Chez Bruce – London

2 Bellevue Road

Wandsworth Common

London SW17 7EG

Tel. 020 8672 0114


The Food

Cod brandade with sauce nero and warm salad of cuttlefish, courgette and chilli

Diced tuna with tamarind-glazed aubergine, soy, sesame and pickled ginger

Mackerel rillettes with cured mackerel, elderflower, crème fraîche, cucumber and gooseberries

Roast cod with olive oil mash, provençale tomato and gremolata

The Wines

2015 Les Champs Libres 91
2004 Sadie Family Wines Palladius 90
2007 Domaine des Comtes-Lafon Volnay Clos des Chênes 1er Cru       93
2000 Vieux Château Certan 92
1979 Haut-Brion 87
1966 L’Evangile 94
1959 Château Margaux NR
NV Mullineux & Leeu Olerasay 99

How is the greatness of a restaurant measured?

In my book, there are two approaches. Greatness can simply mean your snow-capped ne plus ultra gastronomic peak. In that case, my greatest restaurant thus far is Martin Berasategui in San Sebastián. Alternatively, it is a measure of how many times a restaurant compels you to return. I have enjoyed mind-blowing feasts at El Bulli and The Fat Duck and yet, to be truly honest, as astonishing as both of those were, neither induced a desire to repeat the experience. That was done. Box ticked. I did actually return to The Fat Duck and though the menu was identical, I had seen the theatre before. Other restaurants attract me back again and again without losing the impact of that maiden visit. They are femmes fatales: I fall for their charms time and again. One could argue this is harder to achieve, necessitating as it does a constantly changing menu, albeit one that does not stray too far from what you expect. Consistency over not months but years is paramount. There must be a sense of value for money. The restaurant must never lose the ambiance that initially enticed you inside; the waiters and sommeliers must never for one second drop their quality of service. Maybe such restaurants must incrementally improve over time so they are never resting on their laurels. Underpinning all this is the desire and motivation of the head chef. Are they as inspired and motivated as when they first opened their doors? Can they recruit a kitchen team that upholds and improves standards as staff come and go? Have they built a loyal band of patrons that will see them through the good times and bad? 

Cod brandade with sauce nero and warm salad of cuttlefish, courgette and chilli

I have written two Vinous Tables covering establishments co-owned by the same restaurateur on either side of the Thames. I have dined at these restaurants dozens of times over many years, more than any other. Yet both lunches in June this year rank among the best I have eaten at either, which is a magnificent achievement in an era when restaurants seem to close even before their opening fanfare has faded. These two have become institutions, stalwarts of the capital’s dining scene that you could never countenance closing – not unless you want a riot of epicures brandishing sharpened ladles.

So we start at Chez Bruce in Wandsworth; yes, south of the river, which for some is a journey akin to Marlow’s jaunt down the Congo for tea with Colonel Kurtz. In reality, it is easy to get to: regular trains from Victoria Station stop at Wandsworth Common, about 50 meters from the restaurant. Chez Bruce’s backstory is worth recounting, because it is no exaggeration to claim that this is the birthplace of today’s British restaurant scene. Between 1987 and 1993, it was the location of Harveys, where Marco Pierre White and a crack team of chefs (including Gordon Ramsay and Philip Howard) transcended everything a restaurant could be, basically inventing the idea of celebrity chefs. When MPW moved on to pastures new, Harvey’s co-owner Nigel Platts-Martin reopened the restaurant as Chez Bruce, naming it after the man at the helm, Bruce Poole.

Diced tuna with tamarind-glazed aubergine, soy, sesame and pickled ginger

Since opening in 1995, Chez Bruce has always fostered the welcoming air of a neighborhood restaurant. That is partly due to its location, partly to the ambiance and partly to Bruce Poole’s intention. There is a refreshing absence of pretention, a restaurant that puts you at ease as soon as you walk in the door. Loosen your tie; relax; you’re among friends. Poole might not possess the twisted genius of his predecessor, and he balks at the notion of celebrity chefs. But his take on heart-warming French cuisine that fills the tummy and puts a big fat grin on your face has rarely been bettered in the capital; remarkable for someone who did not don his whites until his mid-twenties. Poole has always served the food that he wants to eat, made from impeccably sourced ingredients, the result of which is that I often wish I could eat the entire menu, which deftly treads a fine line between haute cuisine and bistro-friendly fare. Technically complex dishes nestle next to dangerously addictive triple-fried potato chips – choose as you wish.

As I am now watching my calories and maintaining my waiflike figure, I opted for fish courses. I began with the cod brandade served with sauce nero and warm salad of cuttlefish, courgette and chilli. This was a perfect marriage of ingredients and textures, the chilli deftly lending an edge to the courgette and the brandade not too heavy. It epitomized Poole’s natural ability to keep flavors interesting, and yet there is just something heart-warming about this dish.

