Brat, 4 Redchurch St, London E1 6JL
BRAT: Basque in all its flame-licked glory
Soot-black and broody from the outside, Brat is a Speakeasy. The staircase is narrow, the lighting mellow. Inside, the walls are lined with oak panels treacled with age. With small, whisper-thin windows muffling the sound of revellers below, I’m taken to the captain's quarters of a fine vessel after a successful campaign.
The drama of open flames and billowing smoke twirling toward the vents, the mallard resting in scorched hay on the pass and the scent of caramelisation coming from all directions. I will always be in awe of those that can cook in an open kitchen without swearing, whilst enduring the kind of heat and pressure that would have my bones shattering into diamonds. And yet, doth my eyes deceive me? No. One of the cooks is in fact, two-stepping whilst keeping an ever-vigilant eye over the oven.
Fire laps at these chaps like the arms of The Many at a Bieber concert and yet they interact unafraid and I sit there afraid for them, like a fop-handed Duke, dabbing my brow with a handkerchief. The anchovy grilled bread makes its appearance and I have that inner-squeal when you realise it’sjust as you’d imagined.But it’s that singe- I look for it in pizza, burritos, my Matina’s chicken halloumi wrap which I don’t mind them steadily raising the price of.
Here is this orb, mottled with char and presumably inflated with its own sense of self-worth, laced with gleaming little anchovy fillets. It’s adorned with a turf of chives and anointed further with a fruity, mildly peppery olive oil as light as gold and as weighty in depth. The gnocco fritto principle but using fire instead of frying.
As the family behind us put it:
‘It’s really nice’
~ table #
Eager to see how Brat deals with shellfish, the langoustine is pure field research. Taken whole then split down the middle and from what I could glean, the langoustine was simply lightly oiled in a cast iron, flesh side up and roasted briefly before a scorched sprig of rosemary traces the plates’ journey to the table.
Just as I’m extolling the virtues of eating brains, that thing happened where the thing you’re talking about is actually happening to you and so you blank out completely. Pearly, honey-suckle sweet and removes itself from the shell without a care. Amidst all the rambunctiousness is the reminder that you don’t always need to raise your voice to be heard.
The crab tartlets come in translucently-fine cases that prove a sturdy vessel for the dainty crab meat and the shavings of respectfully dressed fennel and dill fronds. Tumbled into all available crevices is the roe, dehydrated. Although tartlets are a trap- only ever offered up in places that don’t offer live sports or meal deals, they test your cocksurety. Despite seeming like two bites that will see the contents across other surfaces, it’s a one-bite affair. Even if that means knocking it back like a gull or indeed turtle.
Raw beef salad. It’s the best arrangement of those three words. Glistening little marbled-ruby chunklets are dressed with boxing gloves and topped with a canopy of crisply fresh tardivo and watermelon radish. Finished with toasted breadcrumbs, it lasso’s your wandering suspicions that no fire came anywhere near part of this dish at least.
If all of war is deception, then Brat’s declaration is total. ‘Grilled mushrooms’. Confident demonstrations of respectful restraint for produce have clearly softened me up. What you actually get is a bowl containing an egg yolk at the centre atop a plump mound of pearl barley, framed in a wreath of seasonal mushrooms- my beloved girolles included- all gently bobbing in the chestnut abyss of umami with which they are saturated. It pushes the very limits of salts’ role in umami- pressing a fine edge between seasoning and despair and I can’t stop returning to it between bites.
With so much jus left over, it’s the optimal time to call in their toasted bread and onion butter for a glorious mop-up. This doorstop slice, branded by the grill looms over a plate that is dolloped with a butter so fortified with roasted onion caramel, that when combined with the mushroom broth takes on a celestial form of Paxo stuffing- it’s resourcefully balanced with the bitter gunpowder of onion ash.
We all have intrusive thoughts and they can happen without warning. Not to erode your trust completely but I definitely have a frisson for fine food that summarily tastes like a deeply loved junk food. All that time, effort, duty of provenance; all of it out the window. The raw beef salad tastes resoundingly like a Big Mac and you must understand the severity with which I speak. The beef tartare on whipped roasted beef fat finished with grated ox heart from Adelina Yard? A Whopper. You might be mouthing disdain at me but here’s why this comparison is not an insult.
