When bloggers - certain bloggers - responded by introducing a table of disclosures '[placing] us at the leading edge of blog transparency', the clear implication being that anyone who didn't follow suit must be a deceitful bounder, I felt that the very heart of my hobby had been ripped out and that it was becoming more of a chore than a pastime. The almost-final straw came when an article slating restaurant bloggers appeared in a respected publication, written by someone not only who I knew and liked but who had also been my host at a free event for bloggers some months ago. Et tu, Brute? I thought, and started very seriously to question whether the game was worth the candle.
And then I went for lunch at Brawn, and in the space of a couple of hours of near-perfect food, fantastic wines and the most exquisite company, I was reminded why it is that I do this. Not for freebies - though I won't deny they're a nice, occasional bonus - nor for any perceived credit for being the first through the door of a new restaurant to write about it, even if my hastily-written 'review' is so poorly constructed as to be barely intelligible. No, I do this because eating out, when it's as good as this, is so bloody pleasurable that to then relive it through writing about it - even if no-one reads the result - is almost as joyous as having the physical experience all over again.
Brawn occupies a long, light corner site on Columbia Road, famous for its Sunday flower market but on all other days of the week an unremarkable East End mile running from the Shoreditch end of Hackney Road to Haggerston Park. To some, the restaurant's location might seem wilfully off the beaten track, an impression which the near-total lack of exterior signage - that tiny stencil pictured here really is it - does nothing to alleviate.
Get there, however, and you will be rewarded with the sort of meal which so many modern restaurants try to deliver but so few manage to get right: small plates, suited to sharing, of imaginative but unpretentious food using exceptional quality produce, simply but expertly prepared and sold at a fair price.
Between four of us - myself and best friend Andrew along with our birthday girl pal Sarah and her handsome husband Ian - we ordered extensively from all four sections of the concise one page menu. From the wonderfully-headed 'Pig' section we chose a selection of charcuterie consisting of the brawn from which the restaurant takes its name, salame Toscano and pork rillettes. It was all excellent, particularly the brawn - a mellow terrine made from the meat of the pig's head, pressed with herbs, spices and diced carrots. We also enjoyed some Basque saucisson seche; hard and dry as it should be, the effort required to chew it was more than repaid by the peppery depths of flavour released with every bite.
From the 'Hot' section, baked field mushrooms with bone marrow, parsley and Alsace bacon was the epitome of chic comfort food; I usually hate parsley but here the balance of flavours and textures, of earthy fungus with salty meat and of unctuous marrow with the grassy herb was such that it barely registered - praise indeed. A 'confit' rabbit leg (actually, I'm fairly certain, braised) offered up abundant pale, delicate meat made more robust by accompanying girolles - perfect doll's house specimens - and coco beans. Spatchcock'd quail with tapenade was beautifully simple in preparation if not in eating; I ultimately gave in to temptation and necessity and took to tearing the sweet flesh from the minuscule carcass with my fingers.
Alongside the hot dishes we tried a couple from the list of six 'Cold'. Heirloom tomatoes, anchovies and red onion was a superlative salad, the tomatoes bursting with colour and flavour and embellished with just enough of the anchovies and onion to bring a little saltiness and tang. Foie gras, violet artichokes and smoked duck divided opinion; Sarah, not usually a fan of foie gras, pronounced it the best that she'd tasted, while I found the cold, pressed roundels sadly flavourless. Our differing opinions may, of course, be related. The fat little cubes of smoked duck strewn around it and across the quartered artichokes however were delightful.
There had, of course, to be dessert, and these were as good as everything that had gone before. Or that, at least, is what I'm told; Andrew wouldn't part with so much as a teaspoonful of his chocolate ganache with hazelnut cream, nor would Sarah cede a soupçon of mirabelle and almond tart. No matter; Ian and I were busy joyfully demolishing a selection of cheese which included a creamy St Maure de Touraine, a Meule des Bergers and my favourite, a pungent Morbiers.
The fabulous food - and bar that foie, I truly thought every single dish was exceptional - isn't the only star at Brawn; there's an excitingly put-together list of mostly natural, organic or bio-dynamic wines from small producers to enjoy too, and enjoy it we certainly did. We kicked off with a bottle of Prosecco Casa Coste Piane to toast the birthday girl, moved on to a big, peppery but not over-powering 2008 Vacqueyras, Domaine La Garrigue and finished off with glasses of sweet, Port-like Maury Vintage Rouge.
Service is warm, attentive but wholly unobtrusive; staff are happy to advise on the wines and provide guidance on the menu (although happily there's little on it that needs explaining, a leaf many restaurants would do well to take out of Brawn's book) but otherwise leave guests be. This contributed to a daytime ambience as light and welcoming as the decor; at night I imagine an altogether buzzier, busier vibe takes hold.
Best of all though - no, let's say, the icing on the cake - is that this outstanding experience comes comparatively cheaply; for tons of food, plenty of super booze and every-penny-of-it-deserved 12.5% service, we paid just £43 each, a level of value for money seldom seen in our oh-so-expensive city.
Brawn is, basically, brilliant; reliving the experience in prose has been almost as much fun as the fabulous meal itself. That, to me, is what blogging is all about, and if you've indulged me in that pleasure by reading this far, I thank you. I'll keep on doing it, for now, for you.
Brawn, 49 Columbia Road, London E2 7RG Tel: 020 7729 5692 http://www.brawn.co/