Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Restaurant review: Brawn, Columbia Road

Columbia Road is that most mayflyish of London pathways. A ghost town of boarded up shops sit eerily amongst the cobbles and mosaic throughout the week, their enticing geometric windows totally inaccessible behind heavy, metal grates. Come Saturday morning and the whole place suddenly livens up, the air tinged with the smell of just-ground Ethiopian beans and the sound of heel on brick. And after Sunday’s floral cockney peacock display its back into hiding. 

Thankfully there are still some beacons shining warm yellow light and open doors to those who dare walk the streets after hours. The Royal Oak pub is a favourite, showcasing that terrible representation of gentrification; good beer, some pulled, smoked meats and clean toilets. Ghastly. That said, I was genuinely sad to see the turnaround of the Birdcage, whose old-timer’s Saturday night karaoke was a hilarious and entertaining institution. And then there is Brawn. So subtle that it probably took me five attempts to work out where it was. But when I did, I was instantly taken by its charm; a small room (the back room even more concealed again) filled with wood tables and chatter, stripped back but with those simplistic twists of design that brought everything to life. Simple chalk boards and interesting prints hung from the walls and shelves bulged with wine. I had enjoyed a meal at sister restaurant Terroirs, with food led by flavour and comfort. A booking was only a matter of time.
Katie seemed less enthusiastic. “You want to take me to somewhere called Brawn? That’s offal right? So you want to take me to an offal restaurant? Oh great…”. But with a bit of gentle persuasion and upon showing her the menu (tripe only listed once!), she decided that there were at least a handful of dishes that looked “well nice”. I on the other hand thought that it all looked well nice. And I had secretly already made a booking. And there was no online booking thingamijig to silently back out, and I was damned if I was going to phone up with some measly cancellation excuse. 

No matter where we go to, date nights are always lovely. And this was a particularly good one. This was the first evening of a two and a half week holiday. We would be wed within the fortnight and still had that energetic nervous excitement of whether we would be able to pull the whole thing off, or whether largely being lazily laid back for a year and flying by the seat of our arses for the last few months would indeed bite us in the bum. But whatever was to happen, we were on holiday. Rain had just freshened up a bright, warm evening and we were off out for dinner.
We sat on a charming corner table musing over the aesthetic joys of the room. We sipped beautifully balanced Aperol from brittle-thin tumblers, clinking delicately as the ice clumsily brushed the glass. Candlelight flickered through the orange liquid, making it appear molten around the edges. Food kicked off with a simple bowl of almonds. But such simple things are encouraging when each nut had been evenly covered with an oily, salty slick. Katie started with a classical combination of mozzarella, Serrano ham and melon. There’s no hiding in these kind of dishes, and the quality and ripeness were on key. What lifted such simplicity were the mint leaves that flecked between the white, pink and orange. My duck hearts however hit the jackpot. Since our visit we have indeed been successfully married and honeymooned. We have travelled around Scotland and eaten some incredible food. But I can still taste those duck hearts. The skewer of charred, yet melting meat sat atop sumac studded, soft chickpeas atop a thin disc of sourdough. Everything worked so well in texture and flavour. It was the kind of starter that you really wished would return for the main course and dessert. 

After such a good start I couldn’t wait for the main to arrive. It’s always brilliant to see rabbit on a menu; one of those ingredients so abundant yet so often overlooked. The fact that it came swimming in a sea of tagliatelle made it a must order. I hate turning up to a restaurant with a pre-conceived idea of what I want to eat, but I have to admit that I had seen a photo of this dish previously, and I secretly hoped it would be available. It was a bit of a shame when in real life it didn’t quite match my expectations. The flavours were terrific, and they had really captured the gaminess of the wild meat. The pasta was delicate and thin. I just didn’t think the two came together very well. Instead of a ragu, the pasta was mixed with fairly dry little lumps of the rabbit and other diced vegetables. As I said, it was tasty, and I polished the whole thing off, but there was a level of oozy satisfaction missing.
Katie’s main was the opposite, and was indeed wonderfully satisfying. Five decent pink medallions of lamb neck stood proud out of a deep borlotti and tomato broth. I love this kind of cooking, and I’m so happy that these kind of dishes are coming back into culinary fashion. The one problem that Katie encountered was in the eating. Armed with only a knife and fork, it was frustrating to be left with a delicious slick of inaccessible liquid sloshing about in the bowl. 

As so often on these evenings, we were content and stuffed by this point. But as so often we were tempted by one last thing. I couldn’t help smiling as a large wedge of tiramisu was plonked down between us. And like everything else, it was balanced and flavoured with precise care.
Brawn is another tucked away gem that is well worth seeking out, be it for a quick lunch and glass of wine or a long, relaxing dinner. It is certainly worth braving deserted Columbia Road on a school night for.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Roasted Norfolk quail with white asparagus, wild mushrooms and broad beans

Blimey, what a few weeks! I’ve been away getting married in Scotland, followed by a short honeymoon on the Islands of the West Coast (more on this next week), so things have been a little slow on the blog of late. But I’ve got a massive backlog of brilliant recipes coming up in the next few posts, and I’m happy to finally have the time to get things back in order. 

