Any time you get to wield a jackhammer to demolish a kitchen to rebuild your own dream restaurant, there’s going to be blood, sweat, and tears.
And there was sweat, for sure, as the chefs learned to master the heat of smoldering oak and ash logs that fuel the $30,000 new hearth at Ember & Ash, where virtually every menu item, from the octopus to the smoky egg white froth that drifts over the whiskey sour like a campfire cloud, is touched by flame.
But now that Ember & Ash is in its seventh month, the blood is flowing, too. Literally. A gallon of pig’s blood courses though this kitchen each week. It’s destined for the ebony links of pork blood sausage that arc through the coconut richness of a Thai shrimp curry across from crunchy croutons made of jasmine rice. But it’s also key to the frozen dessert cups of dark chocolate gelato, thickened with blood instead of eggs, that are tinged with orange zest and Calabrian chile spice just like co-chef Dave Feola’s grandmother, Faustina Feola, used to do when she whipped up her Southern Italian pudding of sanguinaccio dolce.
The late “Stina” has been an inspiration over the years to Feola, 39, as he plotted his someday project of an offal-themed restaurant. The wild snails she once harvested on vacation in California — then brought in a shoebox home to New York for dinner, to be stewed in red sauce with tripe — stuck with him as he worked his way through culinary stops in Manhattan at Mesa Grill and then Jean-Georges, where he’d meet his future business partner and co-chef, Scott Calhoun, 36.
The two have since honed their skills in some of the most significant live-fire kitchens in Philly — at Vernick Food & Drink for Feola; at Osteria and Lo Spiedo for Calhoun. So when the opportunity arose in early 2020 to take over the former Brigantessa on East Passyunk Avenue, a wood-fueled hearth was a natural choice to anchor their modern homage to the rustic art of offcut cooking, where no organ is left behind.
The crisp fries I devoured at the bar along with refreshing sips of mix-master Kristian Fidrych’s “Woodermelon spritz”? They’re made from slices of lamb tongue so tender they have a melt-away quality inside their crunchy exteriors reminiscent of a potato fry, but also a barnyard echo that sings when dunked into tart rhubarb ketchup. ”They’re a big seller!” says general manager Gianna Spatoulas, 34, also a co-owner. I’m not surprised. They’re delicious.
The surf and turf? I could imagine this being General Tso’s chicken in another context. It is, in fact, a deep-fried tumble of sweetbreads and skate cheeks whose cloudlike chunks have nearly indistinguishable textures that are equally irresistible in tangy fish sauce caramel laced with pickled red onions.
“These guys are good, aren’t they? Better than I was,” kvelled E&A superfan David Ansill, the former chef-owner of Pif and Ansill, who, following his meal at the bar, came to the upstairs dining room to greet a friend at my table.
You can’t get higher praise — if you’re in with the innards crowd — than a compliment from Ansill, the onetime offal prince of Philly chefs, who never met a trotter, brain, or melty morsel of marrow he couldn’t transform into delectable bite at his restaurants in the early 2000s. They were before their time.
Philadelphians now are more receptive to, say, a silky tartare of ground lamb hearts dressed with preserved lemon oil infused with a smoldering log, topped with the spicy-sweet crunch of candied and smoked mustard crystals, green garbanzos and a glossy egg yolk sauce.
But the risk in launching such a daring restaurant in the midst of a pandemic can’t be overstated. This trio spent the first several months of 2020 doing major renovations to freshen-up the bi-level space (which included demolishing Brigantessa’s live-fire hearth to replace it with their own). They fermented their own koji and miso; stashed vegetable ash from incinerated tuber trimmings. And while their opening date was continuously delayed, they took purveyor field trips to the Asian citrus greenhouses of Bhumi Growers in Florence, N.J., and the terraced fish ponds of Green-Walk Trout Hatchery in the Lehigh Valley.
But the subtler impacts of their work and these prime ingredients did not always translate especially well early on to the limitations of a takeout box, like one I opened in early March to find a random pile of sliced pork Kan Kan, whose crispy edges were softening in the steam and simply didn’t convey the wow-value of a $75 splurge. The ember-baked apple galette, on the other hand, was a spring orchard dream of coal-charred Winesaps and Northern Spies from Green Meadow Farms wrapped in biscuit dough with smoked mascarpone mousse.
