On a recent rainy Wednesday evening, I made the pilgrimage across town on the smooth moving East London line in search of Brawn. The arrival of this Columbia Road newcomer last November – sibling to small plates pioneer Terroirs in Charing Cross, was awaited with much anticipation by foodies and wine nuts alike.
Brawn is the English word used to describe the unloved (and largely uneaten) bits of a pig's head – tongue, cheeks, nose, which are boiled and pressed and wind up sharing terrine space with other piggy parts – trotters, offal. The American term for brawn is the euphemistic sounding 'head cheese'; words that don't move one to hunger. Brawn's brawn is Italian, served in a ravigote sauce. Usually an intrepid eater, I decided to steer clear.
Previous reviews have yet to touch on what a blink and you'll miss it venue Brawn is. Perched on an unassuming corner of Columbia Road, without even a sign to announce its presence, I marched straight past its St John inspired white walls, until, upon second inspection, I spotted my dining companion through the rain spattered window.
The aforementioned dining partner was Stuart Peskett of Square Meal fame: cue red carpet treatment from bread to bed. Hanging my sodden coat on a fire engine red stand, I surveyed my surroundings to a soundtrack of frantic jazz - pared down, industrial, canteen chic, with wooden red-topped tables and chairs that wouldn't look out of place in a primary school. Behind the sunflower filled bar are books dedicated to such culinary luminaries as Daniel Boulud. Speaking of culinary luminaries, shortly after my arrival, Charles Campion bounded through the door in all his Rubenesque glory. It seemed sweet and fitting, such a meaty man dining at, and presumably on brawn.
After Basque saucisse seche and parmesan chunks from the Taste Tickler section of the menu, our carnivorous feast began in earnest with ice cream scoop shaped pork rillettes sprinkled with paprika, served with gherkins on a wooden chopping board, which were rich, creamy and pleasingly porcine. While the chanterelles and warm duck egg yolk on toast and the chili prawns with gremolata both delighted, the hand chopped Tuscan beef disappointed. Served round and red with hunks of bread, it resembled a naked steak tartar, dressed only with a sprinkling of salt. I'm all for raw, but it was crying out for flavours outside of the meat sphere to break up the beefy monotony.
The main event however, didn't disappointed. While Mr Square Meal went for the popular duck confit with puy lentils, which was declared a success, I opted for the slightly more adventurous sounding Mongetes – a Catalan cassoulet containing pork belly, sausage and the large white beans after which the dish is named. Served in a rustic, round, brown dish, the ingredients were hidden under a film of crispy pork skin. Rich, wintry and warming, it doubled as central heating on this unapologetically cold January night.
The menu is playfully put together and changes daily. Some of the dishes require a French dictionary, others shout loudly of their provenance, from Dorset crab to Icelandic line caught cod. Pudding was an exciting affair. After Marina O'Loughlin described them as 'heaven', I had to experience the salted butter caramel crêpes. Heaven is an understatement. Slathered in gooey caramel with a heavy handed sprinkling of salt, the juxtaposition of sweet and savoury was exquisite.
You can't talk about Brawn without mentioning the wine. Backed by the team behind quirky French wine importers Les Caves de Pyrène, Brawn's evolving wine list is deliberately left field, made up of 150 natural and biodynamic bins from a range of regions. Sections are poetically named, allowing you to choose from ‘Stones, Shells & Sea’, or ‘Sunbaked, cicada-loud, ageless country of scrub and terraced hills'.
I tried a plethora of wines on my visit, highlights of which included a Sherry-like 2009 Anjou Chenin Blanc, a clean, precise Jura Chardonnay, and a fresh, minerally Syrah/Carignan blend from Pic Saint Loup in the Languedoc. Opening a bottle of natural wine is like playing Russian roulette, so high is the risk that it will be funky to the point of undrinkable. Co-owner Oli Barker told me the same wines change from day to day, depending on when they are opened, so seek out a biodynamic calendar, and save the detour to Brawn for a fruit day.
Brawn, 9 Columbia Road, London, E2 7RG , Tel: +44(0)20 7729 5692. A meal for two with wine, water and service costs about £80.