… but the fire is fizzling out.
On paper, Brigadiers sounds like a raucous yet soulless Cityboy frathouse. Brigadiers doesn’t just serve Indian-style grilled meats. It serves them in a clubhouse-style setting decorated in a cod British Raj-esque manner. There’s even a room kitted out with a pool table, a TV permanently tuned to Sky Sports and a wall-mounted whisky vending machine. Plus, it’s nestled in the heart of the City near Bank, a place that manages to fill other local restaurants, such as Sushisamba and Pitt Cue, with a seemingly unending stream of booted and suited pinstriped flap sacks unapologetically buoyant in their own grotesqueness. Their sozzled gurning, chortling at unmentionably dank ‘jokes’ and deep personality voids can make eating out in this part of town an eyebrow raising slog rather than the joy it should be.
Even Brigadiers’ status as the latest project from JKS, the money and/or the minds behind numerous classy restaurants from Hoppers to Bao and Lyle’s, didn’t assuage my doubts. Gymkhana, the clear antecedent to Brigadiers, is one of the few JKS restaurants resting on its laurels rather than earning them.
The reality was anti-climactic, almost pleasantly so. Even on a Friday and Saturday evening, the carousing at Brigadiers was surprisingly good-natured for the most part. The warren-like arrangement of rooms does dampen the atmosphere though. It feels less like a Vegas sports bar or one of the dens of iniquity at Sushisamba, which I had feared, and more like a vacuum-packed Dubai-style transplant of Gymkhana.
First things first
The food was something of a mixed bag across all my visits. Sagafella oysters felt like a dish made to accommodate an overwrought pun, rather than an actual recipe in its own right. The creamy salty fleshiness of the oysters wasn’t bad, but the toppings of tangy spinach and oozing cheese weren’t anywhere as complimentary or as richly flavoursome as one would think. The whole thing left me oddly unmoved.
Masala chicken skin wasn’t bad as a bar snack, or as an amuse bouche if you prefer. Supple, meaty chicken skin topped with lime pickle would’ve been even better if either one had been less apologetic and more boldly flavoursome.
A skewer of mildly sweet and smoky chicken hearts and thigh chunks weren’t too bad in their own right. The use of hearts drew inevitable comparisons to Japanese-style yakitori though, comparisons that it couldn’t bear the weight of – the texture was just a bit too soft with none of the crisp, springy mouthfeel that suits skewered offal so well.
Prawn and lobster kati roll felt like a spectacularly tardy attempt to capitalise on the lobster roll trend which sadly fizzled out and never really caught on in London. The kati roll itself was a thing of beauty – delightfully crisp, then fluffy soft with a gentle flakiness, it’s a testament to the art of carb shaping. That just makes the so-so quality of the fillings all the more disappointing – the crustacean chunks were a tad too soft, with almost none of the bouncy mouthfeel that they should’ve had. They were further lost amidst the thick and sweet sauce laden with bell peppers and even more so when the pair of dipping/ladeling sauces on the side were applied.
I was unexpectedly won over by the crab seekh kebabs. This surprising use of crab meat resulted in a chicken-like effect that was light yet tinged with hints of smoke, butter and zest, all further emphasised by the sprightly dipping sauce and squirts of lemon juice. It’s a must-have for pescatarians.
The lamb chops were another hit, which is just as well given the number of Pakistani/Bangladeshi grill and chop houses in nearby Whitechapel. As expected, they made a dramatic appearance – sizzling, smoking and spitting meat juices as they landed on my table before settling into a growling fizz. The peppery, smoky rub was matched by a remarkable level of tenderness in the pink-hued meat. They weren’t quite as remarkable as the lamb chops at Gunpowder, but they edged ahead of the ones at Bombay Bustle and were certainly better than the unbalanced effort at Gymkhana as well as the largely overhyped effort at Tayyabs.
If I were an uncharitable culinary reductionist like The Bastard, I’d describe the roasted kheer kulfi as an uprated Cornetto with rice krispies. I’m not though, so I won’t – especially as this ice cream went beyond such a simplistic description. There was indeed puffed, crisp rice. But there was also a smooth ice cream that was remarkably smoky and malty, yet dotted with bits of sweet strawberry, falling out of a joyfully crunchy, buttery cone. The presentation of this dessert was undoubtedly peculiar, but that didn’t stop it from tasting remarkably good.
Going back for seconds
Miniature samosas were by no means bad, with their thin, crisp pastry holding in tender, moreish strands of meat. The small size of each samosa meant they struggled to leave much of an impression though – if the menu hadn’t told me the filling was ‘ox cheek vindaloo’, then I’d have been none the wiser.
