Friday, 2 November 2018

Chez Bruce, Wandsworth Common

Though I had no knowledge of this the first time I set foot in Chez Bruce over a decade ago, this modest spot in Wandsworth (very much not the dodgy end, Love Actually fans) overlooking the common was once home to one of the most revolutionary and influential restaurants ever to exist in London. Between 1987 and 1993, with a young Marco Pierre White in the kitchen heading a team that included Gordon Ramsay and Philip Howard, Harvey's changed the face of British food, taking instruction from traditional French fine dining (White himself trained with Pierre Koffmann), and using the best of British produce but sending it in all kinds of fantastical directions. For those lucky enough to have eaten there, 30 years on it still remains the ultimate expression of modern fine dining, and the masterwork of a singular mercurial talent who after a few more years and three Michelin stars, to the lasting dismay of many, retreated into television appearances, chain steakhouses and endorsements for instant stock cubes, never to cook in anger again.

Bruce Poole, then, had a bit of an act to follow when he took over the site in 1995. Sensibly, Chez Bruce never pretended to be a successor to Harvey's, although I'm sure that didn't stop a few people turning up expecting to be able to order "Tagliatelle and oysters" or "Crackling Pyramide" in the first few months. Instead, CB became what we now call a "local restaurant" - a pretty high-end local restaurant admittedly but one with an eye primarily on winning the hearts of the residents of Wandsworth and Battersea rather than international food snobs or Michelin inspectors. It did win a star of course, but you never got the impression that was the point of the place.

And it's a pleasure to report that all these years later, Chez Bruce is still one of my favourite restaurants in London. On the face of it, it's not a restaurant doing anything particularly extraordinary; it's not particularly cheap, although as ever go weekday lunchtime and you'll pay significantly less than you will of an evening. The dining areas are comfortable and well-appointed, although some tables are better than others; the weird upstairs attic room upstairs has a particular chill of Siberia about it (figuratively, not literally). And the menu could be accused of playing it somewhat safe - in the middle of game season there was no sign of teal, grouse or mallard, just a hare tagliatelle starter and venison main, and venison doesn't really count as game at all in my book.

But. Within this framework of an accessible, happy local restaurant Chez Bruce absolutely shines. Dishes that sound faintly unambitious on paper such as the above "Rare-grilled salmon with citrus salsa, black rice, avocado and mint" are transformed into a deeply rewarding play of colours and textures, the chilled avocado something approaching a guacamole ice cream, the salmon itself buttery and fresh and glazed with lime.

Hare tagliatelle contained generous chunks of meltingly tender hare in a mixture of bacon, chestnuts and herb-spiked breadcrumbs, adding up to an exquisitely tasteful sample of the season. I may moan about them not having any game birds on the menu, but there aren't many restaurants serving hare either so credit where credit's due.

Prawn and scallop raviolo was similarly faultlessly done, plump with fresh, perfectly seasoned seafood wrapped in buttery, delicate thin pasta, all soaked in a deliriously rich bisque. Three slices of pickled cucumber added a bit of crunch, as did some vivid green samphire perched on top, all balancing and enhancing the main ingredients without being over-fussy or extraneous. This is ostensibly simple food cooked by people who know exactly the best way of going about things, and to enjoy the results of their experience is to experience joy itself.

With that in mind, by the time the main courses arrived (and thanks in no small part to some marvellous matching wines none of which I remembered to write down, sorry wine people) there was nothing to do but succumb completely. Venison came as ruby-red loin, seared and seasoned and so tender you could cut it with a spoon, and an utterly wonderful sweet-glazed sausage which was about the best thing anyone's ever done to the animal since Walt Disney's Bambi. Little pieces of spƤtzle added a charming dose of carbs, and it was all soaked in a glossy meat jus which I ended up scooping up with my fingers (again, this may have been the wine talking).

Chicken with gnocchi, girolles, Jerusalem artichokes and hazelnuts was every bit as great as that sounds but let's not fall into the trap of assuming that assembly of ingredients will always turn out well. Over the years I've had dry chicken, thin wine-y sauces and pappy gnocchi but here, as with everything else, every element was the absolute best it could be, the chicken in particular having a blinding white moist flesh and fragile, golden brown skin.

A shared almond and quince tart was a fine thing, perhaps needing a bit more quince jam and a bit less frangipan but still successful enough to disappear completely within about 30 seconds. Yoghurt sorbet was sharp enough to cushion the tart without being distracting.

And one shared dessert meant more room for Chez Bruce's signature cheeseboard - not the biggest in London by any means, but about 15-20 examples from Europe and the UK (I'm going to have to get used to making that distinction) selected with the same exquisite taste with which they approach more or less everything else. We tried a 48-month-aged Gouda which was as fragile and salty as the dead sea scrolls, a Guernsey milk soft number made by the same people who make Flower Marie, and a creamy, delicate blue in the Cornish Blue mold (forgive the pun) which I'm afraid I've completely forgotten the name of but just take my word for it, it was great.

But of course it was great, because everything Chez Bruce do is great. Yes, £100 is a lot to shell out for dinner but I can think of a lot of places you can do a lot worse for this kind of money, and not many places you can do better. And as I've said, Chez Bruce isn't trying to reinvent modern gastronomy or become an international foodie frotting-den. Nor is head chef Matt Christmas likely to jack the prices up threefold before burning out and ending up flogging Knorr. It's a restaurant entirely comfortable with its place in the world, this cosy corner of the common where once the eyes of the world were trained and where so much began, now quietly finding a new way to be brilliant. Long may it continue.


1 comment:

Satanic Holiness said...

I remember sitting on the common in '88 or '89, tripping my balls off on acid and staring at the long-haired man and the glamorous blonde on Harvey's balcony. I was especially transfixed by the briefcase-sized mobile phone he was barking into.