Brawn, 49 Columbia Road, London E2
Saturday 22 January 2011
Remember the fuss that London foodies and critics made about Terroirs when it opened just off the Strand in 2008. Everyone loved its wine-bar vibe, its groovy "sharing plates", and its indescribably smelly vacherin mont d'or, which ponged out the basement. Well, the owners have moved on. Brawn is a high-concept, low-overheads place in Columbia Road, home of the flower market, and is currently the trendiest eating-house in town.
Inhabiting the space vacated by a bar-cum-screening-room called The Flea Pit, it occupies two rooms with whitewashed brickwork and a décor of rough-hewn earthiness. Walk in and you could imagine you're in an upmarket caff, but with posh bar stools and wine glasses on the plain tables. There's a contrived ordinariness about the operation, a murmur of, "You're in the East End now, matey – we don't give ourselves airs".
The menu, however, needs a translator. Not just because the early dishes are in opaque French ("Ventreche Noir de Bigorre", "Jesus du Pays Basque", "Finocchiona Cinta Senese" – it turned out they were three types of charcuterie) but because starters and main courses are arrayed higgledy-piggledy under headings. You can choose from "Taste Ticklers" (oysters and lumps of parmesan), from "Pig" (pork sausage, salami, rillette, terrine and ham), "Plancha" (cooked shellfish, fish and game), "Raw" (beef and salad), "Slow Cook" and "Pudding and Cheese". If you're looking for soup, it's halfway down. If you're after a main course, you'll find some if you look hard enough, identifiable by price (they cost more than £10). The idea, you see, is to "graze", to order by impulse and to divide your medium-size helpings with your date, partner or friends.
Workmates told me, glowing with pride, that they'd "eaten everything on the menu" by the time they and their zany chums had finished grazing and sharing. I'm old-fashioned about the "sharing plate" concept. I like to know I'm getting a starter-sized starter and a main-sized main. I'm a dog in the salle à manger when it comes to offering neighbours half of what I ordered.
Reasoning that, in a restaurant whose logo is a bottle-shaped pig, I should try a pig dish, I chose the aforementioned Finocchiona. Imagine a large, semi-soft, porky saucisse whose contents you spoon into your mouth. It was fine at first; then I felt I was eating a large helping of sausagemeat dotted with lardons, and couldn't continue.
I fancied moving on to the Shetland mussels, but Oliver, the maître d' (and co-owner), recommended the hand-chopped Tuscan-style beef. Tuscan-style beef in my experience means tagliata di manzo, or sliced rare steak. The Brawn version was red, about the size of a wallet and tasted very raw. It seemed untouched by anything you'd find on a steak tartare: egg, capers, onions. The waiter confirmed that it comprised, in its complex entirety, beef, olive and salt. So now I'd eaten, single-handedly, a serious helping of pure pork and a sharing-plate of raw beef. My main course of duck confit with lentils was still to come. Would I explode?
Angie, meanwhile, had worked her way through some Dorset clams and manzanilla. The clams were hot and buttery and slivers of garlic crammed every shell. When they were all empty, she tried the remaining liquid. It was concentrated garlic soup in buttery oil, with little trace of sherry or stock. "You wouldn't want to dip your bread in it," she observed. Eschewing the only ladylike main course – Icelandic cod with chickpeas and Romesco sauce – she ordered Mongetes, which is a kind of cassoulet, and instantly regretted it. It was a dead-butch bowl of greasy sausage, beans and bacon, the kind of dinner you might enjoy with other cowpokes around the campfire in Blazing Saddles. When she asked to change it for some fish, the waiters rushed to accommodate her – and the replacement cod was a treat, softly flaking, with a sauce of spring onion and tiny chickpeas. My duck confit with lentils and spring onions was fabulously hearty.
Things were fine by the end, as we shared a delicious vanilla pannacotta. The trouble was, we were stuffed to the gills. Like Mr Greedy in the Roger Hargreaves book, we left the giant's table feeling fat and very unhappy. The wedges of charcuterie, the helpings-for-two that you end up eating solo, the procession of raw-meat-after-raw-meat, the blizzard of pulses, beans, lentils (and sprouts) guaranteed to make you fart like a wizard, the strange incoherence of the menu – it made for an uncomfortable, muscle-bound eating experience.
And in a restaurant called Brawn, the least they could do is serve brawn. They don't. I once went to a West End musical called Jailhouse Rock, a show which featured all Elvis's best-known songs, except one. You've guessed it. It was a perfectly OK evening, but left you wondering if – as with Brawn – some odd decisions had been made at the planning stage.
Brawn, 49 Columbia Road, London E2 (020-7729 5692)
About £70 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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