Yes, I know Browns is a chain, and one I associate most closely with Cambridge, having been to that branch several times. In spite of chain marketing syndrome, Browns is a chain than prefers not to think of itself as a chain, characterised as it is by appearing in gentrified university towns and in elegant and noble old buildings, describing itself as a “brasserie and bar” but serving, by and large, a combination of traditional and modernish English food, plus afternoon cream tea, cocktails and fizz in an ambience more redolent of piano bar than true French brasserie (“brasserie” meaning brewery.)
The tradition is maintained not so much by the beer connection (the range in Browns is not great) but by the fact that you can eat and drink all day and can indeed eat a variant on steak-frites, of which more later. This is unquestionably an eatery that aspires to be posher than your humble brasserie and thereby win an audience among the Hooray Henries and possibly the sort of student parents who might say, “I’m not going to eat there. Let’s go to Browns instead.”
The point about architecture is certainly true of both Cambridge and Bristol branches of Browns, the latter of which, cheek-by-jowl with the historic university buildings, would not look out of place in a Canaletto painting of Venice. A classic beauty of a building certainly one to elevate the ambience of the restaurant.
We visited Browns en famille as part of our weekend of celebrations for my daughter’s graduation. Browns was actually her second choice, the first being Thai tapas though after a month in SE Asia she changed her mind about Thai food.
On seating us and presenting the menus, our waiter’s first job was to tell us which dishes were off. These included fish pie, sea bass and lamb rump, but no specials to add. Some parties would have left immediately, but we stayed the course, being made of sterner stuff.
Two of our party chose to share a baked camembert as a starter, one went without and I chose the pulled brisket croquettes with brown sauce, plus a golden beet piccalilli, as much for curiosity value as anything else. Both proved to be rather good – the camembert, now a pub standard for sharing dishes, went down a treat with the one comment that you never have enough bread.
My four croquette balls came stacked with a salad garnish and a rather remarkable sweet beetroot piccalilli daubed around the outside. Perhaps a few sharper notes would have improved it, but then what is traditional piccalilli if it doesn’t include a touch of sour to set off the sweet? The balls were freshly fried, crispy on the outside, contained a little meat but much more potato, and lacked mostly any hint of the promised brown sauce.
So on to the mains: one rib eye steak for my boy, who would be eating steak of a far higher pedigree a few days later on his birthday; a steak and Guinness pie with bubble and squeak and crisp prosciutto ham for my ex-wife; salmon wrapped in the self same prosciutto plus dauphinoise and a pea veloute from the “homegrown summer” menu for my daughter; and for me slow cooked salted pork belly, “savoury apple pie, buttered green beans, mash, crackling, red wine jus.”
All sounds pretty inviting, don’t you think? Not a total hit as it turned out. Daughter’s salmon was decidedly overcooked and blackened on the underside – shame they didn’t call it blackened cajun salmon, you might think – but she refused to send it back.
Son’s steak was OK, he said, but certainly not in the top steaks ever served. I have no idea of the provenance of the animal in question, but I am pretty sure Browns has not invested in a Josper grill to imbue the meat with the best smoky charcoal flavour.
Ex-wife enjoyed her pub grub-style pie, which turned up in a bowl like an eye stalk, with a covering of pastry to finish off the spherical shape. Light on the steak, she said, but otherwise a happy meal (as opposed to a Happy Meal.)
My slab of pork belly, cooked presumably sous vide in the modern vogue (a posh French name for boil-in-the-bag), retained the moisture and was good. Mash – check, beans -check. The sticky gravy accompanying it may well have contained red wine though I hesitate to call it a jus.
But hang on, what’s this “savoury apple pie” they promised? It turns out to be a small jug of apple-flavoured baby food, maybe with a touch of cinnamon thrown in. Apple pie it sure wasn’t, so why even use such an evocative phrase?
Worst of all, where was the crackling? That’s the best bit of any pork belly meal, as anyone will tell you. Blow me, they had substituted some of the “crisp prosciutto ham” for crackling. My night was ruined, I tell you.
In fairness to Browns, most of what they do is fine, but it is still chain syndrome and could be better for using local initiative and ingredients, and paying more attention to detail to avoid some of the more glaring errors.
Brasserie and bar I can just about live with, but if you were expecting the glorious premises to be accompanied by fine dining, best go elsewhere. Don’t expect it to be that cheap though – the £106 bill was comparatively light, but then we did not drink a lot and stayed clear of the desserts. Maybe we were paying for the premises as much as the food?