One of the truly great things about working in the hospitality industry is the people. Now in an industry who’s main goal is obviously making people feel welcome, or being hospitable as it were, this may sound like a fairly dumb thing to say. The people I’m referring to however, are not the ones sitting at the tables staring coldly into cyberspace while unceremoniously shovelling products that took hours upon hours to prepare into their greedy gobs, only breaking contact from their oh-so-precious devices long enough to ensure they aren’t going to throw a portion of their meal down the front of their $200 t-shirt, before mashing up all your hard work and beginning the process of turning your efforts into shit, literally.
I’m talking about the men and women at your side, down in the trenches, at the hot line, taking flack from some asshole who thinks just because he has spent $4.50 at your venue it gives him the right to treat you like dirt. These are the people you spend more time with than your family, and on a day to day basis come to almost be as important. While it’s true that working in hospo can have the effect of isolating you from the rest of society, the people you meet, and the friends you earn in this crazy business will remain with you the rest of your days.
That being the case, there is the lovely side effect that this ever widening network of friends and acquaintances has. A good chef once told me “never burn your bridges” which basically means don’t be an asshole, after all, every city is a small town, you never know when you might need a favour, who knows who, or who the next head chef at that new venue everyone raves about, might be a few years down the track. More over; when you’ll want to go and eat at said new hot spot and receive the full treatment. So it is always great to see your comrades pull themselves out of the trenches and reach for the top. It is a true pleasure to be writing this little review for one such individual.
A few years back I had the pleasure of working with a talented young chef by the name of Peter Cooksley at Melbourne’s newest hot spot ‘Supernormal‘. Since our tenure at Chef Andrew McConnell’s shrine of pan-asian delights I had moved onto the head chef role at Mighty Boy Eatery and Peter had been granted the auspicious title of head chef at Dave Verhul’s (mastermind behind the award winning Carlton eatery ‘The Town Mouse‘) hot new CBD wine bar ‘Embla’ which was at the time still under construction. Months passed and, as often happens with new fit outs, the opening date got pushed back from July to somewhere around Mid november. All the while the Melbourne hospo scene awaited the opening of Embla with bated breath, none more so than Peter.
Test runs, soft openings, media launches and finally Embla was open to rave reviews. As there are always a few kinks to iron out when opening a new restaurant it is only fair to allow a grace period before rolling in for dinner with high hopes. Xmas passed, New Years rolled by, January, and still Embla was on my ‘to do’ list. After some impromptu beers around easter time with Peter I finally got my shit together and made a booking.
So, one unseasonably warm Thursday eve in April, in new shoes and a freshly ironed shirt, we set out for our long over due date with Embla. As usual, we left at the last minute and found ourselves frantically trying to find our destination as our booking time loomed. The only thing worse than being late for a booking is being late for a booking when the chef has made the booking for you. Avoiding near catastrophe with only minor embarrassment, we burst through the stylish glass doors an acceptable, couple of minutes after we had been expected. Mildly stressed and in desperate need of refreshments the cool service stylings of Embla’s front of house manager extraordinaire Elenor Butler (and Peters fiancé) put us instantly at ease. It’s a fine balance providing service that is not only casual and welcoming enough to make you feel at home, but at the same time of a high enough quality that you feel you are in the capable hands of seasoned professionals. Embla’s service crew don’t so much walk this tight rope, they dance on it!
Amongst the understated, yet warm interior of this newly kitted out wine bar I spotted the kitchen and made a bee line straight for the big black beard at the helm of this inner city beast. After a good round of hand shakes and “how the fuck are ya?”s with the lads behind the stoves Peter ushered forth those magical words, “Do you want to order off the menu? Or shall we just feed ya?”
Without even a moments hesitation the answer was of course, “FEED ME!”
Having removed myself from the decision making process for the evening, I finally settled into our table and ordered what was to be the first of many drinks.