Now that its sunny corner space has finally been reopened fully to indoor dining, and this food can be appreciated as it was conceived, my perspective on Ember & Ash has become far more rosy.
If you’ve had your fill of home-cooked chicken Parm comforts over the last year, Ember & Ash is the place to find some legit culinary horsepower creating ever-evolving flavors you won’t find anywhere else, from the tangy crunch of beef tendon chicharrones with Tajín aioli to creamy pigskin rillettes alongside charred spring vegetables.
That creative ethos extends to the bar, too, where Fidrych, who met Spatoulas when he was head bartender at Giuseppe & Sons, has put admirable effort into a series of nonalcoholic drinks. The hay-smoked celery juice for his gingered sorrel #Phresh and his zero proof Campari steeped from citrus and roots for a virgin Negroni, deliver as much intrigue as their full-octane counterparts. The Korean riff on a margarita, made from barley tea blushed with gochujang and mandarin puree, was another unspiked winner.
Calhoun, who sometimes views himself as a practical buffer to Feola’s spare parts fervor, insisted they broaden their “root-to-snout” concept to encompass the whole ecosystem of plants, poultry, and seafood, to appeal to a wider audience.
And so yes, there is a roast chicken, though it, too, gets Ember & Ash-ified with a kombu-lemon brine, and smoky Utica greens braised with house bacon. The whole trout from Green-Walk is a straightforward tribute to a perfect Pennsylvania fish, butterflied before it’s kissed by char, then served with trout roe and a dashi gribiche made from the salted, smoked fish trimmings.
The massive beef shin, meanwhile, is a party magnet in its own right, a 7-pound hunk of beef leg before it’s slow-braised with cane vinegar, Asian pears, and lemongrass, that arrives encrusted in fragrant green curry paste beside a cushion of fresh butter lettuce leaves to wrap plumes of the tender meat into ssam-style bundles along with pickles and chilies.
This isn’t technically “whole”-animal cooking, since there’s not a steak to be seen, though Calhoun says one day they hope to bring whole beasts through the kitchen door.
Even so, some of the most memorable bites here were dishes a vegetarian could love, too. I’m still dreaming of the wood-grilled bamboo hearts whose multichambered interiors, for a fleeting late-spring moment, made thimble-sized cups for squirts of housemade shoyu and cranberry hoisin over a sweet dark smear of pureed apples that had been fermented like black garlic. There were roasted carrots with asparagus and peanut pesto. There was charred broccoli rabe whose smoke was amplified by a boquerones vinaigrette. A trio of radishes — plancha-seared, pickled, and raw — showcased a triptych of the root’s dynamic personalities alongside butter whipped with ash and goat miso.
Most of the desserts played on seasonal fruits, fire, or both, like the wood-roasted strawberry shortcake with coal-steeped whipped cream and a Basque cheesecake with a brûléed crust and fermented berries.
But no finale garnered more attention than the unforgettable pairing of chocolate and blood, whether churned to gelato from the restaurant’s recipe by Janine Bruno of Homemade by Bruno, or turned on earlier menus into a pudding that, by the fourth curious bite, I decided was so good I could no longer resist. Next up, after this crew comes back July 14 from its brief summer vacation? A blood-and-chocolate cannoli shell will be stuffed with ricotta and chocolate chips.
I’ll demolish it like the cannoli-crushing machine I am, and surely, there’ll be no tears.
Ember & Ash
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1520 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, 267-606-6775; emberandashphilly.com.
Hours: Dinner Sunday and Wednesday through Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Drag brunch the third Sunday of every month.
Plates, $10-$18; sharing dishes, $28-$78.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends.
There is a full bar with creative, seasonally focused cocktails, including several worthwhile nonalcoholic options. There are eight wines by the glass on draft featuring sustainable Italian selections, and 20 bottles focused on natural Euro wines, including a Xinmavro (perfect for the beef shin) and an Ostatu Rosato Rioja that is a fine, flexible match for the menu.