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db Eats: Brawn

Once could be called a fluke, twice a coincidence, but now with half a dozen respectable natural wine bars in operation in London, it’s safe to call it a movement.

It all started two years ago with Terroirs – the Charing Cross-based brainchild of Les Cave de Pyrène’s managing director Eric Narioo, who recently opened his second natural wine bar, Brawn, in a former wood-turning mill on Columbia Road. The arrival of this Shoreditch newcomer last November was eagerly awaited 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 and nose, which are boiled and pressed and wind up sharing terrine space with other piggy parts such as trotters and 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.

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 interior is pared down and industrial, almost canteen-like, 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, restaurant critic 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 disappoint. While my companion 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, wintery 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" in The Metro, 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.

While the food is worth the detour in itself, it’s the wine that sets this bistro apart from its competitors. 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 from Agnes & Rene Mosse, a clean, precise Jura Chardonnay, and a fresh, minerally 2008 Syrah/Carignan blend from Pic Saint-Loup producer Mas Foulaquier.

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.

A meal for two with wine, water and service costs about £80.

Brawn, 49 Columbia Road, E2 7RG

Tel: 020 7729 5692

Lucy Shaw, 01.02.2011

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