Their menus are quite similar. Two single sheets of paper, both typed in black ink, with the word Dinner on the top of one, under the restaurant’s logo of a bottle in the shape of a pig (or is it vice versa?), and both carry that evening’s date. Both also carry the same wording at the bottom that ‘some of our egg and dairy products are unpasteurised'.
They both start in a similar fashion, too. Half a dozen snacks ranging from salted almonds to a plate of Corsican ham to a slice of terrine at one, to Marcona almonds, a mixed plate of Italian charcuterie, coppa, finocchiona and prosciutto at the other.
There is a common language to the rest of their menus. The eight starters at the longer-established restaurant are more complex at the moment, reflecting perhaps that the person in charge is the chef rather than the restaurateur who has just opened the second restaurant.
There was on the night we dined at the first restaurant in question, Brawn on Columbia Road, London E2, a wide array of first courses on offer ranging from half a dozen Dungarvan oysters (£16.50) to a salad of particularly fresh burrata with bottarga and pane Carasau (that is the traditional thin, crisp bread from Sardinia to you and me) to duck hearts with white polenta and gremolata.
Two weeks later, at Six Portland Road, W11, just behind the currently closed Holland Park tube station, there were five very French starters on the menu and one more definitely Italian. Alongside ox tongue with a salsa verde, a rabbit and pork terrine, and mussels with wild garlic, white wine and cream were some pungent devilled eggs with anchovies and a mâche salad alongside a much lighter salad of fresh mozzarella, aubergine, pine nuts and chilli.
Brawn and Six Portland Road are 13 kilometers apart physically but much closer in spirit thanks to the two people who have inspired them. Brawn is today the home to chef Ed Wilson, big, burly and bearded, while Six Portland Road is the brainchild of restaurateur Oli Barker, also bearded but much slimmer. Both invariably have a smile on their faces.
Together they worked their magic on Terroirs, the excellent wine-focused restaurant by Charing Cross Station and the transformation of what was the pub on St Martin’s Lane formerly known as the French Horn and Green Man into a mecca for lovers of the food and wine of the Loire before it became yet another branch of The Real Greek. Since then Ed headed east and Oli has headed west.
In fact, what took them apart was the break up of what had brought them together. Terroirs was the first in a series of restaurants opened by wine merchants Les Caves de Pyrène that went on to include Soif in Clapham and Toast in Dulwich, each of them outposts of extremely competent French cooking and a wine list increasingly dominated by natural wines. Wilson became the executive chef for the group.
When Ed married Josie Stead (our son’s business partner in The Quality Chop House) in a ceremony in the Ace Hotel, Shoreditch, last September, guests of honour were their baby son Kit and Oli Barker, his wife and their two small sons. For the wedding breakfast, all the guests then walked to Brawn, where Ed is now in sole charge.
This situation emerged amicably (a quite unusual outcome in the restaurant business as in so many other professions) after Ed and Oli had met at Terroirs in 2009. Oli began as a manager but, after they got on well and two of Ed’s original partners left, Ed asked him to become a partner along with founder Eric Narioo, the MD of Caves de Pyrène. This amicable situation continued until 2014 when Ed brought Brawn and Oli sold his shares, a source of funding that helped finance the lease on Six Portland Road. (An indication of quite how amicable this division was is revealed by the fact that Eric was keen to keep a small shareholding in Brawn and, as Ed liked their working relationship, this came to pass.)
It is in the main courses that these two restaurants begin to differ. While at Brawn there is a nod to France in a dish of bavette with artichokes, Parmesan and watercress and a navarin of lamb with broad beans, Jersey royals and wild garlic, the first two dishes are both pasta-based – orecchiette with cime di rapa and pecorino, and papardelle laced with slow-cooked strips of beef shin, and the fish dish – red mullet with preserved tomato, mussels and monks beard – also has an Italian accent. And while the four cheeses are all French, including some delicious, finely shaved 36-month-old Comté, three of the desserts are obviously inspired by cooking south of the Alps: dark chocolate with olive oil and sea salt; a panna cotta with blood orange and Campari; and a tiramisu.
While Brawn, originally built in the 19th century as a workshop and warehouse for wood turning, spills from the entrance, currently home to tables and stools along the counter, round a bar and then down a narrow passageway (see below) that opens into what must have been the snug but is today home to more tables and an open kitchen and can seat 70, the transformation of Six Portland Road has proved much more restricted. Oli took over a site that had been the Hollands Wine Bar for 40 years and has worked hard to squeeze enough tables and a brand new kitchen into the space that became available. It has a very Parisian air about it: paper tablecloths on all the tables, a bar, a wooden floor, and witty art on the walls.
Oli has surrounded himself with those he has worked with over his years front of house. In charge of the kitchen is Pascal Wiedermann from Terroirs and his sous chefs are Chris Woolard (pictured), ex Quality Chop House, and Michael Lavery, formerly of the Green Man and French Horn, while alongside him on the floor is Cedric Sarret, also formerly of the Green Man and French Horn. As a result, Six Portland Road has that well-worn, comfortable feel of a long-established restaurant despite being only six weeks old.
This feeling is reinforced by the five main courses and choice of three desserts. There is a vegetarian option, spring vegetables with fresh goat’s cheese and olive oil mash; a couple of fish dishes – hake with brown shrimps, cucumber, lemon and capers and a plump skate wing with rouille and Jersey royals and two meat dishes, a chicken leg with asparagus and morels and a fine rendition of fegato alla veneziana with soft white polenta. We shared a lemon verbena posset topped with gariguette strawberries. With a glass of non-vintage champagne from P Gerbais, a glass of Sanchez Ayala Manzanilla and a glass of 2013 Teroldego from Foradori in Trentino, my total bill came to £96.
From Brawn’s longer, more obviously left of centre, wine list we enjoyed a bottle of 2013 Minervois ‘Mais Où Est Donc Ornicar’ from J-B Senat (£39.50) and noted that both wine lists contain only one selection each from Bordeaux: a 2007 Ch Pontet-Canet for £150 at Six Portland Road while Brawn lists three vintages of the wholemeal Côtes des Francs property Château Le Puy.
Much more different is the audience. Younger, bearded and more casual is a fair summary of the crowd at Brawn; while older, more refined and less rakish describes my fellow diners at Six Portland Road. Ed and Oli have followed one of the underlying principles for success: what is outside a restaurant’s front door must match what is on the inside. Both deserve to prosper.
Brawn 49 Columbia Road, London E2 7RG; tel +44 (0)20 7729 5692
Six Portland Road 6 Portland Road, London W11 4LA; tel +44 (0)20 7229 3130