This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I booked a table for dinner at Ember Yard, the predominantly Spanish charcuterie, bar and grill that recently opened just south of Oxford Street, principally for amorous reasons.
It was my wife's birthday and I knew that she would appreciate the fact that here she could enjoy a wide range of different foods and wines by the glass without being subject to massive servings.
My professional interest was also piqued. Ember Yard is the fourth restaurant Sanja Morris, formerly in the public sector, and Simon Mullins, once in advertising, have opened since their first, Salt Yard, emerged on Goodge Street in 2006.
Since then, joined by Ben Tish as executive chef, they have opened Dehesa on Ganton Street and Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. I had enjoyed all three, not just for the food and wine but also for the astuteness with which they had chosen different locations around the West End in which they have successfully recreated the buzz and camaraderie of Spain's longer-established tapas bars.
On the morning of our outing my professional antennae were stimulated by an email. Each week, Adam Hyman, who has moved into the world of restaurant consultancy from that of property, sends out The Code, his brief but well-sourced, online newsletter that covers restaurant openings and new appointments, as well as the requisite amount of gossip.
Under the heading 'Position of the Week' was a reference to Ember Yard and the fact that the restaurant was currently looking for a general manager. The quoted salary was £43,000 plus bonus and the lucky candidate, as well as being physically fit as this restaurant is spread over two floors, has, it stipulated, to love food and wine and be customer-focused.
The specific reasons Ember Yard needs to find this individual as soon as possible became clear over the course of our evening. But this advertisement also bears testimony to the increasing importance of this position in restaurants everywhere.
General managers, 'GMs' in the trade, have a wide-ranging and potentially exhausting set of responsibilities, of which the most obvious, ensuring that the restaurant's standards for food, drink and service are maintained, as well as its essential weekly gross-profit targets, are almost now the most straightforward. Health, safety and environmental issues take up an increasing amount of time, as does the role of moral tutor to a young workforce, a role that now extends, I heard recently, to trying to ensure that they do not fritter too much of their hard-earned wages on today's ubiquitous gambling opportunities. Then there is the essential task of being the customer from time to time to fully appreciate the overall experience. And it was in this particular aspect that our meal disappointed me most.
This became initially but not overly obvious as we squeezed into the banquette under the large window on the restaurant's ground floor. This was relatively easy when we arrived because the two tables on either side were vacant. Later, once these were occupied, it was to prove quite a challenge (and none of our party of four is particularly broad in the beam).
Morris, Mullins and their designers have cleverly configured the ground floor with raised communal tables and an open kitchen, and even more sympathetically have converted the basement into somewhere that is cosy and relaxed. The presence of two cooks behind the downstairs bar, carving the leg of aged jamon Iberico on its stand and assembling the wooden boards of cheese, ensure that the basement does not feel like a second-class setting.
Once seated, we were transported to Spain by glasses of chilled La Guita Manzanilla sherry and Viña Gravonia, a traditional white rioja from the excellent 2004 vintage, and by a small board arrayed with their excellent jamon. But as we began to decide what to choose next, there was a very definite sense that, while a lot of staff whirled willingly around us, there was no one really in control.
Our waitress came, mentioned that night's only special, a whole plaice cooked on the grill, but she had to be prompted by me to tell us the price, which she quoted as £12 although it finally appeared on the bill as £15. But the dish proved to be poor value as there was little flesh to be enjoyed and what there was had been overcooked. An overly heavy hand on the grill was also noticeable on the octopus with stewed red peppers and the pork ribs. Overall, there was a lack of freshness about the food.
The arrival of customers on either side led to a certain amount of table shifting to accommodate them. But it was when I got up to go downstairs to the lavatory and cracked my head on the light above our table that I felt, quite painfully, customer care needs to be improved significantly (and I was not the only one of our party to have such an encounter).
My return heralded several dishes of better quality, notably a generous serving of broad bean and mint fritters, their trademark miniature Basque beefburger with chorizo ketchup and two excellent desserts, a clementine and almond cake and a brown-butter panna cotta with Malaga ice cream.
Their GM, and at the time of writing the position had not yet been filled, arrives with a full in-tray.
60 Berwick Street, London W1F 8SU; tel +44 (0)20 7439 8057
The photo above is taken from the Ember Yard website.