If you’ve read our first blog post then you know how much we like John Cook’s vegetable cooking. Since our final Arbennig meal we’ve been to the first DIRT pop-up and two others, each with a different menu. We caught John’s guest session on the Two Anchors grill at Sticky Fingers street food, netting cheese and ale croquettes, an absolutely wicked grilled harissa cauliflower and a silky, smoky charred leek; so good they survived being needs-must carted across the city on a bus and eaten at home as a takeaway lunch.
DIRT now has the farthest left hand stall at Sticky Fingers street food Weds-Sat. and, you’ve guessed it, we grabbed another lovely lunch, only this time without having to run. We also enjoyed HOOF and Makasih that day but that’s another story.
It’s a huge tribute to John’s culinary skills that, when he embarked on the veg-only DIRT cooking venture, his omnivore fans came along with him. Time and again at the DIRT popups we heard nearby tables saying “I’m not vegetarian but that was great”, “I didn’t miss the meat” and other similar accolades. We suspect there were some die-hard meat/fish eaters who stayed away and missed out but now they are getting their day in the sun with the new venture, EMBER, which runs monthly veggie/non-veggie menus in parallel.
We actually attended the opening night of EMBER on 30th March but didn’t write it up here because, at the time ,our only other post was in praise of Arbennig and we wanted some variety.
A memorable meal is a synergistic mix of food, service, company and location. If we debated the relative merits of each then this post would be too long but we do think that the majestic old library venue with its foot-worn, coffee stained` stone stairs, steam-punk radiators and unnecessarily massive square columns makes a positive contribution to the experience.
Early evening, the dining room is filled with light streaming in through the tall windows and you can hear sparrows cheeping in the trees outside. Later on, the lights provide a surprisingly warm and intimate atmosphere in such a expansive space. Whoever designed and realised the lighting can give themselves a big pat on the back, they’ve achieved with aplomb all those things that you hear uttered pretentiously on Grand Designs. It seems some people find the space too large to be intimate but we couldn’t feel cosier than when tucked in the corner under the mezzanine upper floor.
Ceri Cook meets and greets, providing the warmest of welcomes, while Llaeth a Siwgr provide the front of house staff who are genuinely friendly, efficient but never intrusive. It is never an effort to catch their eye. The venue are also responsible for providing the drinks which include a good range of cocktails at £7.50, a keen price for the city centre. Mme. ordered one of her favourite standards, an espresso martini which was a fine example; rich, thick and potent. M. had a classic daiquiri which was nicely sharp with a good punch of Havana 3.
The wine range is small but covers a broad church of styles that aren’t run of the mill. We opted for the South African Chenin blanc which was both a good price and a good example of the distinctive flavour of the “Steen” grape. It also had the advantage of pairing well with all the savoury dishes.
At our previous meal there were no dessert wines available. This time an Italian sticky Muscat was offered in a generous portion, and was very good with dessert. Added to a complimentary glass of Prosecco at the start of the meal (given to diners due to an unexpected double-booking in the dining area), we exceeded our normal drink limit and left with a pronounced wobble. Be assured, we were sober enough to appreciate what our taste buds were telling us during the meal.
The idea of writing this is to encourage you to go and enjoy John’s cooking too, but perceptions of food are subjective. Quality cannot be defined by mere words (see Tao Te Ching, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance etc. ) and one person’s meat is a vegetarian’s poison so, instead of reaching for our lexicon of perspicacious superlatives, we’re going to try and be a bit more objective and analytical; albeit hard to tease the experience apart.
Wye Asparagus, Preserved Lemon Butter & Ricotta
Taste: Well-seasoned asparagus, the best of the grass’s unique flavour. The fried greens flavour of crispy kale. A gentle savoury praline edge from the toasted nuts. Creamy, lactic ricotta and salty, citrus preserved lemon, its juice working as a sauce. All the flavours came through individually rather than blending and were harmonious.
