Brain on a plate, brain on a plate. Wibble, wobble, wibble wobble. Brain on a plate.
It's all I can think as executive chef Merlin Labron-Johnson sets down the raw calf's organ on the counter at Clipstone, a recently opened bistro-style restaurant in London's fancy Fitzrovia neighbourhood.
"They're not that big," says Labron-Johnson as he peels back the packaging. "But they're really rich so you don't want too much."
The brain is ready and waiting to be made into calves' brain meunière on toast: a gently fried brain drenched in a buttery, herby sauce and served on grilled bread.
Overseeing brain prep with Labron-Johnson is Clipstone head chef Stuart Andrew.
"Our style is clean flavours and fresh food but we both have a huge love of classical French cooking—that underpins everything I do," he says.
As well as a shared philosophy, Labron-Johnson and Andrew are used to sharing a workspace.
The former is perhaps best known for heading up the kitchen around the corner at Portland, Clipstone's sister restaurant, which opened to great acclaim in January 2015. Nine months later, he earned a Michelin star there at the age of 24. Labron-Johnson now acts as executive chef to both restaurants while Andrew, previously a sous chef at Portland, takes the reins at Clipstone.
As Labron-Johnson brings out a "here's-one-I-made-earlier" water-soaked brain and starts coating it in flour, he tells me how the time he spent at Belgian fine dining restaurant In de Wulf and Andrew's career in Paris influence the Clipstone menu.
"We met in Belgium and we talked about our ideas and our philosophies on food and they really matched. I think that comes from working in Europe more than working in England," he says. "This restaurant is perhaps more inspired by restaurants Stuart was working at in Paris than places in London."
But Labron-Johnson and Andrew want to banish any preconceptions about heavy French stews or cream-laden sauces.
"At a lot of these bistros in Paris, there's an element of freshness to the food that you don't find in so many restaurants in London," continues Labron-Johnson. "We pair raspberries with tomatoes and peaches with fish. There are a lot of vinegars and fermentation methods used."
Spying the block of butter in which the brain is now frying, plus the veal stock that will be added to the sauce later, I raise an eyebrow at the word "fresh."
Butter and brain starting to sizzle, Andrew explains how the atmosphere of the restaurant scene in Paris differs to the UK.
"It was a bit more fun in Paris because it was more affordable," he says. "You'd get young chefs taking a punt, creating new dishes every week, and people wouldn't be too harsh on them. Everything was a work in progress. You were getting quality and imaginative cooking."
I ask whether the "give it a go" approach was the reason he and Labron-Johnson decided to keep Clipstone's pizza oven, a piece of equipment leftover from the site's former life as a pizzeria.
"We already made our own bread at Portland so I thought, 'Why not make pizzas?'. But it's still a work in progress using sourdough as the base as it's not as light as your standard dough," explains Andrew. "But you can be quite adventurous with the toppings—essentially it's a nice piece of bread with some stuff on top. We're also hoping to use the oven to roast a chicken or a whole fish."
Meanwhile, Labron-Johnson slides the fried brain on a plate to start on the sauce. He tells me that despite only selling one brains on toast in the Clipstone's first week of service, it has become the dish everyone now requests.
"Every table at lunch today asked for one. I've even had one guy come up to me and ask for my supplier!" he says.
And the reason for including such an unusual dish on the menu in the first place?
"I used to eat it all the time at a place called Viva M'Bona in Brussels," says Labron-Johnson. "It used to come with all of these unnecessary garnishes but it was so good. Also, the restaurant [name] literally translates as "long live the grandmother" which I thought was weird."
"That's what we should have called this place," chips in Andrew.
Grandmothers and their longevity, Andrew tells me that offal plays a big part at Clipstone.
"Clipstone has a lower price point than Portland so we keep the same principles and make dishes that are just as delicious. But rather than using a bigger, more expensive slab of meat at the centre of a dish, you just have to put a bit more thought into it," he says. "For instance, we've got a dish using ox tongue, which I love, on the menu. It's brined, slow cooked overnight in the oven, and then we grill it. There are quite a lot of processes before you get it onto the plate."
Covering the brain with the herb and caper sauce, Labron-Johnson admits that this offal-led approach, plus the close proximity of Portland and Clipstone, also helps with the purchasing of ingredients.
He explains: "I just bought half a pig today and we'll use the cheaper cuts at Clipstone to make rillettes and things. The saddle we'll use over at Portland."
A grating of lemon zest is the final flourish and the dish is ready. I dive in headfirst, slicing the still quite wobbly meat, and take a bite. I'm surprised. It's a bit like rich, silky tofu but the glutinous, buttery sauce is definitely the highlight.
Labron-Johnson intimates that the dish may make the restaurant's brunch menu in future and while I haven't taken down the details for their brain dealer yet, I'd be willing to ditch the avo on toast for it.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.