Thursday, 21 April 2011

Brawn, Bethnal Green

Brawn, Bethnal Green, 49 Columbia Road, E2 7RG

I live under the illusion (or is it delusion) of being fashionable. I perpetuate this by drinking at the right bars, buying catwalk-influenced clothes and having a partner – the Northerner – who is downright on-trend, stylishly cool. Sadly there are many things about me that give it away. The fact that when I wear those aforementioned clothes I look more M&S then Brick Lane. The music I listen to ranges from middle of the road to naff. And perhaps most shamefully for a reviewer, I never, ever seem to get to a place when it’s at its media-frenzied peak. Fashionably late in other words.

Fortunately along with the Northerner I have a collection of cool friends including the Architect and
Betty Boo who drag me out of my City-based muddle to visit places that are highly desirable. And the other week, after a cheeky bottle of wine at Shoreditch House (see the namedropping I did there) we headed to Brawn - the enfant terrible of Terroirs in Charring Cross.

Brawn is located on the site of an old café which the Northerner thinks used to be a school, on Columbia Road – the weekend home to a flower market and east-London’s cool set. The Northerner is right about most things, and her logic is obvious with the school theme extending to the chairs, tables and windows, albeit with a designer twist and the staff, many of whom seem about GCSE age. But perhaps that shows how old we are getting. However they are charming, fashionable and chatty. Intrusively so opined the Northerner who took umbrage at one particular youngster who seemed to have an opinion on everything of which she was only too happy to share.

The clientele (calling them punters would do them a discredit) are a mix of East London hipsters and well-heeled foodies from across the capital here to check out the Next Big Thing. Some of the older Islington set seemed a little unsure as to what they had signed up for. And I ‘m not sure that the menu made them feel any more comfortable.

Brawn sets out its stall by describing its menu as being ‘cloudy reds, murky whites and loads of pig.’ We were warned by our dining companions that the Tête de Veau, or calf’s head, was exactly what is said on the box. We decided to pass on that little treat. As is the fashion nowadays we ordered separately but shared across the table. Starters included the King Prawns with chilli and Gremolata – fresh, zesty and divine; Shetland Mussels, Leeks & Bacon that were delightful; and Dorset Clams with Lemon & Coriander which were melt-in-your-mouth flavoursome.

Our mains included Choucroute, Montbeliard Sausage & Horseradish; the main component of which is a sausage made of pork (what else) smoked over sawdust. This is a dish that the Northerner said sounded more interesting then it actually was, and the final product was more frankfurter then chorizo. I tried the Boudin Noir (Black Pudding) which was soft in texture and nicely flavoured although it lacked a little bit of bite. A subtle rather then big flavoured dish. The Architect went for the Pigs Trotters which slightly disappointingly were presented terrine style, however according to him was sharply seasoned and crumble like on the tongue. Just how he likes it.

As with its mother restaurant, Brawn specialises in natural or biodynamic wines – they’re unfiltered which according to the chatty waitress enhances the flavour. I had a delightful 2009 Chardonnay, Domaine de l’Ocre Rouge which made me think that she might be onto something. However the bottles of 2009 Ventoux La Gérine, Domaine Ferme St Martin Rhône that we knocked back put pay to that idea. I know that we operate in a greener world and these wines are more environmentally friendly then traditionally produced drops, but I think there’s a reason that they are filtered. The texture rather then the flavour was enhanced. This gave the wine a smoked look, but to my and the Northerners palate, a taste that was well… off.

Brawn is outrageously popular right now and deservedly so as it’s perfectly packaged to meet the needs of London’s fashionable and food set. However sometimes it feels like its trying too hard when it really doesn’t need to. Being fashionable isn’t all its cracked up to be.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Barrio Central , Soho

