May 9, 2014 6:26 pm

Ember Yard, London

‘Glasses of chilled La Guita Manzanilla sherry and a white Rioja transported us to Spain’
Communal tables at Ember Yard©Greg Funnell

Communal tables

I booked a table for dinner at Ember Yard, the Spanish grill, bar and charcuterie that recently opened just off Oxford Street, for amorous reasons. It was my wife’s birthday and I knew she would appreciate the food served here in moderate sizes and the wines poured by the glass.

But I, too, was curious about this project. Ember Yard is the fourth restaurant that Sanja Morris, who formerly worked in the public sector, and Simon Mullins, whose background is in advertising, have opened in London since Salt Yard, their first venture, in 2005. Joined by Ben Tish as executive chef, Morris and Mullins have launched Dehesa on Ganton Street and Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. I have enjoyed all three, not just for the food and wine but also for their West End locations and the buzz and camaraderie reminiscent of Spain’s older tapas bars.

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Nicholas Lander

On the morning of our outing my professional antennae were also whirring. Each week, Adam Hyman, who has moved into the world of restaurant consultancy from that of property, sends out the Code Bulletin, his brief but well-sourced online newsletter that covers restaurant openings, appointments and gossip. (It is available only to those within the industry.)

Under the heading “Position of the Week” was a notice that Ember Yard was seeking a general manager. The quoted salary was £43,000 plus bonus and the lucky candidate, as well as being “hands on” (this restaurant is spread over two floors), needed, naturally, to love food and wine and be customer-focused.

The advertisement – and the remuneration – also bear testimony to the increasing importance of this position in restaurants everywhere. General managers – or “GMs” as they are known in the trade – have a broad and potentially exhausting set of responsibilities, of which the most obvious – ensuring the standards for food, drink and service are maintained, as well as weekly gross profit targets hit – are among the most straightforward.

Hot smoked belly of Old Spot pork©Greg Funnell

Hot smoked belly of Old Spot pork

Health, safety and environmental issues take up an increasing amount of time, as does the role of moral tutor to a young workforce (which, I hear, can involve dissuading staff from gambling away their wages). And then there is the essential task of “being a customer” from time to time to appreciate the overall experience. It was in this aspect that our meal disappointed.

Upon arriving, we squeezed into the banquette under the window on the ground floor. This was fine at first but awkward to manoeuvre later, when the tables on either side were occupied (and none of our party of four is particularly broad in the beam).

Morris, Mullins and their designers have cleverly configured the ground floor with raised communal tables and an open kitchen and, even more sympathetically, have converted the basement into a cosy and relaxed space. The presence of two cooks behind the downstairs bar, carving the leg of aged jamón Ibérico on its stand and assembling the wooden boards of cheese, ensure that the basement does not feel like a second-class setting.

Once seated, glasses of chilled La Guita Manzanilla sherry and Viña Gravonia, a traditional white Rioja from the excellent 2004 vintage, transported us to Spain, as did a small board arrayed with excellent jamón. But as we began to decide what to choose next, there was a sense that, despite a lot of staff whirling willingly around us, no one was really in control.

Our waitress came, told us about that night’s special – a whole plaice cooked on the grill – but had to be prompted to tell us the price, which she quoted as £12 but which finally appeared on the bill as £15. The dish also proved to be poor value as there was little flesh to be enjoyed and what there was had been overcooked. An overly heavy hand on the grill was also noticeable on the octopus with stewed red peppers and the pork ribs.

That said, there were several dishes of better quality, notably a generous serving of broad bean and mint fritters, Morris and Mullins’ trademark miniature Basque beef burger with chorizo ketchup, plus two excellent desserts: a clementine and almond cake and a brown butter panna cotta with Malaga ice cream.

Ember Yard’s GM will arrive to find a full in-tray.

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Ember Yard

60 Berwick Street, London W1F 8SU, 020 7439 8057; emberyard.co.uk

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at ft.com/lander

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