Restaurant Review: Brigade Bar & Bistro, near London Bridge in London
Just a stone’s throw from London’s iconic Tower Bridge and its breathtaking views of the river Thames, the infamous Tooley Street Fire Station can be found nestled amongst slick corporate offices and intimidating apartment blocks.
But gone are the days of putting out blazes, with latest incarnation Brigade Bar & Bistro serving up a whole different kind of affair. A unique social enterprise with an appetite for excellent food and great service to match, Brigade is the brainchild of Chef Founder Simon Boyle, and has become a place which serves to inspire vulnerable people as well as cooking up original takes on popular dishes with the freshest seasonal ingredients available.
Together with the Beyond Food Foundation, Brigade offers catering apprenticeships to those who are – or at risk of becoming – homeless, providing them with the opportunity for a brighter future.
The Fire Station itself, was built in 1879 to save lives and protect properties following the devastating Tooley Street Fire of 1861, and it seems that Brigade has continued to live by the values of business sense and social responsibility to make for a venue that is vibrant, authentic, and completely unlike anywhere we have eaten before.
As we are shown to our seats in the quiet bistro area via the bar, we eye the red leather furniture and black decor we pass en route with trepidation. On first impressions, the entire venue seems more like a watering hole than anything else, but as we settle down and take in the view from the seating area, we are pleasantly surprised to see an open kitchen, with the restaurant’s chefs hard at work. There’s something quite thrilling about watching the team at work – all the more so given the nature of the establishment – and as we are poured a flute of champagne each by a smiling waiter and handed a pair of menus, we eagerly begin to study the dishes on offer, keen to find out what lies in store.
Hungry from a busy day of meetings and events around the capital, we quickly select our starters – I go for the Salad of Golden Cross Goat’s Cheese, while my dining partner opts for the Salad of Fresh Cornish Crab with Pink Grapefruit and Cucumber Jelly. While we are awaiting their arrival, we agree to share, having each eyed the other’s choice with envy – and, of course, a little bit of greed.
The dishes are quick to arrive, and come beautifully presented on their plates courtesy of chef Alex Buitrago, who talks us through the ingredients with a passion for food that is evident in his words. The goat’s cheese, he tells us, is accompanied by watermelon that has been expertly dehydrated, with the juice then heated and reduced down to produce a sweet and syrupy liquid. Once cooled, the melon is then re-soaked in the reduction – and voila, a little black olive tapenade and the dish is complete. It may seem like an awful lot of trouble to go to for what is essentially a piece of fruit, but combined with the rich, creamy flavour of the goat’s cheese, it’s clear that it’s entirely worth the effort. The crab dish is equally pleasing, with the delicate flavour of the meat itself juxtaposed with tart pink grapefruit, tomato, and a refreshing cucumber jelly, to make for a light and enjoyable start to the meal.
Before long, we are onto the mains – Braised Wild Duck with Red Wine, Fresh Damsons, Spinach and Barley for me, and Grey Mullet and Mussel Stew for my dining partner. The duck is cooked to perfection, and is so tender that it falls easily away from the bone. The sweetness of the damsons and red wine reduction are the perfect complement, and the unusual accompaniment of barley has just enough bite to it. A filling dish that is suitably warming and comforting for the colder season.
My dining partner mumbles his appreciation as he ploughs through his stew, never one to wait around when it comes to food. He praises the delicate flavours and chunky texture of what is another satisfying dish.
We force down a side of tender and juicy Dirty Carrots – not because they aren’t delicious, because they are – but because we are full to the brim from our starters and mains. Portions are generous at Brigade, and sides are not always necessary. Once again, we are talked through the dishes from start to finish, with chef Buitrago only too happy to oblige. It’s a nice touch, and makes the experience somewhat educational as well enjoyable. The waiter service itself is pleasant and attentive, though we sense an air of shyness that is perhaps down to inexperience. After all, everyone has got to start somewhere. Alex, on the other hand, really knows his stuff, and it’s fair to say that he played a starring role in our evening.
We request a short break before ordering dessert, settling back to enjoy our wine and watch the chefs at work. The Catena Malbec (2012) is an elegantly structured red, with ripe fruit flavours of blackberry and blackcurrant complemented with subtle vanilla – all accentuated by a dash of peppery spice. It’s a crisp and drinkable wine, with refreshing acidity on the finish.
After a short while, we decide to try the Chocolate Tart for dessert, which is every bit as rich and decadent as one would imagine. The base is crumbly, buttery biscuit, while the filling is creamy and smooth. Just one slice is enough for us, and we agree that it’s a pleasing way to finish the evening.
Before we leave, Chef Buitrago is keen to show us around the establishment, and we are only too happy to oblige. Intrigued by the concept of the social enterprise side to the business, we are eager to see where the magic happens, and upstairs we stroll through meeting spaces, private dining rooms and the cook school itself.
Meaningful employment, we are told, is emotionally, economically and intellectually fulfilling to the individual, as well as beneficial to the society we live in, and Brigade’s philosophy is all about bringing people together and nourishing relationships through the power of great food.
The Verdict: A unique dining experience in a convenient location, Brigade is an admirable endeavour that makes a real difference in the lives of vulnerable locals. While the decor might leave room for improvement, there is a real passion for food that is evident in every dish, and enjoying a delicious meal while giving back to the community as you pay the bill is something most of us can get on board with. As this is a place of education, it’s to be expected that some things are a work in progress – but Brigade has got all of the important bits just right, from quality ingredients and creative, well-thought out dishes to an inspiring vision and all-round commendable approach to food.
Address: 139 Tooley St, London SE1 2HZ / 0844 346 1225