Barrio is a Spanish word meaning district or neighbourhood. However in the US barrio is more commonly used to refer to lower-class areas with largely Spanish-speaking residents - the Latino equivalent of a "ghetto". Islington, which for those who don’t know it is North London’s answer to Clapham and is anything but a barrio. A once vibrant, multicultural and artistic areas in 80’s / early 90’s London, by the noughties Islington (and Clapham) had descended into MOR, Starbuck loving blandness.
Yet both areas still have sprinklings of bars, cafes and restaurants that speak of a once fashionable past before the bankers and estate agents took control. And one such bar is Barrio North in Islington which proved such a hit with the few locals who weren’t pushing prams or sipping Soy Chai Lattes (young people in other words) that the owners decided to head to the big city lights and open a Soho version - Barrio Central.
Barrio Central sets out to celebrate all things Latino. The venue itself is split over two levels – at street level is a tightly packed café / restaurant serving a mix Latin and Caribbean dishes. Meanwhile at basement level is the bar / club area which is long and narrow, and looks like it has been decorated by someone for a dare. By that I mean there are big lashing of colours and kitsch here, which they pass off as being bright Caribbean hues. And the shocking lime green fake rock wall (yes really), mix and matched brown tiles, white picket fence, carnival lights and Hispanic memorabilia give the place a pop-up feel to it. This is a good thing because Barrio Central is certainly festive.
This spirit flows through to the punters who are your mix of fashionistas, advertising / design / PR agency crews, with your music and film set thrown in for good measure. In other words, Soho’s creative’s who swarm to the Barrio to drink and be merry, and without too much persuasion, break out into dance. And the latter is easily achieved by a thumping and eclectic DJ / soundtrack which includes everything from old school Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, through to 90’s hip-hop via the Wu Tang Clan, and every other pop or dance genre in between.
The drinks menu which is designed as a very cool seven-inch single cover consists of a generous smattering of New World red and white wines (Argentinean, Chilean, American and Spanish) and some interesting lagers amongst the usual suspects – Palma Cristal from Cuba, Quilmes from Argentina, and Alhambra Negra from Spain. There is also a massive selection of cocktails although most punters prefer to stick to the classic mojitos and margaritas. They certainly tickled the Northerner’s fancy on the night we were there.
The staff are laidback and charming in that Soho way, while still managing to be super-efficient. You don’t wait too long for drinks and the team all multi-task and manage their space effortlessly. I know it seems funny to compliment a bar for something which should come as standard, but take it from this barfly – it doesn’t.
Barrio Central is not perfect of course. It can be crowded, seating is at a premium, and it get’s hot. So hot in fact that you imagine that summer would be a challenge. But then again you are unlikely to bump into an estate agent, have to step over a stroller or see anyone sipping a frappuccino. I know where I’d choose to go.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Enoteca da Luca

When I first arrived in the UK from the third world islands of the South Pacific that I call New Zealand, I chanced upon a new and innovative way of eating food. Tapas was a concept unheard of in early nineties Polynesia (which becomes obvious when you see the size of people down there) and as a food style quickly became a favourite of mine. Of course as a fashion, tapas quickly went the same way as those other foodie trends such as Pacific Rim and restaurants that specialised in sausages (I kid you not), but not before a whole swag of cultures including Japanese, Italian and some Middle Eastern countries, had taken their spin on this quintessentially Spanish concept.
Nearly 20 years on and the only non-Iberian restaurants still beating the small plates drum are Italian, and one, Enoteca da Luca in Devonshire Square, is doing it better then most.

Enoteca means wine bar in Italian, and this place offers the blessed grape drink by the truckload. The emphasis is Italian (the Piemonte, Tuscana, and Veneto regions particularly so) with French wines also featuring strongly. However for those who prefer New World, Australia, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand are also represented across the reds and whites. They offer most wines by the glass, and while none of the offerings are cheap, they are priced to suit all budgets. Well City ones anyway.

The place itself is a set in one of the refurbished warehouse blocks that makes up Devonshire Square. The interiors are straight out of that other nineties concept known as industrial modern. Floor to ceiling windows and office-like glass doors welcome you to a relatively small space with exposed brickwork and a combination of ‘standing’ tables (with high chairs for those who want to sit) and smaller tables for couples. The small bar, which is really a grocery counter, is backed by white tiles, fronted by a fridge complete with cheeses and cured meats, and guarded by a vintage meat slicer. So far so continental.

The piece de resistance is the high ceiling racked up with wine bottles – for drinking rather then display – for which the staff happily deploy and scamper up the ladder as required. This brings me to the service which is incredibly charming and familial - everyone is welcomed as a lost sibling. This is just as well as it can be a tad slow. Table service is always great; however the team are so friendly with many of the locals that the time between ordering and getting your drink can seem an age. This is not the best place to pop in for a swifty. The punters are mostly City, but of the wine bar rather then pub school. Which is just as well as Enoteca is not a place for beer lovers with only bottled Peroni on offer. The food – the aforementioned Italian styled tapas – is delicious if not a little pricey. And funnily enough it is this point which with my critical brethren have picked fault with Enoteca. Which I can see to a point. But despite its failings, Enoteca is a great little bar which if you can step out of your City mindset and relax, you just might enjoy. It may not be at the cusp of fashion. In fact, in many ways it sits comfortably behind it, but for a very good glass or two of wine, where you can get good chat and unwind, Enoteca delivers. Who knows, in ten years, this type of bar might even make it to New Zealand.