When it comes to eating out in London, I don’t really know where to start. I like to think I’ve got my finger on the pulse (ish) with places in the Midlands, but in the big smoke there is literally so much going on, so many openings, so many places, so many classics, that it’s hard to know where to start.
Of course, that’s why you tap up your mates for suggestions. Hence how I ended up checking out Brawn in Hackney on a school night a few weeks ago. It’s one of those ‘neighbourhood restaurants’ that London seems to do so well.
Maybe the phrase is a bit hackneyed now (no pun intended) but I do think it does what it says on the tin, especially for people who assume that London is full of shiny chain restaurants packed with tourists. Yes, there are plenty of those, especially in the areas frequented by tourists, but once you get into the areas that people call home, complete with their own feel of a self-contained small town, that’s when you find that round every corner is an amazing independent restaurant or bar offering every different type of cuisine imagineable.
Brawn is one of these. On a Monday night it’s packed with everyone from couples to colleagues and friends to families. One look at the menu and I can see why. It describes itself as offering a Mediterranean small plates menu with an ‘all things pork’ section. What is there not to like? The opportunity to order far too many dishes under the auspices of sharing, plus the showcasing of what I think is an often-underrated meat.
The decor, atmosphere and service is laid-back but slick. Our waitress knows the menu inside and out and can talk us through each dish faultlessly without pause. Some of the dishes contain elements I need to google, but for me that’s even more exciting than seeing the same things I’ve seen in countless other places. As with all the best menus, it’s impossible to narrow it down to the right amount of food (whatever that is) so we triple-jump straight past acceptable into full-bore gluttony.
We start with anchovies with Sicilian lemon, mint and chilli. And from that dish alone I know why we’re here. My friend tells me a story about how the owner had these very anchovies on their travels and declared they were so good they had to be served in the restaurant. I haven’t fact-checked that story. I don’t want to, because I want it to be true.
We order bread with a top quality olive oil, complete with the grassy notes and pepperiness that comes with a top-notch product. Parmesan fritters are a delight and even more of that taste of holiday.
I have an official disorder that means I’m unable to resist burrata in any form, on any menu, so we go for it served with spring onions, salmoriglio – a Southern Italian condiment that mixes lemon juice with olive oil, garlic, oregano and seasoning, and fried breadcrumbs to add crunch. Like the anchovies, it’s the taste of Med right there on your plate, full of quality ingredients that don’t need much doing to them apart from being given a spotlight and the chance to sing.
Green asparagus with tardivo (raddichio), almonds and herbs is another fresh tasting treat that somehow combines an English staple with a Mediterranean feel. Again, the use of textures is well thought out and adds another dimension to what is, in essence, simple flavours that haven’t been messed with too much.
Lamb sweetbreads are all my idea and one of my favourite dishes of the night. Cooked to perfection – crispy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth inside, they’re with peppery lamb’s lettuce and a romesco sauce that is sweet and piquant and as vibrant in flavour as it is in colour.
We umm’d and aah’d about having lamb but opted for pork chop served with sprouting broccoli, Cornish mids done in a hasselback style and anchoiade, a classic Provencal dip made from anchovies, olive oil, white wine vinegar and garlic. This is more of a main course sized portion and is definitely hefty. The pork is full of flavour and succulent, and the anchoiade a salty, savoury punch, but it’s the buttery-tasting Cornish mids that make it for me.
We wash it all down with natural wine – my first go and something the jury’s still out on for me – but if you try stuff for the first time anywhere, Brawn is the place to do it. Its relaxing vibe makes it the place to embrace new stuff without fear of reprisal or regret.
As we left the place was still heaving, the open kitchen bustling, and the wine still flowing. Brawn is that kinda place – where the focus is on simple pleasures. Simple ingredients, executed well; relaxed surroundings, somehow simultaneously cool yet comfortable; and service that is on point without being stuffy. It’s winner. No doubt this is why it comes highly recommended.
And that, lovely readers, is why the best recommendations don’t necessarily come through Trip Advisor or awards, where agenda often trumps honesty, but through good old word of mouth and advice from a friend. Because all they want is for you to have a good time and ultimately, that’s what matters.
We paid in full at Brawn. They didn’t know I was a blogger.