Fast-food chains like these spend fortunes and lifetimes on the science of flavour. So much in fact, that you think they’d just do it the normal way but apparently there’s something about washing chicken in ammonia that adds a moreish quality. The point is, these dishes from incredible places, borne of towering vision and talent, manage to trigger the very same senses that equate to a marvel of consumer science. It’s the plot to Snackmasters, for heaven's sake.
“It smells like meat crème brûlée” my Editor swoons. Why she’s not the writer is beyond me also. An aged mutton chop from Philip Warren sits in its resting juices, sliced and rearranged next to the bone. It’s exuding the visceral qualities that have made this place so rabidly well-known as every inch of this cut is a testament to care and attention from field to plate. In the throes of it, just where the meat ends and the fat begins becomes difficult to extrapolate and I’m happy to be at such a loss. Still rosy and tender between the deeply administered sear of the crust, it’s yet another little wink from Brat that their craft is mastered. A supporting salvo for this onslaught are the smoked potatoes.
Skeptical about the varying definitions of ‘smoked’ I felt that perhaps here I could lay down my arms briefly. Three chunky pink firs roasted in their skin that snaps with every bite, giving way to the golden buttery wax beneath. They’re torpedoes of glowing fudge that have been deliberately but carefully ruptured to peepshow the goods.
This euphoric blend of carbs and protein has me thinking about the life of excess I lead, if I’m not cooking beast and root alike over a small pyre. But then realising too, that this would take an ironic amount of money to actually live out, which I think is the major reason as to why Hugh Fearnley got so exasperated that his ‘smallholdings for all’ never really took off with the average person. He genuinely didn’t get it- but his Esprit De Corps was actually quite remarkable.
The amount of sugars that have been coaxed out from this mutton chop is almost confusing as it’s not an immediate expectation I have from fire-roasting a meat as is. I gnawed fanatically at the bone. For a moment I locked eyes with the chef mid-expedite, to which he jutted out his bottom lip with several nods in what I can only hope was approval. With a posture somewhere between a Piranha and a balding dog defending its treat, I navigate by tooth until I’ve come full circle and flip the axis until it’s time to have a word with myself about the limits of what’s practically edible.
The velvet crab is presented like a fish-tank diorama; the crab that had initially been mostly relieved of its meat to aid the cooking of the rice has now reassembled in the centre of the skillet. There’s that delicate sweetness of crab embossed by reduction and emboldened by ember that gives rise to the paella-grade crust at the bottom. The legs crack like sunflower seeds, yielding the saline and honeyed flesh that’s swiftly removed with a sharp intake.
Usually, I try to protect my Editor out of respect and the possibility of reprisals for my opinions but you can know this: she loves crab like no other. She also does this thing where one eye goes completely the opposite direction- that when she’s confronted with something so delicious, visibly resets. Such was the verdict.
For an omnivore often mistaken for a carnivore, can I just say that I love chlorophyll. Here it’s prominent in the crab tartlets but also in this little side of lightly pickled cucumber, laden with dill. Reviving and crisp, it reminds me that even the salad I ordered was made mostly of raw beef and I pat myself on my own back mercilessly.
Before you start, I wanted the burnt cheesecake before Nigella went off about it, so you can pack that in- and anyways, as the saying goes ‘when in Basque’.
A reassuring but stoic wibble, dappled with warped honeycombing, this dessert is in high demand. I agree it's a luxe way to end this sort of meal and believe me I wanted both of their ice creams- olive oil and then the WI classic (for which Nigella will forever be their Pin-Up Girl) brown bread ice cream, but there was just no way I’m scheduling that into this attack run.
I behave insufferably on my way down the staircase. Descending two at a time with an overdone leap, I regressed so quickly that I didn't notice the poor people at the bottom of the stairs waiting patiently for me to stop ruining their one night out. I’m currently everything I hate about customers. I just can’t do anything about it.
As the spattering shit-laden fan of 2020 oscillated away from our faces, Brat truly carpe’d the diem.
Despite most of Noah’s ark now absorbing into my body, I’m acutely nimble which is odd. Now out in the bitter cold, a marquee houses the brave overspill from The Smoking Goat next door, whilst in the distance are the swarms of twenty-somethings huddled like bees for Nos balloons and maybe warmth, on the corners of shipping container retail complexes.
So many are severely underdressed for the cold night ahead and although most are equipped only with those little handbags that aren’t a handbag once you’re a man wearing it, they have such little capacity for supplies that it will make little difference to their chances. With a heavy heart, we make peace with the fact that many might not survive the winter and get in the Uber.