2 Bellevue Road,
Tel: 020 8672 0114
Food type: French
Food rating: 6/10
Nearest tube: Clapham South/Balham, Wandsworth Common (overground train)
Website: Chez Bruce
It is hard to classify whether Chez Bruce is the perfect neighbourhood restaurant or a destination place for every foodie’s map. Located on the former site of Harvey’s in Wandsworth where Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay had many a running battle, Chez Bruce has been popular with the locals at Wandsworth since 1995.
Bruce Poole (no surprises as to where the restaurant gets its name from) who has been cooking at Chez Bruce since it first opened his door, has trained under the watchful eyes of, first, Simon Hopkinson (Bibendum) and subsequently Philip Howard (the Square). His career as a chef might not have taken off had he not decided to make a swap from front of house for the cooking stove at the not so tender age of 26.
The plaudits came quick and swift and by 1999, Chez Bruce gained a Michelin star which it has since held on to. It was also at this time that Poole, alongside business partner Nigel Platts-Martin set up the Glasshouse in Kew Gardens (watch this blog for an upcoming review of this restaurant) and subsequently La Trompette in Chiswick two years later. Surprisingly, Chez Bruce has been nominated by the Zagat Survey as the ‘Best London Restaurant’ in 2008, breaking Gordon Ramsay’s 7-year stranglehold on this award. Even more absurd is its nomination by the same guide as ‘Europe’s Top Restaurant’ in the 2009 edition with a hefty score of 29/30 – a score higher than any restaurant in Paris. Getting a booking here has been tricky in the past with their ridiculous booking policy of only taking bookings up to a month in advance. Thankfully that has changed, and combined with the ongoing credit crunch, getting a table here is not as difficult as in the past.
Located just a stones throw away from Wandsworth Common train station, Chez Bruce is unmistakable with its wooden arches and hedgerow. Inside, tables are closely spaced and wooden floors contribute to a noise level more reminiscent of a cafe than that of a posh fine dining restaurant.
‘My Food is most definitely based upon classical and regional French cooking. I would more readily look towards the works of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Richard Olney and Larousse for inspiration, than the most fashionable uber Chef.’ – Bruce Poole
Loosely translated, instead of ridiculous foams, this is food that you actually want to eat. The menu is appealing and based largely around classical French cooking with Spanish and Italian nuances. The cooking here does not discriminate with equal importance put on prime cuts of meat and fish alongside less fashionable cuts and offal. Prices are relatively sensible – a 3 course dinner will set you back £40 (£50 to include cheese) while weekday lunch is £25.50. The restaurant is also open for lunch during the weekends although prices are slightly higher at £32.50… not a bad deal when you realize that their lunch menu is pretty similar to their dinner menu. At these prices, this also means there are no frills and thrills (ie. Amuse bouche, pre-desserts) attached.
The wine list features a good range of growers (e.g. Trimbach, Mas de Daumas) alongside more interesting wines from around the world, especially Canada. The excellent Château Musar from Lebanon, 1999 vintage, makes a cameo appearance. For the casual drinker, wine is available by the glass (175ml) or 375ml carafe. Mark-ups are tolerable by London standards.
