Ye-Gon: It’s been almost two years on since the launch of Ember, and in my mind it’s tragically underappreciated by the folks around town now as the day it opened. It remains unheard of or way down on people’s priority list as far as restaurants go, which is understandable; there’s a lot of good places to try in Hamilton. But it’s still a crying shame, since Ember is a great place, where the menu really brings something new and different, and everything is executed meticulously.
Their new menu, at face value, is a bit of a departure from their previous style. Gone are the selection of tacos, gone are the sandwiches (at least from dinner service), and gone is my favourite, the brisket feijoada. Overall, the direction of the menu is away from South American influence, and towards sterility. It’s not a direction I agree with, but it wouldn’t be fair to write them off now, especially given their track record.
Sam: Upon arrival, we were greeted with a gigantic neon-red sign reading ‘EMBER’, and I couldn’t help but think that there used to be a different eatery here… (was it Pumice? What ever happened to them anyway?).
Larissa: I was mesmerized by the atmosphere as soon as I walked through the door. Ember has a lovely aesthetic. The staff were friendly, the tables were nicely spaced apart and the view over Te Rapa on a winter’s evening was really quite nice. As I sat down at my table I was eager to try out their menu and style of eating; shared meals being a relatively unique experience for me.
Sam: For starters, or ‘Smalls’ as Ember put it, we ordered Buffalo Wings and Prawn Dogs to share – sharing being a central theme of the restaurant – and as the wings arrived I immediately began to salivate at the luscious, glossy coat of blue sauce dripping from them. The taste was to match, with a tangy punch and spicy after taste that left you wanting more (damn, did we have to share?). The chicken itself was… nice; nothing extravagant of life-altering, but well-cooked nonetheless.
Natalia: But that blue cheese dressing is to die for.
Ye-Gon: Seconded. It’s nothing short of incredible.
Sam: Right, on the other hand, the prawn dogs lacked much oomph; insert ‘fish cakes’ or ‘fish stick’ in place of ‘Prawn Dogs’ and I would have been none the wiser. The crispy batter I was hoping for never arrived, but the beurre noisette emulsion alongside them was very nice, with hints of garlic and a lovely creaminess worth savouring.
Larissa: Where I was disappointed was in the layout of the food. For a restaurant that’s focus is on providing shared meals, I did not feel that their plates were particularly shareable. Some of the smaller plates only came with four pieces when there was five of us, and the main meats came out as solid pieces, rather than pre-cut pieces which would have been easier to share.
Ye-Gon: I do recall in the past they did give you a choice to pay a little extra to have an additional piece or two of food to the small plate so everyone got to try one. I don’t know if our server forgot, or if they just don’t offer that option anymore. Regardless, that mostrosity of a beef short rib was pretty intimidating when it was served whole. Sure, it’s got the wow factor, but the practicality of it leaves something to be desired. The meat wasn’t that tender… Which really didn’t help with the whole cutting it up and sharing it around bit.
Larissa: I have to say I was glad that I was eating this meal with close friends, because it might have been a bit awkward sharing things like that piece of lamb with an acquaintance!
Ye-Gon: Oh, the lamb belly. It’s funny, a cut of the sheep that no one put on their menu, until Vic Street Bistro put it on the map a couple of years ago. It’s basically pork belly but better in every way – the mouthfeel from the melting fat contrasts with the crispy skin, which has the glassy characteristics but none of the harsh brittleness of pig rind. That was a stand-out for me, and the currants make for a nice fruity contrast that cuts through the meat. There’s also the chicken…
Larissa: That’s the one where they included mushrooms, when we’d asked them to be removed.
Ye-Gon: Right, yeah, completely unremarkable. The chicken could do with a lot more tan, because the skin didn’t do it for me.
Sam: The pork cheek though, now that was something else. When ordering this dish, the waiter made a distinct point of stating that the pork would be quite fatty, given the fact that it’s from the cheek, to which we all nodded and smiled. He then then went on to confirm whether we were still happy to order it. And again, we nodded and smiled. The pork was beautifully cooked and packed with flavor, and the fat was absolutely to die for. Usually, fat on pork serves the purpose of keeping it moist and adding flavor to the meat itself, but this fat was special in that it did that, as well as being mouth-wateringly tasty on its own. Meanwhile, your taste buds are left to lap up the kumara and kimchi, which provide a sweet contrast that complements the intense savoriness of the pork. An overall brilliant dish, albeit one that I would pay for later….
Ye-Gon: I think we all paid for it later, but at least from me, no regrets. On one hand, I do wish we saved room for dessert, but I’m totally fine with what I ended up saturating my stomach with that night. I don’t think there’s any question about the quality of the food, and between the plates and the cocktails, we had a great night – but a part of me can’t help but to reflect back to what the place used to offer, that identity which is now just a little harder to find. It wasn’t just a place for amazing experiences and truly innovative menu, it was a place that was genuinely unique. I don’t know if I got that anymore.
Sam: I tend to agree. The food was overall undoubtedly exquisite, although for the price you pay you would certainly expect that. But did they inspire anything beyond merely the quality of food? For me, the answer’s unclear. Their unique selling point is offering “Food of the Americas” with an emphasis on shared dining, but the menu seemed to lack a distinctive Americas theme, or any education for the audience as to what this really meant. And while the idea of sharing is all very nice and convivial, again, I was left wondering whether that really enhanced my dining experience, or if it was just a nice gimmick that ultimately achieved nothing. A restaurant worth visiting? Certainly. Worth visiting again? Well, I guess we’ll find out after the relaunch.
Ye-Gon: Oh, yeah, we should mention that the place is apparently planning a relaunch of sorts in September. And you betcha we’ll be back then to try out the new new menu.
Ember is located at 60 Church Road, Te Rapa. They’re open weekdays from 10am till late, and weekends from 11am till late.