Chez Bruce Review
Sunday Times AA Gill Restaurant Review Competition Entry
Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London
Lunch Menu £39.50 for three courses (Mon – Fri)
I was aimlessly walking the floor of a dreary casino convention at the ExCeL centre, morosely assessing my poor career choices when the auspicious call came in.
“I’m over from Hong Kong for two days. You free for lunch at Chez Bruce?”
Contrails whirled behind the Docklands Light Railway as I fled neon hell towards the leafy enclaves of Wandsworth Common and its most famous culinary resident.
Nestled behind a double shopfront of reassuringly worn burgundy, Chez Bruce is the Michelin-starred domain of Bruce Poole.
The aforementioned Bruce has been crafting homely Franco-Mediterranean classics overlooking the common for nigh on twenty-five years, for the past ten of which being ably supported by Head Chef Matt Christmas. A special occasion restaurant of the highest calibre and reputation (but without nosebleed West End prices to match) Chez Bruce is the kind of destination you take your spouse for your 40th wedding anniversary party. The well-heeled and venerable lunch crowd we joined on our visit can take advantage of the well-priced three course set menu on a Tuesday afternoon because they haven’t been perturbed by anything so inconvenient as a commute since Genesis disbanded.
I sat with my old university friends, a Cheshire accountant and the Hong Kong ex-pat to enjoy a beer and catch up before browsing the expansive menu. It’s that kind of place – you’re welcome to enjoy yourselves at your own pace without airs and graces rather than preen the narcissistic feathers of a celebrity chef or be seen by notable types as you nibble the frivolous shavings of an ocelot paw as per some high-end establishments.
Poole and Christmas aspire to “…produce top-notch modern food which is based loosely on classical and regional cuisine” and in that, practice does make perfect – their reputation states that excel at it.
We eventually broke conversation long enough to order, each of us favouring seafood from an extensive list of starters. My roast scallops with spätzle, lettuce, creamed bisque and shrimps came with a £7.50 premium but I would happily have paid more. Delicate, perfectly charred scallops paired with a rich pasta that in any other hands would’ve overpowered – in this instance it worked perfectly, especially when dabbled with a bisque that was so heavenly it may as well have sprung from Poseidon’s own loins. For the accountant and ex-pat, their sea bream and St. Austell Bay mussels went down equally well, the only complaint being on quantity rather than quality. A 2017 Pouilly Fumé from Domaine Thibault complimented each dish as if they’d been playing bridge together for half a century.
Despite its traditional reputation there are some eclectic, even daring alternatives amongst the starters for those wanting to tread a slip-on shoe outside their comfort zone. We asked a neighbour what they made of their sautéed duck hearts with wild garlic and almond pesto and they gleefully mumbled them ‘terrific’. Having been chastened by a punch bowl of duck tongues in Macau a while back I’ll most likely opt for the Tandoori sea bream with bulgur wheat next time to play it safe - although the deep-fried calf brains with sauce gribiche made us inquisitive enough to warrant a place on the short list.
Our main courses were no less exquisite and this time generous enough to keep three notable blabbermouths nigh-on silent for over twenty minutes. From an expansive menu even the pickiest of palettes are catered for with an abundance of meats, fish and vegetarian options and their associated dressings, marinades, jus and complimentary vegetables. The menu is carefully balanced, seasonal and local - because it benefits the menu, rather than limits it. In addition, the presentation of everything is superb – from the understated but approachable service to the immaculately clipped carrot tops. Yes, you’re paying for it so yes, it’s expected but the sum seems to be greater than the individual parts. There’s a restaurant magic at play here that only comes through exceptional leadership at the helm, a motivated team and years of polishing.
My Anjou pigeon with cabbage paysanne, roast foie gras, shallot purée and red wine commanded a premium (+£7.50) but again I had no cause to complain. It tasted as if it had been knocked out of the sky by a cloud before being spanked with goose liver whilst having a gentle breast massage – mellow, dark and moreish. It really is the most underrated game bird, the pigeon, and tasting one this well prepared makes you wonder if it just needs better PR to compete on an equal footing against partridge, pheasant and the esteemed grouse. My companions were kept quiet by an “amazing” medium rare côte de boeuf with hand-cut chips and Béarnaise. Simple, tasty, exceptionally presented – I’d be surprised if that mantra or an equivalent doesn’t hang over the range at Chez Bruce. The delightful yet inauspicious Head Sommelier Arnaud Pasdeloup proposed the 2007 Château Larose Perganson Bordeaux – and he wasn’t wrong.
I doubt he ever is.
Lunch at Chez Bruce is unhurried and we had no afternoon plans so took time to digest and peruse the pudding menu. We plumped to share a hot chocolate pudding with praline parfait as a teaser which was unnecessary for our burgeoning stomachs but deluxe, nonetheless.
The main event of this course is the famed cheese board. Bruce himself has proudly boasted: - “We take the cheese board very seriously indeed” and by God, he’s not kidding.
Imagine a cheese wedding with all the main families represented by every member I can name (and some I met for the first time). Then picture this wedding taking place on the deck of the Ark Royal – that is the signature cheese board at Chez Bruce and it’s enough to make lactose intolerance intolerant.
Nibbling the residual crumbs of cheddar to mop up the last sips of an 18-year-old Warre’s Vintage port we were finally done – in the most delectably gluttonous way.
On his website, Bruce admits “…we only ever produce dishes which we ourselves love to eat”. In which case I’m amazed he can still fit in his kitchen. He oversees a rare breed – the finest of haute cuisine in the most laid-back surroundings. I’d recommend taking a few close friends, writing off the afternoon and ignoring your bank statement at the end of the month.
The décor and clientele might be in keeping with the Captain’s table on the QE2 but, as my friends and I were happy to note as we discussed the merits of nursery schools and the fragility of cordless vacuum cleaner brands, everything that happens in Chez Bruce gets better with age.