Table Talk

By Leigh Cort
The stretch of County Road 210 in St. Johns County may not be known historically as a dining destination but when Chef Mike Cooney and his wife Brittany opened Ember & Iron, the perception changed.

Within less than a year, this outpost has lured patrons from throughout the Southeast (not just Jacksonville) and its news is worth celebrating. Crowds of guests swarmed from the minute their door opened.

Whether you’ve dined there or not, a wonderful dinner experience awaits the moment you enter and hopefully spot Brittany personally welcoming guests or when she’s sliding in and out of the impeccable glass-enclosed chef’s kitchen.

Your first impression could be the “buzz” at the bar with a 12-inch-high showcase of fine spirits and wine that’s almost as enjoyable as the food. The Cooneys’ appetite for great bourbons, whiskeys, wines and curated liquors as well as fun signature-name cocktails are a grand introduction to the “rustic American fare.” It’s a wonderland of options!

Every great restaurant has a story.

“Get Lost in What You Love” is their theme, suggested by Brittany and embraced by Mike. Ember & Iron is like a fairytale between the young 14-year-old Mike Cooney whose teen years were intertwined with restaurant jobs from dishwasher to becoming executive chef at one of the most respected restaurants in Northeast Florida (Julington Fish Camp) at the age of 25.

Writing his seventh-grade paper about owning a restaurant was more prophetic than he could have imagined. Paired with his grandmother Doris owning a barbecue eatery in Southwest Georgia where Mike spent many memorable years, this gave him the insatiable determination to work diligently.

He flourished and become chef de cuisine at Medure, an iconic destination restaurant that defined his destiny at age 29.

While Mike was sharpening his skills (and knives), Brittany traveled to New York City to pursue her fashion-styling career. Destiny landed her in an apartment upstairs from a Soho bakery, which was down the street from a Michelin-starred restaurant (Junoon) where she gladly accepted the challenge of being part of their pastry team for a year.

Growing up in the Sorensen family (Firehouse Subs), her epic story was equally fortuitous for her return to Jacksonville to become Brittany Sorensen Cooney.

Her fondest memories of her father Chris began at age 3, watching her father and uncle Robin making subs. More than two decades later, her genuine caring for employees was nurtured by observing her father treating employees around the country like “gold.”

Brittany also had the desire to work alongside quality people, having mentors like her father and uncle, whose philosophy was strongly grounded in business practices of working together in unison. This is what guests feel when they dine at Ember & Iron.

Chef Mike’s menu takes its cue from the food being anything but ordinary. He prides himself on dishes that take time to comprise; they’re labor intensive and absolutely worth the wait and expectation. He’s “playing with fire” in more than one sense of the phrase. And while you might be sipping a beverage, it’s a delight to watch picturesque dishes coming from the kitchen. You know there is a memorable dinner under way.

Try honing in on one simple plate, a near-constant dish since opening. Chimichurri steak (rich hanger steak) with chimichurri sauce, crispy fried garlic-rosemary potatoes and ember-roasted peppers with green beans.

Fish fans will love the cornmeal-fried red fish surrounded by Logan Turnpike Mill Grits, creamy field peas with brown butter mushrooms and tomato jam. I dare you to leave anything for the take-home package!

Chef Mike’s unique interpretation of scallops this season features corn: seared scallops with sweet corn puree, chewy roasted fresh corn, crispy cubed corn bread, mustard greens and bacon lardon. This is not only fabulous in presentation, but the exciting flavors generously guarantee you won’t leave hungry.

Each dish on the menu can’t be the “star” but somehow this kitchen makes you forget anything else in conversation once you experience the grilled bone-in pork chop dancing in the center of field peas with brown butter mushrooms, Miso cream sherry and vinegar-braised mustard greens.

Yes, there are centuries-old dinner menu concepts; however, Chef Mike’s vast experience in award-winning chefs’ kitchens have inspired him to “wow” his fans with dishes that are so delightful you’ll need will power to stop so you have room for further pleasures.

Worthwhile starters are fresh oysters with sauce mignonette or cocktail sauce, blue crab hushpuppies with grilled lemon aioli, chorizo braised mussels with Dukes Brown Ale, smoked chorizo and caramelized fennel or the incredible spicy hearth-roasted cauliflower with kimchi sauce and sesame.

Ember & Iron certainly is a gem, offering a refined and elegant menu in a comfy family-friendly setting. Nothing stuffy here; the value of exquisite cuisine at affordable prices will hopefully have you returning time and again. I’ve enjoyed many evenings pairing side dishes including ember-roasted vegetables, ember-charred okra, five-cheese mac-n-cheese then quickly romancing a wildly satisfying dessert like Chef’s Seasonal Fruit Cobbler with brown sugar streusel and vanilla ice cream!

Just as guests have been getting settled in with Brittany’s favorite outdoor dining options or jumbo high top social tables that can seat a dozen or more for a lively dinner, there is news coming from the kitchen. Ember & Iron’s new baby “Gemma” is coming to the San Marco neighborhood. But that’s for another feature — along with the Cooneys’ secret surprises! Shhh …

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