Mikkayla reviews: Ember — ‘In a town with its own crystal store, Ember is the true gem’
152 Yarra St, Warrandyte
Do we need to broaden the definition of what a tourist is? At least while international borders remain closed. You can definitely be a tourist in your own country – in fact, we’re actively being encouraged to do so. But is one considered a tourist if they are venturing a mere forty minutes from home?
As some friends and I found ourselves in a glorious suburb called Warrandyte this week, I decided the answer is yes – we were tourists. To be fair, it was more of a trek than Google Maps promised. I do not recommend leaving the city at 4.30pm to get out to the north-east. The promised 40 minutes turned into a little over an hour, but it was still a relatively easy drive which led us to the most charming village-like suburb.
Warrandyte is a quaint, artsy town filled with galleries, craft shops, restaurants and cafes. Situated on the Yarra River (the most beautiful part of the Yarra I have ever seen), it feels peacefully secluded, only helped by the surround abundance of natural state park bushland which seems like a shield. The area is bustling every weekend with people driving in from afar to trek along the river reserve, explore the town’s offerings, and enjoy the various markets that are set up throughout the year along the main thoroughfare.
The discovery of Ember is a welcome but unexpected surprise. Almost too modern for this bohemian former goldfield, the restaurant’s interior design execution is flawless. Polished concrete floors are lightened by white walls. An abundance of carefully-positioned potted plants bring the lush outdoors inside, and carefully selected pieces of statement furniture dot the room. We are warmly welcomed and seated in prime position before the open windows overlooking their veranda. Just across the road is an abundance of flourishing, green vegetation hiding the river beyond, and you can hear the crickets’ chirping as dusk descends.
Ember is fairly new to the area – 18 months young – forced to pivot just 8 months into their opening and cater with fresh pre-prepared meals. Three days into the lockdown was all it took to turn the venue into a hub for freshly baked breads, pastries and takeaway coffees. A global pandemic turned out to be somewhat of a blessing though, with locals quickly warming to the new joint, getting to know the staff and owner-chef Tom and the place, back in full swing, is now well-supported.
The menu doesn’t necessarily embrace a specific cuisine – it shuns process foods and focuses on showcasing the abundance of fresh local produce and suppliers available in the area. The showstopper is that each dish has an aspect that has been ‘touched’ by fire, from their open-fire roasted meats, down to the wood-fired lemons used to make oil.
A promising sign that you’re about to have an amazing meal is when the bread is, quite legitimately, rave-worthy. Wood-fired flatbread is dusted generously with sesame za’atar and served piping hot from the oven, with a slightly scorched top ($9). Slather it generously with whipped ricotta and soak up the lashings of burnt honey. Sublime.
Next is a bowl of buttermilk fried chicken pieces – popcorn-style – seasoned with zingy jalapeno salt, and accompanied by a vibrant, superbly-flavoured smoked paprika aioli ($16). I can never go past fried chicken in a restaurant setting and this one is spectacular. No lingering grease, the breading almost pops in your mouth with each crunch. Superb.
Charred corn and potato croquettes ($12) on a generous serving of basil, cheddar and chutney spread, whilst perfectly lovely, aren’t a memorable choice – in hindsight, I would forego them for another serve of the bread – but the grilled tiger prawn ‘sandwich’ with lobster aioli, lettuce and chives is a must-try ($14). Fresh, warm brioche partnered with plump, juicy pieces of chopped prawn is a classic partnership for a reason- and incredibly thoughtful service from our waitresses who note one of the diners is pregnant has the kitchen swap out the aioli for kewpie mayo so we can all enjoy a bite.
Slow-grilled sticky pork ribs are a mess to eat – but lip-smacking good with finger-licking soy, chilli and sesame glaze – sticky, tender, sweet and spicy in every mouthful; the charred bits with chunks of caramelised sauce are the best parts ($24). The handmade potato gnocchi melts in your mouth – with a beautiful, light sauce made up of roasted tomato, fetta, charred onion and asparagus, it allows you to actually taste the pasta ($28). Local bay snapper fillets are crispy-skinned with fall-apart tender flesh, served on a bed of butter beans, smoked mussels and verjuice ($32).
A 600 gram slow-cooked lamb shoulder dish that comes with spiced chickpeas and fresh yoghurt and cucumber and two side dishes, is a tempting option to share ($62) – but the real star of the menu is their signature wood-roasted pineapple-marinated half chicken ($30). It’s cut into four pieces and piled on top of a mound of thick, chilled yoghurt, then lashed generously with chimichurri. The meat is juicy and tender; the skin is charred crispy and releases an amalgamation of intense flavours with each bite. A handful of rustic, hand-cut potato chips flavoured with confit garlic and rosemary is the perfect accompaniment ($11).
Dessert options are limited but well-developed. A rich, dark chocolate tart with a quenelle of burnt orange cream and chopped hazelnuts will please the dedicated sweet-tooths ($13), while the creamy yoghurt pannacotta with wood-roasted sour cherry jam ($12) provides a beautiful contrast of suggestively-sweet and tart flavours – or a cheese plate option ($18) to nibble on while you finish the last of your wine and order a coffee.
The drinks list is well-balanced with creative takes on traditional cocktails – the blood orange mojito and Montenegro sour deserve their own special shoutouts – and carefully selected wines largely from Victoria, Italy and France. The beer-drinkers will have to make do with the sparse choices on offer… but there are enough spirits on hand to please all tastes. A delightful inclusion is a non-alcoholic wine of salted raspberry and chamomile. Effervescent like a pet-nat, it is full of big fruit flavour and gets the thumbs up from the mum-to-be.
Ember was created as a casual place where friends and family could always pop in but the level of impeccable service and incredible high quality of meals elevates this place to an almost fine-dining feel, completely unexpected in this bohemian-like town that feels miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city. In a town with its own crystal store, Ember is the true gem.
Ember is open Wednesday – Thursday 5pm-late, Friday – Saturday 12pm-late, and Sunday 12pm – 4pm