The chilli cheese kulcha didn’t have that much chilli or cheese and the bread itself wasn’t up to the fluffy, puffy standard set by Indian Accent. It was good enough for scooping up the moreishly beefy mince though, which was itself noticeably better executed than its Gymkhana counterpart. That meaty treat was then promptly upstaged by the quivering unctuous richness of the bone marrow. As enjoyable as the keema was, I trade it all for even more bone marrow.
The Afghan lamb ‘cannon’ kebab was a compact powerhouse of flavour and texture. Cubes of smoky fattiness alternated with tender chunks of smooth lamb and then crisp onions and peppers to dazzling effect.
Whole turbot came encrusted with crunchy, zesty samphire and so-so lentils that managed to be occasionally nutty. It’s a baffling decision as all that vegetal overgrowth smothered and obscured the qualities of the fish. Although the turbot did have a certain smoky charm to it, this was hard to appreciate. The most enjoyable bits of this misguided fish dish were the smoky skin and the pearls of sticky, sweet flesh directly attached underneath.
Banana yoghurt kulfi was essentially a banana split in ice cream form. It hewed much closer to the fruit than most banana splits ever manage with a pronounced syrupy sweet tanginess. Given the sheer volume of ice cream, the remarkably crunchy, buttery biscuit shell was a mere ceremonial figurehead rather than a practical vessel. This was a crowd-pleasing dessert that wasn’t trying to be clever or new, but that’s definitely something I can live with in this case.
Three isn’t always the magic number
I’ve never been convinced by pork scratchings, but I was willing to give Brigadiers’ version a go purely because they came with a cod roe raita. While the latter was pleasing enough, resembling a smoother-than-usual taramsalata, I should really have saved my calories for something else. Not even a vaguely parika-ish coating was enough to liven up these crunchily bland pork bites.
Blini-sized mini rotis were surprisingly uninviting in their stodginess. A topping of smoked aubergine wasn’t too bad in its smoothness, gentle smokiness and light creaminess that was reasonably evocative of eggplant. Its resemblance to baba ghanoush was unfortunate though – it merely left me hankering for a proper, more boldly-flavoured baba ghanoush.
The bread section of Brigadier’s kitchen brigade was clearly having a bad day. While the eponymous bread in the mushroom meti malai naan wasn’t too bad, it wasn’t quite as soft, pillowy and elastically tearable as I expected. The mushroom topping was a winner with their tautness, slipperiness and a surprising earthy, peppery sweetness that shouldn’t work but really did. The problem was that the mushrooms were obscured by lashings of fenugreek and a feta-like cheese. A disappointing and unbalanced effort.
Although they won’t win any Instagram beauty awards, the goat chops had plenty of inner beauty. While served on the bone, as is right and proper, the meat was only moderately earthy. Its tender, sinewy mouthfeel – occasionally laced with the odd tendon and other connective tissue – more than made up for this deficiency though. The sauce was no afterthought – thick, peppery, gently sweet and dotted with sharp ginger, aromatic cardamom and fenugreek. The only civilised way to devour this beauty was to carve the meat off the bone, ensure it’s slathered in sauce and then pluck it up with a torn sheaf of fluffy, puffy roti. It’s dishes like this where Brigadiers shows its potential – rich, multilayered sauces, exquisitely rendered meat and adeptly crafted bread.
A distinctly flavoured coconut ice cream was helped along by extant bits of crisp coconut. Its clean aftertaste should’ve contrasted neatly with the bittersweetness of the chocolate mousse, except the latter was far too tame for its own good. Most of the joy in this dessert came instead from the sweet sharp heat of candied ginger which proved to be surprisingly complimentary to both coconut and chocolate. Unmistakably flavoured – but not overwhelmingly so – its presence was a stroke of genius.
A whisky vending machine interlude
It’s worth devoting a few words to Brigadiers’ whisky vending machine located in the pool table room, given all the fawning press that this robo-bartender has received.
I am, as long-time readers will know, a teetotaler, so I solicited an outside opinion on Brigadiers’ whisky selection. Chris Phin of the Scotch podcast was largely unimpressed, describing the chosen bottles as ‘showy’ and ‘expensive’ rather than being ‘a solid, interesting range’. He was critical of the selection leaning towards smoky Islay-style whiskys, leaving the lighter Highland and Speyside styles underrepresented, with the proviso that the more robust tipples chosen may well be better partners for the smoky grilled meats.
