In recent years, The City and London’s East End has seen a flowering of successful restaurants, some of which easily outclass those found further west. Columbia Road Hackney, famed for its Sunday flower market, is not the obvious location for a destination restaurant, but this is what Brawn has become. Since opening in the autumn of 2010, this unpretentious bistro serving small plates from a pan-European menu, has attracted an increasing number of serious foodies, including restaurateurs, chefs and critics. For Bruno Loubet, who was sitting at the next table when we visited, it is his favourite restaurant.
Housed in the ground floor of a former commercial building – its bars still across the windows – Brawn is identified by the long snouted pig logo above its Horatio Street entrance. Inside the two high ceilinged dining rooms, the bare bricked, white painted décor is relieved by the artwork of Michael Tolmer, who also designed the logo Bare, café like wooden tables and chairs emphasise the simple, no nonsense approach to eating: the focus will always be on the food.
And what food it is! Ed Wilson and Oli Barker, the same team who opened Terroirs in Charing Cross, have produced a more extensive menu at Brawn, creating a real embarrassment of choice. There are three Taste Ticklers, seven items each of Pig, Plancha, and Cold, five Slow Cook plates, with four Desserts and up to five cheeses. Despite the small plate label, portions are large enough for sharing, part of the joy of eating here; and although the menu changes daily, part of itsstrength lies in the boldly flavoured, hearty meat and offal dishes available all year round.
An indulgent lunch began with two Taste Ticklers. Soft boiled quails’ eggs were a rich but delicate, enlivened with celery salt. Pork scratchings was a severely understated description for the long strips of warm, crunchy crackling that were actually served.
Three of the seven items from the Pig section were ordered.
The dish which gives the restaurant its name is far denser and more substantial than other inferior versions. The pieces of tongue, cheek and snout tightly compacted with herbs and set in jelly, results in a stronger flavour and firmer texture. This robust terrine is offered as a generous slab which would make a meal in itself.
Two plump quenelles of pork rillettes contained a well judged balance of shredded meat and fat, and had an unctuously melting quality on the tongue.
Jesus de Pays Basque ham was one of three chacuterie items. This thinly sliced, dark red salami, sprinkled with peppercorns to cut its delicate sweetness, had a deliciously chewy texture. The richness of this porcine feast was offset by the acidity of cornichons and pickled baby onions. The ideal accompaniment was the excellent Hackney Wild Sourdough bread baked at the e5 Bakehouse.
Of the seafood items sampled, smoked Cornish sprats were accompanied by a fresh horseradish cream which brilliantly offset the salty oiliness of the fish. Dorset clams with chilli, ham and garlic benefitted from a delicious broth of natural juices, enriched with white wine and butter.
Salad items were simple but utterly fresh and well prepared. Soft chicken livers, cooked pink, came with delicately dressed artichokes and lamb’s lettuce. Wedges of baby gems were lifted by a Dijon mustard dressing. Best of all was a plate of sweet Cheltenham beetroot, sour pickled walnuts and refreshingly pungent watercress.
Brandade gratin, one of the five Slow Cook dishes, contained a pleasing balance of salt cod and creamy pureed potatoes, topped with a golden crust.
The piece de resistance was a dish of Pigs trotters. The braised meat, fat and skin had been taken off the bone, finished in the frying pan, and shaped in a round mould. The rich, gelatinous qualities of this exquisite dish were countered by the sharpness of tarragon vinegar, shallots and capers in the accompanying sauce ravigote
Desserts are not in the same league as the savoury courses but well made and delicious nevertheless. Lemon tart had good pastry and a suitably astringent filling. Chocolate pots had smooth, velvety texture and a rich, bitter sweet flavour. A selection cheeses from Androuet in Spitafields were guaranteed to be in prime condition.
As for wine, both Brawn and Terroir pride themselves on their selection of natural wines, produced in sustainable, organic or biodynamic conditions. The list, arranged by style of wine rather than region includes “Stones, sea and shells”, “Clean lines” and “Jura and Guests” for white, and “Vins de Soif” and “Pinot Noir naturally” for reds. Given the range of dishes order, we left it to the manager to choose our wines. To begin, the sparkling pink wine from the Loire proved a refreshing aperitif. To follow, the 2008 Chardonnay, Cuvée Florine Ganevat, J-F Ganevat Jura and the 2009 Ploussard Uva Arbosiana, Domaine de la Tournelle red drank agreeably with the savoury courses.
Overall, it is clear why Brawn is thriving. The simple, relaxed ambience puts diners at their ease. The appealing menu of small dishes gives them an opportunity to “graze”, in order to appreciate the full range of the kitchen’s repertoire. Putting affordable, well cooked, honest food before discerning diners of all income groups is to be thoroughly applauded. Coupled with this is the responsibly sourced, highly agreeable wine list, with prices to match all pockets. Finally, the well informed, friendly and correctly paced service, reflecting the strengths of the front of house team, enhanced the overall experience.
The restaurant richly deserves the acclaim it has received and can look forward to even greater success in the future.