The small plates thing is now firmly entrenched in London’s restaurants. Sometimes it is bad – the Barbican’s recently opened Lounge is an exercise in gouging hackery – but generally I am a fan. It encourages variety, greed and debate – all integral parts of a meal. It is like going out for Vietnamese or Japanese but actually having some control over the service and pace of the meal. The main criticism levelled at such menus is that they are an opportunity for price misdirection whereby your bill magically and stealthily adds up to a scary total (we might call this the Tapas Contention). So with that in mind I will now explain why the £45 pound a head I paid at Brawn on Monday was a good deal.
Brawn is at the end of Columbia Road, an interesting choice for the second restaurant from the team behind Covent Garden’s Terroirs. Six days a week this is a quiet road on the wrong side of Hackney Road (ie in Tower Hamlets), on Sunday it is an extremely popular flower market. It has lots of cafes and a decent pub but a restaurant like Brawn appearing here shows that Shoreditch is pushing ever outwards.
It was foul day on Monday and me and my mum ducked into the restaurant thirty minutes early to avoid the rain. There was no problem with this because, at half six, we were the only customers. We remained the only customers until quarter past seven. Usually this would be a warning sign but the place filled up steadily from there and only really hit its stride as we were leaving. It seems that on Columbia Road people are living the Continental dream.
It is a corner site, relatively big but split in half by a slightly odd footprint. There is lots of white wood and, even a dreich evening, it managed to be both airy and cosy (in the good way, not as a euphemism for drafty and cramped). The owners describe Brawn as a “winebar” which seems a bit disingenuous as I expect everyone else would describe it as a French restaurant but they do have a lot of wine. They specialise in natural wine and this accounts for a good chunk of that £45 a head. I was buttonholed immediately on sitting down about what I wanted to drink. What I wanted was a chance to relax and the wine list, presumably what he wanted was to dispense some advice. Instead, what he got was me ordering a glass of house white so he would go away. N arrived later and was sensible enough to shoo the sommelier away until she had a chance to catch her breathe. She ordered an elderflower aperitif and when it arrived we wondered if the order had been misheard since it was such a dark, tawny colour. But no, this was fragrantly elder despite its darkness. Similar alchemy occurred with the bottle of Roussillon we ordered for the actual meal. When I was looking up Brawn on the internet in order to whet my appetite I saw one review that described natural wine as having a propensity to taste like flat cider. There was definitely a very strong initial taste of apple to the Roussillon but this gave way to greater complexity and notes of cherry and raspberry; unusual, unexpected but very alluring. Lovely glassware too (although not a patch on their absolutely beautiful knives).
Booze ordered and the menu requiring debate we ordered what I as good middle-class boy would call them nibbles but which Brawn rather unappetisingly describe as Taste Ticklers. These were pork scratchings (£2.50) and anchoiade with fennel and breakfast radishes (£3), both of which were substantial portions. Considering that you can pay a similar price for a bit of bread and a small bowl of olives in a lot of London pubs these days, I think this represents good value for money. In fact the dozen wands of pigback probably work out cheaper gram for gram than the rancid packets of pork scratchings you sometimes get from behind the bar. The pork scratchings were well-balanced (crunchy but not dangerous, fatty but not too fatty, salty but, well, no, just salty) and the anchovy mayonnaise and vegetables was what it sounds like (a fancy, punchy version of chips and dips).
Demolishing these gave us a chance to agree on the next course. With a name like Brawn you would expect it to be piggy and it is; a whole section of the menu – which, of course, is not divided into starters and mains – is simply entitled ‘Pig’. Our lovely waitress suggested some charcuterie which would have been traditional but since N doesn’t eat meat and my mum doesn’t like most cured meats (!) we politely declined. I wasn’t going to turn my back on pork entirely though and ordered the rillette. We went for three more starter-sized seafood dishes between the three of us and stopped there because, very helpfully, we were allowed to order in multiple stages to ensure we didn’t have eyes bigger than our bellies.
The rillette (£7) came as two mounds (on the now de rigueur wooden plank, natch). If you’d added a sprig or two of rocket to just one of these mounds, it would probably easily have sufficed as a starter. The excellent bread from e5 bakehouse up the road in London’s trendy London Fields was generously doled out and replenished without asking. Potted brown shrimp on toast (£8) was unexpectedly warm and hence not potted at all but swimming in a lake of butter and paprika. This is definitely a French restaurant so be prepared to consume a lot of butter. Clams (£8 – not on the menu despite it being written daily) were similarly drowned in butter as well as chilli, garlic and coriander. Brawn is not a place of half measures, everything is big and bold. Finally, was butterflied sardines with spiced aubergine (£6) which despite being the cheapest dish was frankly the size of a main. In fact, N decided to treat it as such and kept it for herself.
This left me and my mum free to peruse the meaty options. I was briefly taken by the idea of vitello tonnato, rare veal served cold with tuna sauce, but decided I wasn’t quite adventurous/mental enough. Instead, we decided to split two fowl dishes. The pot roast quail (£10) came first and was the one minor disappointment of the meal, the glorious smell of the pea and bacon broth when the lid of the pot was lifted was not matched by the depth of its flavour and I would describe the bird more as poached than roast with the flesh subtle to the point of being anaemic. It was enough to finish my mum off though. This meant I had to step up to the plate and consume the Duck Magret with sarladaise potatoes (£15) on my own. This was a return to the perfect seasoning that had been on display through out the meal. The duck was on the verge of being too salty but wasn’t quite, the potatoes were on the verge of being too garlic; it walked the razor’s edge and it won. It was served with moist girolles that had soaked up all sorts of goodness and would have been perfection if only a few of them hadn’t been washed properly.
We also managed to persuade N to try a scallop Provencal (£5). Not usually one to need prodding, she was worried about the price but eventually succumbed. She promptly declared it the best she had ever had. Emboldened, she was the only one order a dessert: chocolate mousse (£5). That finished all of us off. Well, I say that but N and mum managed a couple of digestifs as interesting and unorthodox – green walnut! – as the aperitif. So I make that £64.50 or £21.50 a head for food on its own (and we probably ordered a bit too much). You are going to find it hard to eat better than that for that price in London. Awesome.