This week The Trussell Trust announced the biggest ever annual increase in use of its UK foodbanks, just as many London foodies were getting in a tizz over yet another new restaurant where the cheapest option is a £45, six-course tasting menu. Some of us are agonising over whether to go for 6 or 10 courses at lunch; some of us are agonising over whether we will eat at all today. Never, that I can recall in my lifetime, has the gulf between 'haves' and 'have-nots' seemed so painfully wide.
But I'm not about to say that eating out, and enjoying it, is wrong, or immoral; it'd be vastly over-simplifying matters, not to mention hypocritical of me, to say that because some people can't afford to eat, those who can should feel bad about it. What I would say however is that where an opportunity presents itself to support disadvantaged people while stuffing our faces, it is - I think - incumbent on us, at least occasionally, to take it.
Brigade Bar & Bistro, on Tooley Street, presents just such an opportunity. A social enterprise offering six-month apprenticeships to people who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness, Brigade supports the Beyond Food Foundation which helps apprentices into careers in catering and hospitality. It's a similar principle to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen - which celebrates ten years in business this year - but, lacking as high-profile a figurehead as the ubiquitous Jamie O, is rather less well-known.
To deal first with the only thing I really couldn't bring myself to love about Brigade, the dining room is not going to win any design awards any time soon. Although the room has as its focal point a fashionable open kitchen, the decor is harsh and dated with cream pleather chairs and fake flowers doing nothing to diminish the impression of having walked into a suburban budget hotel with airs, not a smart modern restaurant in an increasingly-happening part of London. It's noisy too; the shrieks of a large group ricocheting off every hard surface made it at times hard to hear or think on my visit. The rest of the building, which houses private dining and meeting rooms, a cookery school and offices is, by contrast, rather chic.
Fortunately that's where the gripes end because the food - which is, ultimately, what it's all about - is very good, and certainly well above the standard one might expect from a brigade of mostly chefs-in-training. Bar a couple of minor, and in the circumstances excusable, glitches, old school-friend David and I each enjoyed three pretty much perfect courses.
To start, David chose Wiltshire venison carpaccio, each deep red petal carved carefully to a uniform thinness and served with aged Old Winchester cheese, a clever British substitution for the usual Parmesan. My sardine tart, from the daily specials, was beautifully presented, two plump glistening silver fillets framed by puff pastry. The fish tasted deliciously fresh, its natural oiliness balanced by the crispness of the pastry.
David's main course of pan-fried lemon sole was, as my sardines had been, impeccably good fish, firm textured but delicate, although the lemon butter it was served in didn't taste of lemon at all and could have used a more generous whack of citrus. My chicken mousse-stuffed breast of guinea fowl was excellent, the mousse sufficiently boldly-flavoured as to not be overwhelmed by the game. Guinea fowl is all too often overcooked to dryness; not so here.
Sides were interesting but needed tweaking; deep-fried broccoli with a small bowl of rustic tomato and white bean stew was tasty stuff, notwithstanding slightly clumpy batter on the broccoli, but was such a huge serving that it would have been better offered as a starter than a side-order - a surfeit of food can be as bad as a lack. Roasted beetroot, cumin seeds and honey meanwhile used lovely earthy beets but I couldn't detect any cumin, by taste or sight, leading me to wonder if it had been left out altogether.
Desserts were a highlight. Caramelised apple tart - tarte aux pommes a l'alsacienne in anywhere less proudly flying the flag for all things British than Brigade - with Calvados ice-cream was a textbook assembly of thinly-sliced apple fanned around a crisp, fine base, while white chocolate and raspberry crème brûlée was luxuriously unctuous without being overly rich.
Helped by the fact that service was faultlessly polished and polite and despite the decor and noise, David and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The food was mostly very impressive, if in places lacking nuance and finesse - the unlemony lemon butter, the missing cumin - which can of course be excused knowing that the chefs here are learning on the job and will only do so by making mistakes. That said, the pricing at Brigade is pretty punchy with starters at £5.95-£10.50, mains at £14.95-£28.50 and desserts £5.50-£7.95, so one might not unreasonably expect (even) better. David felt that I was being harsh on this point and that if the money spent at Brigade is going to support good work - which it plainly is - then the pricing was justified.
Which brings us neatly back to my original point, and the one that I would ask you to take a moment to reflect on, namely that while there is of course no reason for us to stop going out and having lovely expensive meals just because 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2012-13, wouldn't it be great if, just occasionally, we could find a way of doing it that benefits others? Thanks to Brigade, we can.
Brigade, The Fire Station, 139 Tooley Street, London SE1 2HZ Tel: 0844 346 1225 www.thebrigade.co.uk
Another very worthwhile campaign I'm supporting:
Posted by +Hugh Wright