Texture: Gentle bite of asparagus, fine crispiness of kale, crunch of nuts, gooey cheese. No shortage of variety for a mouth’s sense of touch.
Balance: Not too much citrus or salt from the lemon. Ricotta and nuts balancing that out anyway. Neither overwhelmed the pointy green star of the show.
Interest: A harmonious step off the beaten track of asparagus accompaniments.
Salt Baked Jersey Royals, Feta Cream, Charred Green Onion, Whey Pickled Cucumber (our favourite)
Taste: Earthy, roasted/baked spud flavour with a sophisticated melted butter background. Salty lactic feta, hot dog stand onion notes and the fragrant zing of pickled cucumber.
Texture: Crisp edged, crushed, slightly floury potato. Thick, rich feta cream. Soft layered onion. Ribbons of soft-crunch cucumber.
Balance: The carb and butter comfort-food whack of the spud, onion & cheese cream is relieved by salty feta spikes and the freshness and zing of the pickled cucumber.
Interest: The classiest potato dish ever. M. NotLeafy could have eaten twelve of them, Mme. wanted to marry it.
Roast Cauliflower, Spring Greens, Pickled Beetroot & Caper Butter (strong second favourite)
Taste: Big, brown butter, caramelised flavours from the cauliflower. Gentle, well seasoned greens, deeply earthy beetroot, subtle caper butter with little salty caper taste bombs.
Texture: Silky, creamy cauliflower puree, firm, crisp-edged cauli florets. Crisp but soft cabbage (how does he do that?) Soft bite of beetroot chunks. Pop of tiny capers.
Balance: The buttery richness of the Sunday-roast style cauliflower flavours tempered by the zing of capers and beetroot.
Interest: Masterful roasting of the cauliflowers to make a depth of flavours never before experienced. Cauliflower and beetroot doesn’t sound right but it was here.
Red Wine Fruits, White Chocolate Meringue & Jersey Cream
Taste: Forest fruits, cocoa butter, rich Jersey cream, sugary meringue and a basil leaf flavour bomb.
Texture: Soft, juicy fruit, crumbly, internally gooey meringue .
Balance: Sweet meringue is balanced with acidic fruits but the basil leaf compliments one and contrasts the other. Could always handle more cream though.
Interest: Basil scent hit when the dish arrived. Its inclusion added a new dimension to this classic dessert.
EMBER is great news. John Cook is combining high quality produce with exceptional cooking skills to produce memorable vegetarian food at a keen price. The number of places where you can enjoy an assured vegetarian meal of this calibre without having to pick through the menu and check ingredients are still relatively few, fewer still are those where neither veggies nor omnivores feel disadvantaged and can eat out together. From our side of the table, it also feels pragmatic from a business perspective; for example presenting a set menu with seats booked and paid for in advance supports purchase and preparation, while avoiding the issue of ‘no-shows’ with its associated costs and wastage.
Unfortunately EMBER are not continuing at the Old Library venue but there’s an assurance on Twitter that it’s not the end. It seems too that Chef Cook never stands still and he’s recently announced a new joint venture with Dusty Knuckle in premises opposite Victoria Park. From what we’ve heard, it promises to be different from what either party have done before. That small terrace of units already houses Bwydiful, Pettigrew Bakery and The Dough Thrower, so anybody who lives nearby can rightly feel even more smug.
EMBER is still going meanwhile, with bookings being taken on Wriggle for June’s EMBER at the other Milk & Sugar Venue at One Central Square on Friday 21st. It’s a different kind of space but, like the Old Library, there’s no doubt that the EMBER team will make it their own. A few seats remain at the time of posting.
Want to go there?
Bookings for EMBER’s June event:
Veggie menu: https://www.getawriggleon.com/o/cardiff-ember-milk-sugara-one-central-square-ember-by-john-cook-4-course-veggie-dinner-june?date=2019-06-21
For info on upcoming events: