Chef Josh Boutwood seldom works on Mondays. None of his concepts are ever open seven times a week. Enter Ember, his latest venture with Bistro Group at Greenbelt 3. It’s because it’s located in a mall, a high traffic location, he says. He doesn’t mind working the whole week, though; if anything, seeing other restaurants open on Mondays makes him feel like he’s left behind, like he’s wasting precious time. This from a man who has five dining concepts, not including Bistro’s many restaurant chains.
Ember is quintessentially a Boutwood concept, chiefly because it doesn’t deviate so much from his other restaurant, Savage, which boasts cooking everything over open fire. The former is just more literal—as in ember, a small piece of burning or glowing coal or wood in a dying fire (thank you, Google). I applaud his extensive knowledge of fire, and he gladly professes his love for this primal element, saying he prefers it because cooking with fire is more intuitive.
“Ember is a sophisticated evolution of Savage with high emphasis on amazing ingredients and a more delicate cooking method. While fire is Savage, after it blazes through the material, what is left glowing from your flame is the ember, which is actually the best to cook on,” the chef explains.
But with Ember, the concept of fire is not limited to that of Savage’s. Other than a seemingly misplaced and not to mention, haphazard-looking open fire grill, the staff makes use of convection ovens, stove hearths, and a smoker, too. (I say misplaced because the space is brimming with Modernist elements, among them terrazzo flooring, an olive metal staircase that leads to an enclosed mezzanine, and a gleaming overhead curved stainless steel piece that hovers like a UFO—all courtesy of Headroom.)
We went for lunch one midweek day (Ember is open weeklong for lunch and dinner) and already, barely a week since opening, the restaurant is overflowing with guests. The inside seats 30 but the restaurant can also accommodate a sizable number of diners outside in its al fresco setup—if you could tolerate Manila noontime heat, that is.
Lunch started with a helping of a Boutwood signature: sourdough with smoked butter. It is then followed by delicate applewood smoked shrimps with garlic emulsion and lemon. Ember doesn’t follow a certain cuisine strictly but is intent on serving “just exceptional food” with a few sly winks to the chef’s European upbringing, i.e. the melon, Serrano ham, and thyme. He says it’s an ode to his favorite childhood snack growing up.
Then there’s the recurrence and abundance of seafood. During our visit we had at least two fish dishes: raw tuna, avocado, and tapioca reminiscent of the Hawaiian tako poke but with crunchy tapioca shells instead of taco; and a humbling combination of turbot, brown butter, and caper (yes, all dishes on the menu are simplistically named, with the intention of transparency to inform the eater what’s in it).
Those first few bites are mostly from the small plates menu. The largesse then comes from a serving of uber-tender steak that sends one of my fellow diners into a reaction that gets Boutwood concerned, thinking the guest was choking. It was later cleared that it was out of sheer gustatory pleasure. And that’s just the steak. What I found equally delightful are the sides that came with it: creamy spinach, buttery mashed potato, and chunky potato fries.
Midway through the meal, the speakers blare. As if by reflex, Boutwood reaches for his phone and tinkers with audio controls. The whole restaurant sound system is linked by WiFi to his phone. He then excuses himself as we wait for dessert—The Test Kitchen’s sticky Swedish chocolate cake and tres leches—to meet a courier out front and receive a delivery. Proof again that he is indeed a hands-on restaurateur. By 1 p.m. he is out the door, rushing to his son’s football practice.