All brawn, no brains

Time was, restaurant-naming was an easy task. You could either go aspirationally foreign (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, for instance), trendily offbeat (Maze, Sketch), pleasingly English (St John’s) or egotistically celebrity (Gordon Ramsay’s The Savoy, Hix). What we don’t understand is when restaurant-naming turned to unpleasant reminders of what you’re about to eat.

The Fat Duck is one such example. Brawn is a better one. Whose idea was it to name a restaurant after a dish that involves boiling a pig’s head and setting it in its own jelly? At what point did brawn become an acceptable name, but that alternative name for jellied pig’s head — i.e., head cheese — didn’t? We can see why that may not have been an appealing name: “I fancy dinner out tonight, love.” “Me too. How about we go to Head Cheese?” And for the same reason, neither is Brawn.

And now you can see why it's not a suitable name for a restaurant.

Nomenclature aside, though, Brawn is a relatively new (opened in late 2010) restaurant on Columbia Road (the building used to be the Flea Pit, the slightly more, erm, down-to-earth bar). It’s run by the same team as Terroirs in Charing Cross (no, us neither; we never leave Hackney), as those West Londoners slowly come to realise there is more to the East than asymmetrical haircuts and hooded looters.

This may be why the decor at Brawn looks as if someone pulled out the East London cut-out-and-keep restaurant/bar design template and went to town with it. Whitewashed brick walls, factory-style, multiple-paned windows, a mixture of simple wooden tables and chairs. The menu, too, has latched on to the contemporary trend to confuse readers with untraditional categorisations of dishes: Taste Tickler, Pig, Cold and Hot. Just tell us which one’s a bloomin’ starter!

Haven't I seen this before? Oh yeah, that's right, in every other high-end restaurant opened in the east end over the past decade.

But we complain too much. Though vaguely advertised, the food was excellent (or excellente in the French, which seems more apposite for this restaurant). The charcuterie, comprising a firm terrine, full-flavoured rillette and saucisson, was delicious, the terrine lightly spiced and incredibly moreish. And the bone marrow and bacon on field mushrooms was a rich heart attack on a plate, with the reactions around the table even managing to convince our sole, brave vegetarian to try it (albeit with little success. Note to vegetarians: if planning on breaking a decade-long pact against meat eating, perhaps start simply, with a plain bacon sandwich, rather than with lashings of internal bone scrapings).

A dollop of rillette and a slab of terrine. We're pretty sure those cornichons will get us at least two of our five a day as well.

If the clams did not live up to the kapow of the carnivorous, the main courses were even better than the starters. Pig’s trotter may not be for the faint-hearted, what with it just being a gelatinous mass of meatiness, and wasn’t universally popular, but it demonstrated a commitment to nose-to-tail eating that Brawn advertised and it was served with a piquant sauce gibriche that complemented the smooth trotter. The pork belly was well cooked and served with a decent helping of tasty beans, but perhaps the stand-out winner for offal fans was the boudin noir (black pudding to us and you), which melted in the mouth and made the diner feel both deeply satisfied and a little wrong in the consumption of melty pig blood.

Clams: definitely not as good as pig's blood, stomach and trotter.

After such a gluttonous meatfest, the dessert was almost incidental, particuarly the roasted peach, although the chocolate ganache pleased us with its well-accompanied meringue and hazelnut cream. And to be honest, we were so excited by the flesh we forgot to remember what wine we were drinking.

So, don’t let the decor, menu, offal or thoughts of head cheese put you off. Brawn is a meaty odyssey. It may not have the negronis of St John’s (with whom they seem to share an eerily similar logo), but arguably the food rivals it. (It’s more reasonable too.) And they source their bread from the E5 bakehouse!

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