It's the run-up to Christmas, you're rushed off your feet and nursing a hangover. Sound familiar? It does to the waiter at Brawn, the hip and happening new restaurant on London's Columbia Road. "It was a bit of a big night last night... We're all feeling a bit tired," is his quip when I ask how things are going. In his case, and his defence, it's professional big nights that have caused his weariness – the place has been packed since its soft opening – and it doesn't show too much during our visit. We bond over what might restore us weary shoppers from the menu.
Columbia Road is a curious location. On Sundays it is the frantic home to a flower market that sees east-London trendies and domestic goddesses gathering up blooms and potted greenery. On non-market days it's a bit of a wasteland. But Brawn might be about to change all that. It's on a corner site bang in the middle of everything, in a high-ceiling, white-painted brick, airy pair of rooms separated by a narrow corridor. We sit at plain-wood tables; there's groovy artwork on the walls and some vintage bus ephemera lying around. So far, so east London. But the cutlery and glassware are refined and expensive – the first sign that this is no fly-by-night eaterie put together by guys who fancied running their own place "near Shoreditch House, yeah?"
The next indication is the menu, packed full of produce whose provenance is given prominent billing – which is either showing off or useful for foodies, depending what it tastes like. So-so cuts of meat and lacklustre crustacea should keep quiet about their home towns.
Brawn comes from the same stable as the much lauded Terroirs in Charing Cross – a relaxed venue that presents a kind of French tapas sharing-plate thing, very au courant. So although we're weary and hungry, we're primed to put the menu to a vigorous test. The result is that the four of us make it through 14 dishes. Spoiler alert: it cost us £130, which I think represents pretty good value for money. We also had a bottle of delicious French red, but our laid-back waiter forgot to put it on the bill. I'll have to 'fess up when I go back.
So – deep breath – we eat Maldon oysters and salame da Spalmare from the "Taste Tickler" section; Jesus du Pays Basque ham – the thinly sliced meat deliciously chewy and strewn with peppercorns, just as it should be – from "Pig". The "Raw" choice: a ball of buffalo mozzarella with lemon and anchovy, soft and yielding. From "Plancha", some Cornish squid with chilli and gremolata (chewy yet soft, delightfully piquant), and Dorset Palourde clams and manzanilla. The sauce of this last dish is so buttery and gorgeous that we call for more of the locally made sourdough bread to mop up every last drip.
...And that was just the starters. The wooden boards are cleared away and on come the mains. The Brawn staff, by the way, show no sign of bemusement at our ordering frenzy. Mind you, they're handsome young men who look as if they'd woo you with sparkling fresh shellfish and velvety olive oil rather than scratchy lingerie. Did I say that out loud?
Ahem, mains: Mr P's red mullet and chanterelles is a symphony of flavour and texture that soothes, while caillette de Daniel Thierry with carrots and potatoes is a faggot that's pungent and earthy – not entirely my dish of the day, but Mr M loves the meaty melange. I eat something just as carnivorous but in a different league, in my opinion: braised venison with soft polenta and chestnuts is pretty, powerful and like being wrapped in a warm cashmere blanket. My other guest, Miss T, having dived into everyone else's food with gusto, is delighted to have a restful bowl of abruzzo bean soup with a glug of that exemplary Valentini oil on top.
With an afternoon of present-buying and tree-trimming ahead, we need the sugar rush that pudding delivers, so we share lemon tart, chocolate mousse and floating islands. The mousse manages to be both devillishy rich and feather-light; the meringuey, fruity, creamy pud unctuous and moreish. I have a wedge of Saint-Nectaire cheese which is utterly à point.
If this sounds gushing, it's meant to. Food of this quality at this price is rare indeed. I hope there's enough buzz to draw diners all through the week (hell, if I didn't live and work on the opposite side of London I'd be there every other day). Brawn is the result of brains and beauty (and I don't mean the pig's).
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Brawn 49 Columbia Road, London E2, tel: 020 7729 5692
Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat (with cheese and charcuterie, 3pm-6pm). Sun, 12pm-6pm (cheese and charcuterie till 11pm). About £60 for two, including wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.com
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