Evening on a midwinter Thursday, nine o’clock, and the myrtle swathe of Wandsworth Common sags beneath the drizzle. Hued in Ramsayan aubergine, Chez Bruce gleams invitingly over the wet, dark grass. Inside, the mirrored dining room is stirring snugly, like a sleeping puppy. The taxi purrs to the open door. Expectant, excited, hungry, we glide up the glistening stone steps, and–
‘We’re not ready for you yet. Could you come back in ten minutes?’
As we’re wondering what to do, they manage to find a table. The room is boxy and hot, the covers packed with claustrophobic eagerness. No matter: we already knew that food is more important than setting here.
Say what you like about Harden’s as a restaurant guide, but its readers have voted this place London’s favourite restaurant every year since 2005. It first received a Michelin star in 1999, the same year as The Fat Duck. Unlike Heston Blumenthal, however, who's beginning to appear with unpromising frequency on Channel 4, Bruce Poole sticks largely to the kitchen.
It shows. As he told Jay Rayner in 2006, ‘All I did was write the kind of menu I thought people would want to eat’. Which is why tonight’s – it changes twice a day – contains a brandade terrine with aïoli potato salad and chorizo; duck confit with red cabbage, braised lentils and roast potato; and, as always, the signature crème brulée.
Everything, in fact, looks good – so much so that I have to ask the manager to recommend something. (After eight years in the job, David O’Connor recently left for The Square.) ‘I wouldn’t have the tartare in someone else’s restaurant,’ he says. ‘But I would here.’ It’s the best I’ve tasted outside France: hand-chopped fillet spiked with the sharp crunch of shallot and a splash of red wine vinegar, some cornichons, a hit of peppery rocket, and harmonised by a soft quenelle of crème fraiche. It also comes with sublimely knobbled ‘chips’ of deep-fried polenta, remarkably crisp and light, with a background shimmer of garlic from the oil they were cooked in. A foie gras and chicken liver parfait for C – maroon and iron-savoured, it turns out to be sealed in a Jurançon jelly, which is pleasing given that we’d already chosen a half-bottle of the same wine to have with the starters. I should mention here that the 450-strong wine list has won awards in its own right, and offers, as they say, something for everyone.
Home-made boudin blanc nestles with tender pork belly alongside creamed potatoes, Savoy cabbage and an apple compôte. It’s a generously cluttered Alsatian plate, with ingredients matrixed by a rich, mustardy, piggy sauce bringing some coherence to the competing flavours. A fillet of cod is sealed by the salt crunch of grilled pancetta, with braised, floppy gem lettuce, a duxelle of wild mushrooms (mainly girolles and porcini) and Jerusalem artichoke purée. The bacon is the footbridge for this dish, linking the slick freshness of the well-cooked fish with the forest earthiness of fungi and tuber.
Understating, the website says, ‘We take the cheese board very seriously at Chez Bruce, and it forms an integral part of the restaurant.’ Neal’s Yard supplies; amongst the half-dozen I choose is one I’ve never had before: a Coolea from Ireland. Apparently, it won Best Modern Irish Cheese at the British Cheese Awards 2007. It’s rather similar to Gouda – surely it’s time, incidentally, that that cheese is awarded PDO status? – and is smooth, bubbly, and milky. A goats’ Pélardon from the Languedoc is just stunning – brittle and nutty, like a limestone cave in a rainwashed wood. There’s also a fig preserve and some home-made quince jelly. Pudding-wise, a marzipany pear and almond tart, with good pastry but unaided by clotted cream which is too rich for it; and a less successful salted pecan ice-cream that unharmoniously meshes sweet and savoury - though it comes with lovely tuiles and madeleines. A slosh of port, a camomile tea and some free crunchy pastries complete this outstanding dinner.
One common criticism of the place does seem valid: that the lively, demi-rustic cooking is slightly – only slightly – at odds with the formal, almost reverential atmosphere. There are no amuses, cloches or Franglais here, but there’s starched linen, a solemn hush, a fine sommelier for a magnificent wine list and, as C said, the crowd is ‘very Hurlingham Club’. Perhaps that’s what it takes to get a Michelin star - although it must be said, Poole doesn’t seem to have sought those plaudits. Yet perhaps the most frequent complaint of Murano – that the generous glow of Hartnett’s Italianate food is stifled by the joyless sterility of its corporate setting – bears, I think, a very faint comparison here. Nonetheless, the food, which remains the rich, beating heart of Chez Bruce, is simply fantastic. I can’t wait to return.
Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17
Tel. +44 (0)20 8672 0114
See on the TFYS Map
Three-course dinner, excluding drinks and service costs, £40pp: £50 for four courses to include cheese.