It’s 40 years since Browns Bar & Brasserie opened a single eatery in Brighton. Today there are 28 across the country, with the newest addition in Liverpool. Londoners in particular are familiar with Browns, especially its pivotal spot on St Martin’s Lane in the heart of theatreland.
To celebrate its anniversary, Browns has released a book charting its success and demonstrating how it has evolved over the years. Now, I’m not a lover of chain restaurants – they tend to be mediocre, uninspired and impersonal – so it was with great trepidation that I decided to head to the Manchester venue to experience a brand that claims each outlet has its own unique character, often set in buildings of remarkable splendour.
The choice of the Athanaeum, formerly one of Manchester’s most famous pubs, was an inspiration. Originally the imposing banking hall of Parr’s Bank, this building was designed by Charles Heathcote in 1902 and is a wonderful example of Edwardian baroque architecture with some beautiful art nouveau detailing, particularly in the wrought iron work.
I was pleasantly surprised by the exterior – and totally blown away by the inside. Wow. It was decorated beautifully, complete with open plan kitchen, snug booths and a large overstated bar – necessary in such a big space.
We were shown to our booth, ordered a glass of prosecco Della Venezia and left to browse the menu and wine list. The prosecco was lovely and crisp, not a bad start.
The wine list was one of the best organised I’ve ever seen, broken into sections and titled refreshing, full and rich or aromatic and adventurous for the whites, while the reds were listed as rich and full, smooth and medium and light to medium. Each bit was ranked in order of price, making it very easy to come to a decision. We opted for the Marlborough Pinot Noir Yealands Estate.
The menu was well equally laid out and bursting with tasty sounding dishes that left me struggling to settle on one dish. Finally, I plumped for the curried scallops as I’d seen the recipe in the book and wanted to compare it to my version, followed by the wild boar and chorizo burger. To me, the sign of a good eatery is a burger, very simple to do but so many get it wrong. Done correctly they’re hard to beat but a poor one means no return visit. My dining parter chose asparagus and prosciutto followed by the roast beef, (available as we went on a Sunday).
The starters arrived. Presented beautifully, the scallops tasted fantastic; slightly overcooked but only slightly and they worked well with the cauliflower purée and grape vinaigrette (I couldn’t wait to try the recipe myself at home). The asparagus was very good – lots of flavours with a perfectly poached egg.
The Pinot Noir was going down a treat when our mains arrived: the wine was full of flavours, you struggle to find a bad New Zealand Pinot nowadays as the grape certainly suits their climate. My burger was fantastic. The gherkin, tomato salsa and mayo were all served in separate dishes on the plate allowing you to add as much or as little as you desired, with crisp onion rings and skinny fries. The roast beef was served flawlessly with plentiful dishes of side vegetables, not to mention the tastiest red cabbage we’ve ever had – the true star of the show.
With my lunch companion well and truly stuffed, it was left it to me to sample the desserts. But which one? Salted caramel cheesecake, sticky toffee pudding, Eton mess or do I try a Browns brownie? With three to choose from I couldn’t decide so I went for all of them. The brownie indulgence consisted of half of all three brownie choices. I wasn’t disappointed although my friend looked on in astonishment as I polished off the lot.
Browns is a chain but the people there obviously know their stuff. In fact, they could teach a few of the other chain restaurants a thing thing or two about…well, everything, from decor to menu design to presentation.
A week after our feast at Browns, I tried the scallops recipe from the cookbook. I picked up some fantastic looking scallops in the half shell on Bury Market, got some grapes and cauliflower and followed the recipe to a tee – not an easy task for a chef, we always want to add our own little touches. The dish turned out great, tasted the same as the restaurant but my scallops were obviously cooked perfectly. The rest of the book has some other recipes I’d like to try and are easy to follow. I’ll be using it again and I hope Browns continues for another 40 years. Perhaps then a follow-up book might be in order?
Review by Chef Tony
What: Browns Bar & Brasserie
Where: York Street, Manchester and nationwide