As we’re still clinging desperately onto the dregs of asparagus season I thought that this recipe would be best to get going with. Yet again the season has passed by in a flash, and yet again I haven’t taken advantage of the wonderful produce nearly as much as planned. I’m already looking forward to next May when I can grill more of those lovely green spears before covering in lemon juice and good olive oil… Only 11 months to go! That said, it’s never much of a disappointment when asparagus season is over, as we’re now thrown into heady gluts of peas, broad beans and courgettes, and even more recipe ideas.
As usual I’ve got sidetracked, but for this recipe I decided to use white asparagus. The meatier texture and slightly subtler taste combined well with the mushrooms, and the strong porcini flavour running through the dish. Instead of the usual grilling and charring, I decided to cook them in a little water and a fair amount of butter. This way they almost poach and steam at the same time, absorbing the butter but losing very little flavour at the same time.
This recipe came by chance whilst I was out shopping for a different recipe. That week I had had a real craving for a rich, meaty ragu, buttery and heavy with parmesan (this is before the heatwave!). I fancied pot-roasting some pigeons until the meat fell off the bones, before stirring it through some tender homemade pappardelle or orecchiette. I went to the shops hell bent on serving it up for dinner, but I couldn’t for the life of me find any pigeons! With such preconceptions on my mind I was stuck, and had no idea what to cook instead. At the fourth or fifth butcher I spotted some lovely plump Norfolk quails, and along with a nice selection of mushrooms I came up with the idea for this dish. Happily it was damn satisfying, but I still vow to rectify my pigeon woes…
Serves 2
2 quails, portioned into crowns. Wishbones removed and legs and trimmings saved for sauce 
3 large knobs of butter 
6 sprigs of thyme
For the asparagus:
4 white asparagus spears, trimmed and peeled 
1 knob of butter 
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the mushroom ketchup:
350g chestnut mushrooms, very finely sliced 
3 garlic cloves, grated 
2 shallots, finely chopped 
5 sprigs of thyme 
3 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms 
2 tbsp sugar 
2 tbsp cider vinegar
For the sauce:
The trimmings from the quail 
2 shallots, chopped 
2 garlic cloves, crushed 
The trimmings from the mushrooms 
3 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms 
6 sprigs of thyme 
A large glass of white wine 
500ml good chicken stock 
1 knob of butter
For the wild mushrooms:
2 handfuls of wild mushrooms, I used fresh porcini, girolles and morels. Cleaned and trimmed 
1 clove of garlic, finely sliced 
3 sprigs of thyme 
1 knob of butter 
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the broad beans:
2 handfuls of broad beans, podded and shelled 
½ a lemon, juice only
For the pancetta:
4 rashers of smoked pancetta

Start by making the mushroom ketchup. Put the dried porcini into a small bowl and cover with a bit of boiling water. Allow to soak for 15-20 minutes, then chop finely, reserving the soaking liquid. Set a large frying pan on a medium heat and add a good glug of olive oil. When hot, fry the shallots, garlic and thyme until softened. Add the finely chopped chestnut and porcini mushrooms and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until everything is very soft. Stir in the sugar and the vinegar and taste, adding more seasoning, sugar or vinegar to get the balance just right. Tip the contents of the pan into a food processor and blitz well, then pass through a fine sieve into a bowl. Spoon into a squeezy bottle and set aside. 

Next make the sauce. Heat a large, high sided frying pan to a medium-high temperature and add a generous drizzle of olive oil. Season the quail trimmings well, then brown on all sides in the hot pan. Add the shallots, garlic, thyme and any mushroom trimmings to the pan and lightly caramelise, then pour in the wine. Reduce the liquid by half, then top up with the stock. Throw in the dried porcini mushrooms at this point. Bring to a boil and reduce to a thickened sauce, about 20-30 minutes. Strain through a sieve into a small saucepan and stir in the butter until emulsified. Set aside.
Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and quickly blanche the broad beans for a minute. Shock straight away in ice cold water, then carefully squeeze the tender beans out of their shells. Squeeze over the lemon juice, sprinkle on some salt and pepper and set aside. 

Heat up the grill to medium-high. Arrange the smoked pancetta on a lined oven tray, then grill for a few minutes on each side until the rashers are crisp. Drain well on kitchen paper, then break into pieces.
Heat the oven to 190⁰C.
To cook the quail crowns, set a heavy frying pan on a high heat. Add a glug of olive oil, then sear the birds for 1-2 minutes on each breast. Turn the quail so they are sitting upright, then add a knob of butter to the pan and baste all over until golden brown. Transfer to an oven dish, then roast in the oven for 8 minutes, rubbing with more butter half way through. Let the cooked birds rest for 10 minutes before carving the breasts. 

While the quails are resting cook the asparagus. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add seasoning and a good splash of water. Add the asparagus and cook for 4-5 minutes, turning frequently. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and add the shelled broad beans to warm through.  

Heat a large frying pan for the mushrooms and melt the butter. Add the thick porcini mushrooms first along with the garlic and thyme and cook for a couple of minutes. Tip in the girolle and morel mushrooms and toss everything together, then continue to fry until everything is just cooked and tender. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Reheat the sauce.
To plate up, arrange two pieces of asparagus on each plate and position the quail breasts to each side. Squeeze on a good dollop of the mushroom ketchup. Scatter over the mushrooms, broad beans and crispy pancetta. Finish with a good few spoonfuls of sauce.