On our trips to London, Joanne and I always stay in Mayfair, near Hyde Park, where it’s so easy – and such a pleasure – to visit the charming neighborhoods nearby…Marylebone, Chelsea, Belgravia (actually, Belgravia isn’t so charming these days; a huge portion of it has been purchased by asset-parking absentee oligarchs, making for a lovely, but rather barren area).
As we become more familiar with the city, however, we frequently venture out to neighborhoods and restaurants that don’t always appear in the tour guides. It can take some effort, and more than a few pounds, to get there by taxi, but in our experience the rewards far outweigh the disappointments.
An easy place to start might be Spitalfields, populated by a preponderance of urban hipsters in slinky jeans, sipping flat whites. The neighborhood’s commercial centerpiece, the relatively new Market, boasts loads of tony and quirky independent retail, hundreds of food stalls and several good sit-down restaurant choices. BTW, the Market is totally covered, so don’t let rain deter a visit.
A couple of our favorite restaurants are nearby, including GALVIN La CHAPELLE and ST. JOHN BREAD AND WINE, Fergus Henderson’s legendary snout-to-tail spot where two years ago our culinarily adventurous 12-year-old grandson eagerly downed a plate of veal kidneys, as well as a dish of lamb testicles. The kidneys came with mustard sauce; the testicles came with bragging rights.
Inasmuch as Spitalfields was once a rundown part of town that has since become achingly cool and trendy, nearby Shoretitch is emerging from a neglected inner city neighborhood into an area of artists and musicians…many with gritty, bushy beards.
Since rents in Shoreditch are still relatively affordable, the area has become a target-rich environment for ambitious restaurateurs.
This is where, on our recent October visit, Joanne and I dined at our new favorite London restaurant. Residing above a former strip club (now called The Smoking Goat), BRAT is not easy to find. The entrance is simply an unmarked doorway on Red Church street. After entering, you climb a narrow, steep staircase and suddenly find yourself in a lively dining room dominated by an open kitchen where sparkling embers fly from burning coals. Before you’ve even reached your semi-communal table, a deep charcoal aroma has your mouth watering.
(I can help you here: If, like me, you are not fan of community seating…then request a deuce table. Numbers 40, 50, 60 and 70 are all anchored against the wall).
Bratt is the brainchild of Tomos Parry, a chef who earned his first Michelin star at Kitty Fischer’s in Shepherd’s Market. Parry serves up a menu that celebrates his Welsh heritage by way of Basque peasant cookery, with hefty primal grilled meats being the focus.
Okay, this may not be to your liking (it certainly wasn’t to Joanne’s), but the first in our series of smoky revelations was a small loaf of grilled bread, pillowy like PITTSBURGH BLUE’S, drowned in butter, and draped with salty anchovies. I ate the whole thing.
The grilled bread was followed with selections from the menu – Small Bites, Starters, and Grilled Meats – all meant for sharing.
First came a trio of little toast “soldiers” topped with a piping of smoked cod roe and micro greens. But the standout was an order of chopped egg salad of all thing. This benign-sounding dish turned out to be dense molasses-laced grainy toast topped with scrambled eggs….warm, loose and with cozy softness. On top were paper-thin shavings of bottarga (mullet roe). The dish was so delicious and appeared to be so simple that after returning to Minneapolis I decided to treat Joanne and make it as an appetizer for a romantic dinner at home one night (it’s light enough that it won’t impede our athletic lovemaking). It seemed easy enough to recreate, but it turned out to be a massive disappointment and the evening ended badly. Joanne can be so strict and unforgiving.
Cockles seem to be the new clams in Europe and London. So we shared an order in light broth with crispy chicken livers and fat slices of grilled sopping toast. YOWZA !!!!
I’ll pause here in mid-meal and attempt to describe the Brat DNA that was coming over me. I recall saying to Joanne, “I don’t know if this is the wine talking….but I think we need another bottle of wine.”
Jay Rayner, food critic of the London Guardian, said it so well: “Some of the dishes that Tomos Perry cooks at Brat are simplicity itself….and some are simply perfect.”
As I sat in the tasty, sort of shabby-chic dining room that evening, I remembered what the Michelin Guide said about the restaurant: “You just don’t eat at Brat. You tuck in. There is something very joyful about this place.”
My observation about cool restaurants like Brat? Some are contrived, phony; they try too hard. But being cool is about NOT TRYING to be cool. Brat knows that.
Onward to the main event! (We skipped salads.)
I, of course, had to have the Beef Chop – all blackened fat and pink meat resting in its juices – especially when I heard that their beef comes from DAIRY COWS – old dairy cows, in fact. This is unheard of at serious meat restaurants (although a dairy cow steak did, very briefly, appear on the first dinner menu at Tullibee restaurant in Minneapolis’ Hewing hotel). Old dairy cows are typically destined to become dog food. However, our server tempered the thought by telling us that they are finished with grain during the last couple months of their long life.
How was it? Actually, pretty good. Intense beefy flavor. A little chewy. And delightfully smoky.
Was it MANNY’S? No. But I’d certainly order it again.
Joanne surprised me and had the RED MULLET. Mullet has always seemed too oily and fishy for my taste, but in this case it was perfectly grilled and had the crispiest of skin.
I’ve never thought that side dishes were compelling. Good? Yes. Must orders? Not so much. I just can’t imagine anybody saying, “Boy, I can’t wait to get back to Cheesecake Factory for those green beans.”
However, there might be a few exceptions at Brat, which serves smoked new potatoes in a pool of butter about an inch deep. Holy heart attack!
Ditto for Parry’s wild mushrooms, which come in a whopping bowl of salty melted butter loaded to the brim with chanterelles and porcinis, crowned by a big, soft poached duck egg.
Now, about the name: Brat. It apparently derives from an old English slang term for turbot. And grilled whole turbot is indeed the defining dish of Brat. Slow-cooked over indirect heat and spritzed from time to time with vinegar, it arrives at the table blistered and golden. You can order it in two sizes, priced at 55 and 70 pounds.
And finally, your two satisfied pigs seated at table #40 gorped out on dessert. Joanne swooned over an insanely good rice pudding that contained at least five pounds of sugar and just under a gallon of clotted cream.
I had a wedge of warm “burnt cheesecake,” served straight from the wood-burning oven with poached rhubarb providing a counterpoint to the rich creaminess.
If you choose to go, YOU WILL NEED A RESERVATION! And if there are just two of you and you’d prefer to dine un-communally, request the aforementioned tables 40, 50, 60 or 70. That will make you sound like a regular – and perhaps give you a leg up on securing a booking.
As Michelin said – and now I say – “There is something joyful about Brat.”
I’ll just never quite understand how Welsh and Basque cuisines became joined at the hip. But then again, with food this good, who gives a damn?