Have you ever had one of those dining experiences where the world seems to momentarily stop? When the edges of the room blur and fade away, the entire universe focusing instead with pinpoint precision on the sudden explosion of flavours spinning on your tongue? When your eyes bulge and your cheeks quiver with queer surprise at an unexpected texture or unknown pairing, or if you’re lucky enough, both?
I only ask because said almost religious experience occurred inside my mouth recently, at the press opening of Brighton’s latest new restaurant Embers.
The brainchild of Isaac At chef patron Isaac Bartlett-Copeland and former Terre à Terre head chef Dave Marrow, Embers’ fire-based fare has been the talk of the town for months, the charred and caramelised notes of its prospective menu exciting the appetites of Brighton’s esteemed foodies well in advance of its April opening. A celebration of succulent meats and flame-grilled veg, accompanied by a carefully curated list of drinks and cocktails, did Embers live up to the hype? As you’ve probably guessed from the opening, the answer is an emphatic, mouth-walloping yes.
Embers is nestled in the bosom of Brighton’s famed Meeting House Lane, with its narrow, Dickensian alleyways, slivers of cold, grey, spring sky racing overhead. Inside, it’s like we’ve slipped into the depths of a low burning fire, the atmosphere deep, dark and welcoming. With two large tables to the front of the restaurant, a run of smaller ones down the length of the side wall, and individual stools along the kitchen counter facing all the fiery action, Embers can cater for all manner of dining moods, whether social or solitary.
My dining companion and I are among the first to arrive but before long the place is buzzing with the anticipatory hum of Brighton’s food criteratti, cutlery, pens and influential phone cameras firmly in hand. The kitchen is in full swing, dancing flames of orange and red licking their way up from the bottom of the impressive fire cage that dominates the range. Marrow, Bartlett-Copeland and team are heads down, fiercely focused on the food, as the dishes begin to make their way out from the pass and onto our tables. We watch the vegetable dishes float by. Charred hispi cabbage with shitake and cashew larb. Miso celeriac, koji-soaked engiri, fresh spring truffle, pickled sea vegetables, and mushroom XO. They all look delicious but we’re here for the meat, and aside from a delightfully light heirloom tomato salad that’s popping with wild garlic and basil pistou, we plump for a protein-heavy selection.
A smokey chicken leg, its skin crispy, its flesh falling off the bone with soft abandon, is the first to arrive. It’s a simple dish, a small plate that only serves to flaunt its central component, and all the better for it. Honey butter and a gloriously orange round of rich n’duja aioli play partner, supporting acts whose notes work perfectly to uphold the chargrilled smokiness of the chicken centre stage.
Glazed lamb ribs follow. Dear lord, the glazed lamb ribs. Small but perfectly formed, with just the right ratio of unctuous fat to tender meat, they slide off the bone and melt in my awaiting mouth. Kimchi carrot topped with Japanese furikake seasoning cuts through the fattiness of the lamb, the yin of its delicate crunch playing delightful partner to the lamb’s glorious yang of softness.
The pork tomahawk, our one ‘centrepiece dish’, comes topped with a chargrilled leek splayed across the top. If I’m being entirely honest I would have liked the leek to be a little more charred, but that’s soon forgotten as the first slice of pork passes my lips. As any frustrated amateur home cook will tell you, pork is notoriously hard to get right (and by “frustrated amateur home cook” I mean me, and by “get right” I mean not dried out like old shoe leather); this pork is veritably drowning in its own juices. Moist, succulent, and packed with flavour, there’s a cleverly placed, cheek-squinting counter from the pops of pickled mustard seed benevolently spread on top.
Our ‘snack’ of bread and dripping butter comes out halfway through, just in time to mop up any errant jus that has had the audacity to try and mount an escape. Slathered in the fat-infused butter, they could have served these warm, generous chunks of bread as a small plate in their own right and I’d have been perfectly happy. Again, simple but perfect, less proving thoroughly more. Why complicate something that doesn’t need it?
Embers’ cocktail and drinks list is extensive and caters for all needs, including ours, which this evening is for something non-alcoholic. The menu has three alcohol-free cocktails and they each feel like they’ve been made with just as much care and precision as their alcoholic equivalents. If you want a kick with your dinner, the list is long: The Ember’s Own (cognac, rye, wormwood), The Contractor’s Lady (Contractor’s dry gin, apricot, citrus), Royal Stuart (Laphroaig 10, Monkey Shoulder, winter spice, bitters), Brighton Bee Balm (lillet blanc, Brighton Gin, italicus, sea salt), Old Cuban (Appleton 8, mint, cava), and the intriguingly named Penicillin (whisky, honey, citrus, pear) just a drop in the alcoholic ocean. And with Bartlett-Copeland already renowned for his curation of wines at Isaac At, you can add a thoroughly comprehensive wine list to proceedings as well.
The dessert menu brings with it ‘cheese on toast’ with parmesan and truffle, and chilled chocolate fondant with caramel and burnt butter ice cream. I choose a spit-roasted pineapple, its notes juicy and sweet with just the vaguest hint of sour. Its residual heat melts through the smooth, creamy, wobbly panna cotta it sits perilously atop, mixing in with the molasses below. My partner in foodie crime opts for the banana split, and here is where my aforementioned religious experience manifests.
What. A. Dish.
The caramelised sides of the banana halves, charred from the fire and flavoured by the smoke, are sticky and sweet, all kinds of grown-up, teeth-clinging joy. A warm dollop of toffee sauce coats the deceptively bitter crunch of praline, a tango of textures that wakes my mouth up after the seductive feast of meat that was its predecessor. But it’s the parsnip and rosemary ice cream that’s the absolute star of the show. Yes, you heard it right: parsnip and rosemary. In ice cream form. Is this some kind of Heston-esque tomfoolery only there to prove a fine dining point? Absolutely not. It’s the genius use of rosemary driving through the succulent stickiness of the plate like an Olympic-winning foil that strikes to the heart of the dish’s character, delivering depth of flavour that makes your hair stand on end and your eyes pop. Truly, truly outstanding.
Depending on what you want to eat, Embers runs from reasonable to being on the agreeably pricey side. Small plates start from £6 for the charred broccoli, £6.50 for the heirloom tomato salad, and £7.50 for the creamy ‘bonfire’ potato, through to £13 for the scorched sea bream and £17 for the wagyu Denver steak with Roscoff onion and hollandaise sauce. The centrepiece dishes have price tags that live up to their menu setting, with the pork tomahawk coming in at £45. But let’s be clear – you get what you pay for. Everything is locally sourced where possible and the quality of produce is second to none. This is fine dining done properly, with attention to detail both in the kitchen, in the restaurant, and behind the scenes in the pantry. For special occasions, romantic evenings, dinner with friends, or if you’re just feeling bouji and want to treat yourself, Embers absolutely hits the sweet, smoky spot. And to whoever picked their in-house soundtrack – your track selection was truly on point. A fine, dining addition to Brighton’s lauded restaurant scene. Praise be.
All photo credits: David Charbit
Embers is now open for reservations and walk-ins
42 Meeting House Lane, Brighton, BN1 1HB
Wednesday to Sunday 5pm – 11:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 12pm – 3pm
Last seating 9pm Wednesday to Saturday, 8:30pm Sunday