Heritage carrots, thinly sliced and ever so slightly pickled, are curled around baby leeks, charred to release their sweetness. Crunchy toasted hazelnuts and plump golden raisins surround the vegetables. On the top is a dollop of frothy goat’s cheese, whipped into a frenzy, and on the bottom lies a just-sweet-enough carrot purée. I’m in Ember in Milltown, and I have Head Chef and proprietor Greg O’Mahony to thank for this carrot-led creation (€8.50) which makes for a beautiful start to my first meal at this modern neighourhood restaurant.
O’Mahony has spent the last decade of summers working at The Milesian Restaurant and Gregory’s Gardens in Castlegregory in Co Kerry.“I’d head down to Kerry for the summer months,” he explains. “Then I’d spend the winters learning about food by travelling and cooking.” Over the last ten winters, he’s clocked up cooking hours in Chapter One, L’Ecrivain and Pichet in Dublin, and Bodega Alejandro and Mugartiz in San Sebastian.
That Basque influence has made an integral impact in Ember in Milltown, in the form of their charcoal oven and their penchant for cooking with a plancha. “We light up the oven at about 3pm and it’s ready at 5pm,” says O’Mahony. “We cook over the burning embers, which is where we got the name for the restaurant.”
The plancha is large cast-iron griddle, also adopted from San Sebastian, and used in Ember for charring vegetables and searing fish. We can thank the plancha for an exquisite piece of hake (€22) that has developed a crumb of crispiness thanks to a hot searing. The hake arrives accompanied by cauliflower quinoa and sweet brown shrimps, drizzled with a piquant lemon dressing on the side. Some tenderstem broccoli are simply steamed and taste a little dull after those bombastic carrots. The hake is, as they say on cooking programmes, cooked to perfection.
A main course of Barbary duck (€16) is cooked on a pan, its skin crispy and its meat pink. A salsa of fermented walnuts and pomegranate brings a tangy twist to this plate, giving it more intrigue than your average duck dish. There are blobs of blackcurrant purée and glazed onions on the side, but I’m disappointed to find no sign of the confit potato listed on the menu. In their place are some unadvertised but nonetheless welcome wilted greens.
Our other starters get a little over-shadowed by our heritage carrots but they’re both really interesting and carefully executed dishes in their own right. A plate of slow cooked squid risotto (€9.50) is circled by jet black ink and topped with a dramatic foam. It might sound fussy but in reality it’s focused on showing off the simple sweetness of squid, and it does so with aplomb. A lamb consommé (€11), a tasty clear broth slumming it with large chunks of lamb shoulder and a barely poached egg, is elegant and aristocratic.
O’Mahoney, who is originally from Dublin, moved into his Milltown premises last year and opened Ember at the end of November 2016. They hit the ground running and, after a few positive reviews at the beginning of this year, they’ve been having a busy year so far. I call on a Thursday for a Friday night table and I can only get a 5.45pm or a 9.45pm table. I go continental and choose the late sitting, and I wonder if it will have an effect on our experience. Will they be out of certain dishes? Will we be rushed through dinner?
Service is warm, relaxed and yet attentive throughout our stay. We leave close to midnight and the staff are as friendly and chipper as when we arrived. The smiles are genuine and there’s no pressure on us to leave before we’re ready. I’m touched by the bartender’s care in concocting a booze-free apple juice based whiskey-sour style mocktail (€9) for my aperitif. Our total bill, which also included a seriously good cinnamon panacotta with blood orange and a finger of rosemary shortbread (€7.50), a large San Pelligrino (€5) and a glass of Verdejo (€8.50) comes to a total of €107.
The official address for Ember is the Milltown Shopping Centre but to go so far as to call this row of shops an actual centre is a bit of a stretch. Milltown is really just a place you drive through to get from Ranelagh to Dundrum but, for what it may lack in village feel, it makes up for in residents. And these residents have been left hungry for too long. “The locals have been so supportive,” says O’Mahony. “They really want to see it do well and are always offering up helpful feedback. It’s been great.”
Ember is a welcome addition to the line of casual bistro with fine-dining influences only on the plate, similar to Bastible and Craft in nearby Dublin 6w, that we’ve seen populating the suburbs in the last couple of years. If you’ve ever needed a reason to go to Milltown well, now you’ve got it.
Milltown Shopping Centre
Words: Aoife McElwain