Bread is a choice of either white or black olive foccacia, both made on-site. Both choices were of good quality with the black olive foccacia of special mention – the bread light, slightly moist, fluffy and airy. (6/10)
A cod brandade fritter was well executed – the fritter puffed up and crisp, reminiscent of a tempura with pockets of air giving it a feather light texture. Accompaniments of smoky, sweet chorizo, tender sweated-down red peppers and ribbons of char-grilled courgettes gave the dish a distinct Mediterranean flavour. Amidst all these flavours, the garlicky potato salad seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. Its presence, in my opinion, not a necessary one and the dish a more enjoyable entity without it. (5/10)
Mackerel tartlet had perfectly timed fish served on top of a thin, crisp strip of buttery puff pastry. The oily fish was moist, succulent and correctly seasoned, with the crushed olives giving the fish a nice salty spike. I also loved the addition of pea shoots to this dish. The much maligned pea shoots which seems like every chef’s fashionable garnish item nowadays was actually on the plate for a reason. It gave the dish a nutty, yet refreshing dimension. In contrast to the brandade, this dish felt more like the complete article. One slight nitpick: this dish is perhaps more of a summer dish than something you would serve in the middle of winter, but I would gladly eat this everyday of the year. (6/10)
Grilled sea bream and soft, tender baby squid, without a hint of chewiness, on a bed of bak choi, with pimento, tomatoes, olives, almonds and squid ink sauce was probably an ingredient or two to far. The description of the dish itself sounds like an endless tongue twister of ingredients. The Spanish influence on this plate is obvious (squid ink, olives, pimento) yet for some reason bak choi also found its way onto the plate. The end result – the poor bream, despite being technically well executed, was completely overwhelmed by all sorts of flavours on the plate. (4/10)
I was pondering for a second what the ‘choucroute’ on the menu was until it dawned upon me that it was the French version of ‘sauerkraut’. Choucroute garnie originates from Alsace and the dish invovles a preperation of meat (usually sausages and other charcuteries) and potatoes. Traditionally, the pickled cabbage is flavoured with Riesling although more luxurious versions (e.g. Choucroute Royale) substitute Riesling for Champagne. Here, the dish is deconstructed as an asiette consisting of pork belly, loin, cheek, sausage and crackling, with a few turned potatoes and carrots to accompany. The sweet, toffee-like caramelised apple seemed a bit out of place alongside the grain mustard sauce and the acidity of the cabbage. I personally think that this dish would have been more successful had it stuck to its traditional guns. (5/10)
The cheese board here is sourced from Neal’s Yard Diary (British) and La Fromagerie (French). The problem with La Formagerie is that the quality of their cheese can be quite variable. Epoisses was not quite ripe enough and not nearly as runny as I’d like it to be (5/10), while Vacherin Mont d’Or was just about right (7/10). British cheese fared better with a Monty’s Cheddar and Colston-Bassett Stilton both in top condition (8/10). Cheese was served with a selection of biscuits with an option of quince jelly or fig and almond ‘cake’ available.
A peanut, caramel and milk chocolate mille-feuille was in essence a large, deconstructed ‘Snickers’ bar. The combination of salted caramel, milk chocolate and peanuts has always been a winner since the beginning of time, and it held true here. The mille-feuille of puff pastry is but confined to the bottom layer of the dessert. All in all, despite its simplicity, I thoroughly enjoyed this dessert, and it certainly put a smile on my face just seeing it. (6/10)
The pear and almond croustade was delivered as one large icing sugar dusted ‘wonton’ filled with soft cinammon spiced pear and chopped almonds. The use of filo pastry lent a wafer thin crisp skin to the croustade. Poire Williams, a brandy made from Williams pear, is added to a simple caramel to give it a rich, warming and satisfying depth. The combination of crispy sweet croustade, toffee-like caramel and creamy vanilla ice cream made this a simple yet satisfying dessert. (6/10)
Petit fours came in the form of simple cocoa dusted dark chocolate truffles and palmiers (caramelized puff pastry) – both of which were pleasant but nothing to write home about. (4/10)
Service was pleasant and efficient throughout, though I did have to remind my serveur on more than one occasion to top up our glass of wine. Our sommelier was a friendly and helpful young man who engaged us in interesting conversation about British Ale. While the cooking tends to get overcomplicated at times, I do think that when they do get it right, the food is an absolute joy to it. On the balance, the cooking here just about justifies the prices they are charging.
Coming into my dinner at Chez Bruce, I was not expecting very much. After all, despite its status as the highest ranking restaurant in Europe, I am aware of the pitfalls of the Zagat survey and thus my expectations were modest at best. The cooking here is of good quality but it would be very wrong to term Chez Bruce as a ‘destination restaurant’. What Chez Bruce does however is bring a level of much needed good cooking to South London.