06 January 2011

n.d.p. in london: brawn, hackney

In Hackney, east London, there is a quite new restaurant called Brawn whose only flaws are derivative graphic design and a misleading name. It opened in December, the kid sister restaurant of a larger one called Terroirs near Charing Cross. It has a blatantly St. John-inspired logo that consists of a wine bottle drawn to look like a pig.
And "brawn" is the British term for testa, or head / face meat, none of which delectable substance was actually present on the menu. These criticisms, however, are roughly the equivalent of blinking during a meal, for me; something I do everywhere, involuntarily, and they in no way detract from the main achievement of this restaurant, the highlight of my recent London trip: it succeeds in presenting excellent natural wines simply and properly, not as though it were some kind of unnatural feat for them merely to be natural.

This would be commendable anywhere on earth. But it's astonishing in London, where titanic overdesigned restaurant groups are the norm, and natural wines are essentially nowhere to be found.

I went for lunch the day the restaurant reopened after Christmas with my excellent friends IR* and A, both of whom deserve thanks for venturing to some new pricey joint on the shaky recommendation of an out-of-towner.** And for not protesting when I insisted on splashing for a teensy gestural round of Maldon oysters.

(Despite my habitual mockery of England as a kind of culinary wasteland, I will go on record as preferring British oysters to French. I find them more profound. Or it might just be that I only have them on special occasions in England, whereas in Paris they are at least a weekly thing, you trip over them in the street, etc.)

Brawn is a small-plates, free-for-all kind of place that, thank Christ, doesn't seem to have used the word 'tapas' in any of their marketing as yet. I hear the word 'tapas' and I see beetley restauranteurs rubbing their hands with £-signs in their eyes. The pricing at Brawn is in fact very reasonable, considering what one receives. Glimmering duck egg and chanterelles on toast -

- or shining spicy ruby-red "Tuscan chopped beef," whose aforementioned vinegar-spice component actually justifies the Italian designation and in doing so avoids the deathly-dull word "tartare."  (Again, really admirable care taken to menu diction. If there were an awards show for this kind of thing Brawn would soar, let me tell you. It would be The English Patient.)

And, as I mentioned above, the rugged meatiness of Brawn's name and logo is in fact nothing but posturing. VEGETARIANS, YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR. NO NEED TO FILL UP ON CHIPS BEFORE DINNER. COME SPEND SOME MONEY. My friend IR is in fact a vegetarian, and she was pleased to note mid-meal that without even trying we had managed to order a 75% pescatarian meal.

With clams and oysters we had a round of Herederas de Argueso Manzanilla, almondy, bright, and tangy, but still kind of a knock-out punch at lunch, in retrospect. (Or I am just a wuss?) I capitulated to dining companions who preferred red afterwards, and spent an indulgently long span of time perusing the pages of the splendid wine list in search of something I could not very simply find much cheaper back in Paris. It did take a long time, splendidness aside. You have all the greats - Foillard, Overnoy, Lapierre, Binner, etc. - who are all way drastically better value back in France, before whatever import markup occurs when they pass through the hands of Les Caves de Pyrène, a Guildford (?!) wine shop / importer / co-owner in Brawn that is apparently the absolute vanguard of all natural wine in the UK. Hats off to them, anyway. It's the best list in London, by my standards.

In the end there was an unsulfured Etna Rosso called "Jeudi 15" from a producer I hadn't heard of, Vino di Anna. (I formerly specialized in Italian wines, and was particularly enamored with those from Etna and the Colli di Luni. This is why I am continually unable to resist trying new things from these regions.) Internet research has turned up next to nothing more about this mysterious Anna Martens character - but the wine was fine, fine stuff, exactly what I'd expected, actually. The primary grape of Etna Rosso, Nerello Mascalese, has a gleaming, singing kind of red fruit that in the best examples from the appellation is a convincing impression of Burgundy, only spicier and more animated. Think Chico Marx doing Marsannay.

* When I came up with this initial system I did not consider the potential for grammatical confusion presented by people whose names begin with the letter 'I.' So I'm using both my friend I's initials, at the expense of blog consistency and a wee bit of her anonymity. Sorry!

** Sort of. I kind of lived on the inner outskirts of London for short periods at two separate times in my life. As is probably evident from the amount of hedging qualifiers in that sentence, I don't consider myself native, not remotely. 

49 Columbia Road
London E2 7RG
Tube: Hoxton
Tel: +44 20 7729 5692

Related Links:

Serving Aligoté at Christmastime
N.D.P. in London: ECC Chinatown, Soho
N.D.P. in London: Pembury Tavern, Hackney
N.D.P. in London: Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly
Randomly encountering one of my favorite Etna Rossi at A La Ville d'Udine, 75011

A well-intentioned review of Brawn @ TheLondonFoodie, who kind of missed the point, if you ask me. (Describing Brawn's list as "mostly French" is like describing Renaissance art as "mostly Italian.")
A scrappy superficial review of Brawn @ Londonist (Author seemingly wowed by free bread.)
A more professional but no more wine-savvy review @ TheIndependent


  1. Anna Martens is the wife of Eric Narioo, founder of Les Caves de Pyrene. I think, tho wouldn't swear, that they own the grapes near Etna in Sicily.

    One would (naturally) suspect nepotism were it not for the fact that, as you say, the wine is really rather lovely. 2010 (in Bordeaux bottles) perhaps even better.

  2. yes ! eric himself actually wound up clueing me in on that, when i met him at quedubon in the 19eme a few months back. can't wait to taste the 2010.

  3. Well if you wind up in aul' London town anytime soon then get in touch and I shall negotiate a bottle your way. Failing that their third restaurant ('Soif') has just openened in Clapham. Very strongly recommended.

  4. many thanks ! been hearing about soif, definitely my first destination next time i'm in town.