the dull, safe choices that won't scare the horses but may bore regular local diners into an early grave.
Things get off to a good start with a wooden board of flatbreads and pesto - by way of a riff on the more usual bread basket - and a complimentary amuse of one of the starters: charred heritage carrots, baby leeks, tarragon, goat's cheese and hazelnuts that is beautifully presented and nicely balanced.
A starter of slow-cooked squid risotto with caramelised onions and Gruyère is intensely, richly, flavoursome and the kind of rustic dish that's exactly right for a chilly evening. Our second starter - scallops a la plancha with crisp pork belly, cashew nuts, leek and apple caramel is another fine dish, especially when the elements are combined in a single forkful, and the crispy fattiness of the pork melts onto the sweet scallop. The apple component could be a little sharper. There are three scallops on the plate, and the dish is priced at €15, which strikes us as steep.
Any restaurant review is only ever going to be a snapshot of a single experience, and it's bad luck for Ember that our shared main course of côte de boeuf is such a disappointment. The meat is fatty, tough and unappetising, and in both visual and flavour terms it's missing the seductive charring that makes this cut such an unalloyed pleasure when executed well. Yes, it's cooked rare as requested, but we have a hard job getting our knives through the meat and we end up not finishing the steak when, by rights, as Susan points out, we should have been fighting over the last piece.
It's not helped by onion rings that would have looked more at home in a chipper (not that I have anything against onion rings from the chipper, nothing at all), desultory 'peppernada' - I'm assuming this was meant to read 'peperonata' - a couple of slices of garlic butter that does not melt when put on top of the meat (because of the temperature of the meat) and a Marmite-y beef jus. The skinny fries are fine, as is a watercress salad. At Ember, the côte de boeuf for two, including these various sides, costs €65. (For my money, the best iteration of côte de boeuf is served at Etto, where it comes with bordelaise sauce and crisp garlic potatoes and costs €59. There is never any left on the plate, and diners have been known to negotiate over who gets to gnaw on the bone.) In hindsight, we should have sent it back to kitchen and tried something else.
A shared dessert of 70pc dark chocolate brownie with hazelnut, salted caramel and bourbon vanilla ice cream is more than excellent, which - along with the starters - would indicate that our main course experience is an aberration, and service is faultless throughout.
Our bill, including an excellent bottle of Langhe Nebbiolo (€56), water and coffee came to €161 before service. (I later realised we weren't charged for two good cocktails that preceded the meal, which must have been a mistake.) I'm going to hope that the côte de boeuf was a blip, and that the next time I eat at Ember will be wholly satisfactory experience.
7/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Ember serves lunch, and you could have soup of the day with brown bread for €5.50, or a toasted Gubbeen ham and cheese sandwich for €7.50. The early bird menu, available Tuesday to Friday from 5.30-6.30pm, is priced at €22 for two courses and €27 for three.
ON A BLOW-OUT
The scallops followed by the côte de boeuf and dessert for two would cost €110 before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
A well-written menu, very good starters and an exemplary brownie.
THE LOW POINT
The côte de boeuf.