Yes, Chef Harold Welch is from Barbados, and the menu at his just-opened Embermill features plenty of Caribbean fare, from fried plantains to a pepper pot of octopus, scallops, shrimp, and crab. But Welch has the whole world on his mind, too — there’s Korean gochujang sauce on the wings, for instance, as well as an Ethiopian chicken stew called doro wat to order.
In fact, the restaurant is opening a whole new world for Welch professionally. He still owns the Hummingbird Restaurant & Café in Solvang, which is rather hummingbird-sized and currently being revamped. By opening Embermill in the historic Copper Pot location on State Street, last occupied by Aldo’s, he’s pleased to have more room. However, Welch quickly admitted, “I’ve filled this space up already. I’ve got so much equipment at home I can’t even park my car in the garage.”
Home is key for Welch. That goes for basing his food in Barbados flavors — which are bright but not necessarily hot-spicy — and for bringing in his daughter, Monique Welch, a student at SBCC, as a manager to “whip everyone into shape.” Lamenting all of the chains downtown, she explained, “I feel we’re just what State Street needs: local, family-owned, unique.”
Healthful food is at the heart of Harold Welch’s cooking, especially since he was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 1992. In an effort to correct his diet, he’s lightened all his menus, removing excess sugar and fats. To this day, he teaches numerous cooking classes for patients with diabetes at the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, helping them learn how to cook healthy. In 2011, the Research Institute honored this valuable work by giving him its Volunteer of the Year award.
“Unique” is indeed key. “Doing Caribbean food is a draw itself,” said Monique. “There are so many pizza places on State Street.” Instead, come to Embermill for coconut catfish, Barbados ribs marinated in molasses and rum, crab and shrimp gumbo, and a tongue-in-cheek veggie Rastafarian eggplant tower featuring plantain, lentils, roasted zucchini, and hemp seeds.
The Welches hope to see Embermill as inviting to everyone, no matter their food preferences or health concerns. For the interior wine bar, according to Harold, “We’re working on two menus, one vegan and both all small bites, with pretty much everything coming out of the pizza oven — like Industrial Eats, but not really pizza.”
They hope business bustles all day, keyed by a brand-new espresso machine. “This town is a breakfast town, a coffee town,” said Harold, who looks to the institution of Republique in Los Angeles as an inspiration. “That place is amazing,” he said. “There’s no fluff — everything is straight up. That casualness. That’s where I want to take this.”
Welch certainly knows of the best, having worked back in the day at the San Ysidro Ranch and the late Citronelle (don’t we all miss Michel Richard?). While Republique occupies a building built by Charlie Chaplin that served as the longtime home of California cuisine pioneer Campanile, Embermill’s 1031 State Street address boasts history too. It’s the site of the Janssens-Orella Adobe, and the one remaining wall of that home was part of Manning’s Copper Coffee Pot, which opened in 1927.
“So many people coming in have said they once worked here or had eaten here back in the day,” Monique explained. “We want to have a book for people to write down their memories.” Added her dad, “The energy and the feel in here is pretty strong.”
1031 State St., 456-1212, embermillsb.com