The more diverse and adventurous selection behind the bar – and available tableside – was far more intriguing with the Indian single malts in particular catching Phin’s discerning eye.
Go fourth and multiply
In addition to its expansive a la carte menu, Brigadiers has a number of set menus such as the ‘feast’ menu for two. The Euro Hedgie made the strenuous journey in from just down the road to help me devour it.
The masala chicken skin was a disappointment, with both its meaty and lime pickle flavours far more muted than before. Lotus root and puffed rice chaat was a far better appetiser. Although the starchiness of the lotus root had been lost, its crunchy, crispy lightness made it an apt conveyor for the lightly sweet and spicy relish.
The Afghan lamb ‘cannon’ kebab had also regressed with not nearly enough meaty fattiness compared to its previous appearance. Butter chicken wings were more winsome. Despite their seemingly small size and unassuming appearance, the chubby flappers were not only meaty but had a buttery sweetness and moreishly smoky undertone.
If I was uncharitable, I’d call the fried fish pao nothing more than a gussied-up fish finger sandwich. It’s far better than any fish finger sandwich I’ve ever had. From the fluffy soft bread and the crisp, airy, oil-free batter to the tangy sour relish and light chunks of fish, it was surprisingly well-executed for what could’ve been a thrown-in filler dish.
Although our biryani didn’t come with the dum pastry lid – easily one of the best parts of Gymkhana’s biryani – its absence was quickly forgotten. The sweet, fragrant and seemingly weightless rice was a true delight. While I still think carabinero prawns are best served raw for appreciating their sweet, delicate qualities, their presence here was hardly wasted. Their dainty little bodies added a musky, salty funk to the proceedings, especially when slurping out what gunk remained in their heads. This may not be a traditional biryani, but that hardly matters when the result is oh so satisfying.
Exquisitely tender, sinewy chunks of goat shoulder were blessed with a gentle earthiness and occasional seams of fat and connective tissue. Only the paratha sitting underneath was a let down, with its surprisingly unpleasant chewiness that verged on toughness.
As if there weren’t enough carbs bulking out this set menu, there was also rice flecked with caramelised onions and caradamom as well as a basket of respectable if ultimately unexemplary naan.
A head of lettuce dressed in refreshing yoghurt and mint provided a measure of light respite from the relative heaviness of the meaty mains. It was a bit too utilitarian and dull though, so I largely skipped it in favour of the buttery, lightly peppery daal and so should you.
Roasted kheer kulfi was just as good as it was before.
Mango kulfi falooda was somewhat deconstructed compared to a traditional falooda. The strands of vermicelli were infused with rosewater, rather than swimming in the stuff which can often be overpowering. The delicately sweet strands were topped with a hefty dollop of mango ice cream. While true to the fruit, it was only reasonably smooth – it was a bit too crunchy with one too many ice crystals here and there. It was a pleasing desert nonetheless.
Brigadiers is, for all intents and purposes, the City branch of Gymkhana. Despite the different name, the similarities in clubby décor and charred, meat-heavy menu are unmistakable. It’s this, rather than my so-far unfounded fears about the City’s toxic masculinity seeping in through the doors, that ultimately undermines Brigadiers’ appeal.
Like its predecessor, Brigadiers is an amiable enough place to while away an hour or two, especially given the paucity of anything remotely similar in the immediate vicinity. But it relies on this and its generally friendly service to distract you from the safe, unimaginative and uneven menu. There’s still joy to be found in dishes such as the bone marrow keema and the lamb chops. But this retreading of past glories not only fails to push the state-of-the-art forwards, it’s also unworthy of a JKS restaurant.
JKS has mastered the knack of getting people to pay proper money for Indian food. But to really get your money’s worth and experience just how truly fabulous South Asian food in London can be, it’s worth turning away from Brigadiers and towards the likes of Darjeeling Express, Kricket or Kashmir.
What to order: Lamb chops; Goat chops; Bone marrow keema; Biryani; Fried fish pao; Butter chicken wings; Crab seekh kebabs; Maybe the Afghan lamb kebab
What to skip: Ox cheek vindaloo samosas; Turbot; Pork scratchings; Aubergine rotis; Mushroom naan
Address: 1-5 Bloomberg Arcade, London EC4N 8AR
Phone: 020 3319 8140
Kitchen Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.30-23.00. Saturday noon-23.00. Sunday noon-21.00.
Reservations: essential on weekdays. Highly recommended on weekends.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £60-70 approx.
Pingback: Berenjak review – this JKS restaurant got me hooked on Iranian kebabs | The Picky Glutton