As the good vibes and even better wines started to flow, so the first course of our mystery dinner arrived at the table. Upon the most impossibly thin crouton sat an anchovy fillet nestled in cultured butter and topped with pickled shallots. A sublime bite of richness balanced out by the acidity and sweetness of the shallots, rounded out by the frail crunchiness of that crouton. It was one of those dishes that is just so simple and yet so perfect, you kick yourself for not having thought of it first.
The great thing about leaving your dinner in the hands of the chef is that A. you never know what is coming next, making every course a surprise, and B. they are going to feed you all their favourite stuff off the menu, so you know you are going to get the good shit!
Next up came course after course of ever exceeding excellence. Sour cucumbers with feta and dill, another exercise in flavour balance. The snapper carpaccio with the infamous fermented red pepper paste I had heard so much about (and with good reason) over beers with Pete only a few weeks prior.
Mussels served on those impossible croutons with sherry vinegar, parsley and black sesame, an unlikely pairing until you put the thing in your mouth and realise that parsley and black sesame strangely belong together!
Of course what dinner at a wine focussed venue would be complete without a raw beef dish, this one accompanied by a lush ginger cream, refreshing lemon, and peppery radish.
My personal favourite of the evening, and one of the best things I have eaten in years was up next. Wood roasted king prawns served simply with a curry spiced butter and yoghurt. No further details are necessary for this one, it is just as good as it sounds! At this point of the evening I was compelled to get up and high five the man at the pass, as this is, so far, the clear front runner for my ‘Dish Of The Year’. High and with a euphoric food rush, and several glasses of the good stuff, we attacked the next course of flounder, charred kale, oyster cream, soured buttermilk and rosemary. The pine mushrooms on this dish, we were informed, were foraged for Embla at roughly 6 am that morning! Surf and turf gets a whole new lease of life with the earthy taste of the forest from the mushrooms and rosemary, while the briny freshness of the oyster cream and New Zealand flounder sat wonderfully in the overall flavour profile. This could well have been the best dish in a night of great dishes, had the king prawns not decimated anything I’ve eaten since, only moments before.
The hour grew late, but like the wine and the conversation, the food never stopped flowing. Next was our main course. A wood roasted half chook with perfectly soft and sweet garlic served with a side that only a chef would ever think of, or appreciate. After our chicken had been roasted, it was left to rest over a few slices of sour dough bread. The resulting slices of chicken juice soaked deliciousness was, while probably the most unhealthy thing I could think of, one of the best parts of the meal. After so much amazing food, the belt was starting to tighten up a bit, but as we gingerly began to work our way through this beautifully roasted bird another surprise hit the table. Creamed corn gets the deluxe Embla treatment here with a generous dollop of crème fraiche and wonderfully zesty sprinkles of citrus powder. I will never look at a tin of creamed corn the same way ever again!
By now we were stuffed so full we could barely breathe, but yet there was still more wine to drink! The playful service style keep the evening rolling at a healthy pace, no easy feat when you have been sitting at a table for the past 3 hours. And then, the final blow, only a tiny dessert between two people the crème caramel with spiced poached quince should have presented no obstacle for our well seasoned guts, but on top of everything else it was the final nail in the coffin. So simple, yet so delicious. You know when you have just eaten so much that all you can think of is going home, taking your pants off, and lying on the floor? This is where my dinner at Embla put me.
With the evening winding down, service slowing, chefs cleaning, I headed into the kitchen to talk to my good friend, thank him and his wonderful partner for the magical evening, and congratulate him on a job well done. I did the obligatory cheffy thing and snooped around the kitchen checking out the giant offset wood fired oven that is at the heart of this delicious monster. More hugs and handshakes and “good to fucken see ya!”s and it was time to hit the trail. Our plans of catching the late train home went out the window as I needed to go home and lie down pronto, the mark of a truly great meal.
Thanks to Peter and Elenor and the very talented team at Embla, we will be back as soon as we can face eating again. If you read this I hope I got all the details right, but hey we’d had quite a few fermented beverages that night. Embla was clearly worth all the hype, and the wait.