17/20 Brat? Bratwurst? Brat pan? Brat pack? Rank inbratitude? Who cares? Pure fire cooking. Pure inspired eating.
Brat in Shoreditch is the playground of Tomos Parry, formerly of Kitty Fisher’s, a fabulously successful and tiny joint in Mayfair. I can remember a time when you only went to Shoreditch in an armed convoy. It’s a mark of social progress that Shoreditch is more fashionable than Mayfair and Mayfair more dangerous than Shoreditch.
The dining room is at the top of a narrow staircase in what used to be a strip club. You can still see the marks on the parquet flooring where the stage used to be if you look carefully. The room is well lit through stylish utilitarian 1940s windows, and relaxed and bustling and smartly funky as the latest wave of London restaurants tend to be.
Tomos Parry is one of the leaders of what you might call New Metropolitan Cooking, along with the likes of Ben Chapman (of the Smoking Goat below Brat), Ollie Dabbous, Tom Brown and Merlin Johnson, each of whom have taken highly individual paths to culinary expression. In Tomos Parry’s case, it’s pure fire. One end of the restaurant is taken up by what looks like a monstrous instrument of torture or a mega barbecue depending in your point of view. The brooding cast iron monster glows with coals and charcoal and wood. As far as I could make out, there’s no other form of cooking heat. Bread, meat, fish and vegetables all get the glowing ember treatment.
At first sight, such purity may seem a) primitive; b) limiting; and c) risky. In the hands of Tomos and his band of brothers and sisters at Brat, less is more, primitive acquires subtlety, limits exert discipline and risks give freedom. It takes as much skill to master direct heat of this kind and turn it to culinary advantage, as it does to be the alchemist in the kitchen with all the water baths, packets, dehydrators, centrifuges at your command.
The menu gives little inkling of this. It’s couched with the stark brevity particular to NMC – Smoked Cod’s Roe; Chopped Egg Salad with Bottarga; Langoustine; Soused Red Mullet; Herdwyck Lamb; Whole Turbot. There’s not a lot of menu poetry. That is not a complaint, by the way. It just shows the long shadow cast by St John, one of the pioneers of this kind of terse minimalism, and a restaurant with which Brat has much in common.
Such economy of words disguises delicate beauty. As with Chinese cooking, heat becomes an active ingredient in each dish. The cod’s roe comes in the form of cylinders of refined, airy mousse resting plumply on rectangles of lightly grilled sourdough slices, the burnt bits having a faint bitterness that cuts the richness of the mousse. A similar play of delicate bitterness and wheaty toast illuminates the chopped egg salad with bottarga of the fishy, salty, seaweed-and-iodine grey mullet variety. The soused red mullet, on the other hand, showed a more traditional deftness. The sharpness of the vinegar was modulated to allow the gamey flavour of the fish to beam through, with a tussock of shredded vegetables adding thin, crunchy strips. Langoustines of impeccable freshness were treated with exemplary simplicity and respect, split and grilled to a caramel sweetness and doused in olive oil.
But it was a whole turbot that provided the real proof of Mr Parry’s control of his chosen medium. To cook a fish over glowing coals calls for precise understanding, nimbleness of mind and lightness of touch. No two fish are exactly the same, so you need to be able to judge minute changes if you’re going to produce a perfect result every time. Mr Parry compounds the technical challenges by cooking his fish for 40 minutes over a low fire. He says that this allows the collagen to gradually dissolve, the skin to take on a toffeeish quality, the fins to turn crisp and the flesh to remain firm, fair and succulent. He sprays the skin of the fish with a vinegar mix that adds a distinctive tang to the skin and the juices. Altogether, it a very superior piece of cooking. It’s not cheap – £55 for two – but neither should it be. Love the fish. Love the cooking. Pay the money. It’s worth it.
Someone once asked the great French chef, Fernandez Point, what was the secret of great cooking. ‘Du beurre, du beurre, et encore du beurre,’ he replied. In Tomos Parry’s case, it’s flavour, flavour and even more flavour. This is cooking of youthful daring, Italian in its simplicity and it’s emphasis on the quality of the ingredients, English in its heft and directness. Like St John, the great progenitor, Brat’s artifice lies in the absence of it.
There are other reasons to be glad to be sitting down to a meal there – fine sherry list, classy beer and thoughtful wines and the cheerful synergy between kitchen and the efficient, charming folk bringing the dishes; and brown bread ice cream for pudding (oh heavens, the sweet nostalgia of it). Both the food and the nature of the place represents one stream of contemporary British cooking – clear, confident, vibrant and a joy to tuck into.
Brat, 4 Redchurch Street, London E1 6JL.
Phone: I can’t find a phone number