Food

Brutto, London: ‘The exceedingly good Italian we didn’t know we needed’ – restaurant review | Italian food and drink


Brutto, 35-37 Greenhill Rents, London EC1M 6BN (020 4537 0928). Starters £7 – £12.50; mains £13.75 – £15; desserts £4.75 – £8; wines from £22.50

Russell Norman is a restaurateur who attends to the details. He attends to the details much as popes attend to God. I know this because I once supplied him with some of those details. A few years ago, when he announced he was opening a New York-style Jewish deli complete with salt beef sandwiches, I insisted we have lunch so I could lecture him on the importance of fat in salt beef. “When people order salt beef,” I told him grandly, “they must be asked whether they want it fat on or off.” Otherwise, it will not be true to the New York Jewish deli tradition. He took notes. And when the much-missed Mishkin’s opened in Covent Garden the waiters did indeed ask the question. Oi, those salt beef sandwiches. It recalled the old gag about Jewish keep-fit lessons: you eat one of those, press your palm to your chest and say, “Feel the burn.”

This nerdiness, this insistence on rightness on both our parts, is worth keeping in mind when we get to the table at Brutto, his new take on the Florentine trattoria. But for now, I am at the bar at Joe Allen, the theatreland stalwart just off London’s Strand which has finally reopened since it shut up shop with everything else in March 2020. The inheritors of the Joe’s name have made some changes. Gary Lee, formerly head chef of the Ivy mothership, has come here to do the kind of classy American bistro food he does so well.

Beef-shin stew in a round white shallow bowl with a slice of bread resting on the side
‘Proof if it were needed that long-cooked brown food is the best food’: the peposo, a beef-shin stew. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Meanwhile, what was a dead area at the front has been turned into this buzzy, downlit bar. Norman, who started his restaurant career at the original Joe’s around the corner in the 90s, is in charge of the offering. It is what you, or at least I, want a bar to be. The cocktails are strong and chilled in all the right places and the champagne is £10 a glass, a bargain in this or many other parts of town. Plus, there are squares of truffle-fried toast to help you work up a thirst. Norman is here, overseeing the application of maraschino cherries to the Jerry Thomas Manhattan. This is my new favourite drinking den.

By some miracle of London transport, Norman also manages to be at Brutto in Clerkenwell by the time we get there. It occupies the site of what was the original Hix Chophouse, a pleasingly misshapen space of corners and raised levels, softened by the sort of low light which might require the application of the torch on your phone to read the menu. The name Brutto means ugly, which is a lurch into false modesty. There are drapes of linen over the lights and sweet red and white checked tablecloths, as there once were back in the day at Joe Allen. Dogs are welcome. It’s all rather lovely.

Three pork and fennel sausages on a bed of lentils in a round white shallow bowl
‘Plump with seeds and no filler whatsoever’: pork and fennel sausages, with braised lentils. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Just as he did for his cookbook about Venice, Norman spent a lot of time in Florence in preparation for this opening, alongside his head chef Oliver Diver. I’ve come and gone from Florence many times over the years and I swooned when I learned the menu would include a crusty lampredotto, or tripe roll of the sort they serve in the Central Market there. It is one of the world’s great sandwiches. They have had problems getting hold of the right tripe from the fourth stomach, but he promises it’s coming. The correct rolls have been commissioned. Still, he already has a corner tiled in white and green, a tribute to the legendary Florentine trattoria Sostanza, where they cook chicken breasts in fizzing butter over coals. There’s also a blackboard list by weight of big old Scottish T-bones, playing the part of the bistecca alla Fiorentina at a good value £8.55 per 100g.

But my interests lie elsewhere: with fat brown anchovies, sourdough and cold butter; with bruschetta heaped lavishly with sweet and funky chopped chicken livers. From the main courses we have taut-skinned pork and fennel sausages, plump with seeds and no filler whatsoever for £14. There is a dune of braised lentils and a dollop of nose-tickling mustard to bring it all together. The peposo, a beef-shin stew heavy with whole black peppercorns that pop pleasingly against the roof of the mouth, is proof if it were needed that long-cooked brown food is the best food. These are all big, heavily built flavours, like they’ve been working out down the gym for a good few months before landing on your table.

Pork tonnato in a round white shallow bowl
‘With a Jackson Pollock splatter of sauce’: pork tonnato. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

It is with two of the starters that interesting questions arise. Thin slices of roasted pork served at room temperature and sprinkled with caperberries come with a Jackson Pollock splatter of tonnato sauce, that shamelessly savoury confection of a mayonnaise, blitzed with tuna and anchovies. I am used to the plate being flooded with the tonnato. That’s how it arrives in so many Italian-owned restaurants in London. I ask Norman if this is him being true to the Florentine way of doing things. He says it is, and gives the impression that the familiar way of serving it in London and elsewhere, in a big pond, is somewhat vulgar. He also points to the famous panzanella bread-based salad. Usually in London it is made with big, dressing-soaked croutons. Here the bread is a white mulch, akin to baby posset. Because that’s the Florentine way.

As I once lectured Norman on the “correct” way to do salt beef in a New York style deli I cannot now also lecture him on the pitfalls of authenticity even though, as I always say, authentic is not the same as good. Braised Cantonese chicken feet are proof of this. But next time, I might see if I can order some extra tonnato sauce on the side. And his refusal to put vin santo on the menu because it’s a bit naff is slightly annoying, especially as it’s bloody everywhere in Florence.

A slice of tiramisu on a round white plate
‘Pitch perfect’: tiramisu. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Still, he finds some amaretto (from a bottle branded Amaretto; none of your Disaronno muck here) and it is a lovely accompaniment to a pitch-perfect tiramisu and a bowl of ice-cream with “ugly but good” hazelnut meringue cookies. It is common to describe a restaurant like this as a “passion project”. That makes it sound emotional and gushing. Norman, who also founded the Polpo group and Spuntino, is too experienced in this business to let gush get in the way of the fundamentals. London has an enormous store of exceedingly good Italian restaurants. Brutto is the new one we didn’t quite know we needed.

News bites

Chef Ravinder Bhogal is staging an all-day event on 28 November at her restaurant Jikoni in London’s Marylebone, in aid of the domestic violence charity Women and Girls Network. The Samosa Sisterhood will bring together a Thali style menu, complete with Bhogal’s spin on the samosa, alongside readings by a lineup including actor and writer Meera Syal, chef Ravneet Gill and broadcaster and journalist Mishal Husain. Tickets are £75 and are available from Jikoni.

The Mumbai influenced restaurant group Dishoom, with five outposts in London as well as places in Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, is launching a festive feast menu from 22 November until 24 December. The menu, available to groups of four to 11 people, costs £39 a head and includes a turkey raan, Bombay potatoes, masala winter greens with house black daal and a centrepiece sharing dessert of cinnamon ice cream, fresh fruit and sponge (dishoom.com).

Chester is to get a new restaurant, headed by 2016 Roux scholarship winner Harry Guy, who has cooked at various of Simon Rogan’s restaurants, as well as the Savoy Grill and the Mallory Court Hotel. X by Harry Guy will be at Wildes Chester, a boutique hotel which opens next summer.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1





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