Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Brawn, Columbia Road
I wasn't the biggest fan of Terroirs, in Covent Garden. Most of the food I ate, while perfectly fine, was slightly on the safe side (terrines, saucisson, polenta, snore), and the experience of sitting at a wobbly table in that huge, noisy subterranean room was quite uncomfortable. Perhaps if I was a fan of natural wines I would have been able to get more out of it, but I could no more get excited about a well-chosen wine list as I could about the brand of soap used in the loos, and so even a very nice bottle of natural Vouvray wasn't enough to tip the balance. What bothered me more than my mediocre meal, though, was that so many other people really liked it. Raved about the place - friends, critics, and bloggers united in universal and lavish praise about the wine list, sure, but also the Cantabrian anchovies and the duck scratchings and the rum baba. At times I was almost tempted to give it another go, but months passed and other (better) restaurants came along and Terroirs was forgotten.
And so if it wasn't for the fact that Brawn, Terroirs' new sister restaurant, has opened a few steps away from a friend's flat in Hackney, I probably wouldn't be beating a path to their door, either. My hopes weren't high for another evening munching cold duck rillette and staring uselessly at an incomprehensible wine list, and being so close to Viet Grill and Due Sardi (top new authentic Italian takeaway, review coming soon) and Hawksmoor, the competition for our dinner dollar was fierce. But off we went anyway, more out of a sense of duty than anything else, and enjoyed a meal that, quite unexpectedly, turned out to be one of the highlights of the year.
Four plump rock oysters were served with a decent mignonette and presented nestled upright on a bed of sea salt to as not to lose any of the precious liquor. 2010 really has been the Year of the Oyster for me, and I've enjoyed everything from the flat, firm Colchester natives to the thick creamy rocks like these. You'd think shucking and serving an oyster wouldn't be the greatest test of a restaurant's skill but it's surprising how often you see sad, dry specimens that have lost too much of the juice inside, or alternatively crack your teeth on some shattered shell from inprecise opening. These were great.
Parma ham, while not up there with the best Spanish Iberico (and let's face it, what other foodstuff is) was still moreishly salty and porky and disappeared in a flash. Clearly a grade above the bland, wet variety you see in supermarkets, but then you'd hope so for £12 for 8 slices.
Of the starter size portions (in common with Terroirs, the menu is rather confusing, with no clear distinction between starters and mains, leaving you as a punter to guess portion size from the prices), Cornish squid, chilli & gremolata was very nicely done, the herby dressing subtly shot through with chilli and the flesh of the squid moist with crispy edges. Also not pictured is a thick, rich soup of blended puy lentils and sweet ham hock, which I only wish I could have taken home and keep overnight for the flavours to deepen slightly. Even so, pretty good.
Then the real fireworks began. This is something called Mongetes, apparently a kind of Catalan cassoulet containing white beans and sausage. It was absolutely brilliant - the sausage was top quality, loosely textured and meaty, the beans incredibly deeply flavoured, as comforting as a rich embrace, and they had even crunched up the top somehow - perhaps with toasted breadcrumbs - to provide a gorgeous extra layer to crack through to reach the mixture below. Almost perfect.
These three slices of juicy mushrooms were topped with bone marrow (if 2010 wasn't the year of the oyster, it may be the year of the bone marrow), garlic and parsley. Perfectly seasoned and bursting with earthy flavours, it was a combination I'd not seen before but worked brilliantly.
And then, as if all that wasn't enough, the standout dish in an evening full of standout dishes - Zander boudin in lobster sauce. Imagine an impossibly thin sausage casing filled with ethereally light and stunningly flavoured fish (a relative of the pike I believe) mousse, topped with herbs and chilli and surrounded by the greatest lobster bisque you've ever had in your life. I've never eaten anything like it before, although I believe it's a relatively common bistro dish in certain parts of the world (France), and I swore after mopping up the last remnants of the bisque with the (excellent) house bread that this definitely wouldn't be my last. Heavenly.
We were having so much fun, giggling with joy as each new dish appeared before us, that after the mains were gone we couldn't let the evening end and ordered dessert. Floating island was very well done, the blob of light meringue surrounded by a cool vanilla custard; what really made it though was a sprinkling of salty caramel, providing texture contrasts and bold seasoning.
Despite initial misgivings, and possibly admittedly partly due to low expectations, my meal last night was a joy from start to finish. Staff were friendly and professional, knowledgeable about the wines (just as well in my case) and enthusiastic about the food, and the room we ate in - towards the back, near the open kitchens - was whitewashed and funky in that Shoreditch warehouse way without being uncomfortable. Perhaps the slightly more rough and ready location has given the brains behind Brawn (excuse the pun) the freedom to serve the food they want to serve without fear of offending any Covent Garden day trippers, but I couldn't shake the feeling that rather than simply being Terroirs' "little sister", Brawn is already shaping up to be a much more mature and accomplished operation. I can't wait to go back, to work my way through the rest of the menu, have another fix of the mongetes and the boudin, and get slowly and naturally sozzled. It's a restaurant with everything going for it, and everything to recommend. Go now.