The diced tuna with tamarind-glazed aubergine, soy, sesame and pickled ginger was the standout. At Chez Bruce, there is always one course that catches you off guard and reminds you of the skill in the kitchen. This was exceptional. The raw tuna was as good as any I have eaten in a Japanese sashimi restaurant, which incidentally is quite a lot. What elevated this dish was the tuna’s interplay with the tamarind-glazed aubergine, prepared to just the right side of mushiness with just the right amount of charring and then saturated in that sesame and pickled ginger. I could have eaten this again.

Mackerel rillettes with cured mackerel, elderflower, crème fraîche, cucumber and gooseberries

An extra course appeared from the kitchen before the main. The mackerel rillettes with cured mackerel, elderflower, crème fraiche, cucumber and gooseberries electrified the senses. The salinity of the cured mackerel cut through beautifully, the cucumber and gooseberry added brightness and acidity, and the umami sensation was wonderful.

The main course was cod, part two: roast cod with olive oil mash, provençale tomato and gremolata. You might view this dish as playing it safe, but that overlooks how delicious it tasted; it was simple but devastatingly effective. The mash was light and fluffy and oozing flavor, the cod perfectly moist and the gremolata as refined as you would expect from a chef who has been perfecting his recipe for many years.

Having eaten off the cheese board for many years, I can vouchsafe its excellence, though for the moment I am eschewing fromage; I just stared enviously at my friends’ plates. Also, admittedly with some difficulty, I resisted the temptation of pudding, although having devoured it countless times, I can confirm that the hot chocolate pudding with praline parfait is as yummy as it sounds.

We were blessed with a fantastic array of wines, all served blind. We dived straight into white Bordeaux. The 2015 Les Champs Libres, made by the Guinaudeau family of Château Lafleur, is developing nicely in bottle. The nose offers scents of lemon thyme and nettle and touches of orange blossom and nashi pear, all well defined and vibrant. The palate is lightly honeyed on the entry, developing an attractive spiciness that becomes more conspicuous toward the finish, which features stem ginger on the aftertaste. Maybe it has advanced a little more than expected; nevertheless, it still comes recommended. The next bottle was intriguing. The 2004 Palladius is one of Eben Sadie’s earlier vintages, and nowadays you do not see these often. I was convinced it was a mature Chenin Blanc from Vouvray. Well, the bush vine Chenin Blanc does play a leading role in Palladius, though Sadie blends it with 10 other grape varieties. The fully mature nose offers scents of molasses, marmalade, quince and just a hint of marzipan, plus a light Muscat tincture. The well-balanced palate is tangy and marmalade-driven, with a distinctive flor-like element and peachy notes toward the finish. It is not a Palladius with universal appeal, though I find its oxidative character distinctive and compelling. I would advise drinking sooner rather than later.

Roast cod with olive oil mash, provençale tomato and gremolata

We began in the Côte de Beaune for the reds. The 2007 Volnay Clos des Chênes 1er Cru from Domaine des Comtes-Lafon is blossoming into a lovely wine. It has a gorgeous cherry pit and tomato vine bouquet, fragrant and airy and revealing touches of desiccated orange peel with time. The beautifully balanced palate is linear and crunchy in texture, displaying slightly grainy tannin and hints of bell pepper toward the sappy, slightly abrupt and conservative finish. I thought it might be Lafarge, because occasionally I find Dominique Lafon’s Volnays heavier, but the style of the growing season impinges upon what is now an elegant and classic Volnay.

Three Bordeaux wines were poured – well, in fact, there were four, but the 1959 Château Margaux was clearly out of condition. The 2000 Vieux-Château-Certan is a Pomerol that I had not encountered for some time. Perhaps this vintage has lost some of its initial luster, not least because the consensus from winemakers and consumers alike is that the appellation performed far better in 2001. This millennial VCC has a saturnine nose even after almost two decades, offering dusky black fruit, hints of chimney soot and tobacco, and later a whiff of licorice. It remains stubborn and sultry. The palate is quite muscular for a VCC, although fine acidity lends it tension. Where one might criticize Alexandre Thienpont’s wine for its lack of refinement and panache, for failing to realize the potential it showed during its first decade. As such, I would afford it another three or four years in bottle to see if it brightens up. The 1979 Haut-Brion is a vintage that I have not seen since 2006, from one of those forgotten growing seasons that can pleasantly surprise if you have modest expectations. Initially there was a bit of funk on the nose, but it blew away. Now, at 40 years old, the wine shows noticeable bricking on the rim. The bouquet clearly lacks some fruit, offering potent dried blood, struck match and chestnut aromas that now come across as rustic. The palate is balanced albeit hollow, presenting dusky black fruit tinged with licorice and tobacco, and stumbles over the finish line. It is not the greatest Haut-Brion – far from it – but it’s perfectly drinkable if you can abide herbaceous claret. Much better was the Pomerol that followed. The 1966 L’Evangile was the best bottle I have encountered from a vintage of the Ducasse era before they sold to Baron Eric de Rothschild in 1990. Almost Left Bank in style, the nose is well defined and vigorous considering its age, offering cedar and hints of seaweed and undergrowth. The palate is very well defined and, in keeping with the style of the ‘66s, rather correct and conservative: it shows vestiges of black fruit, tobacco and morels. I appreciated the fine-boned tannins. An elegant and tender L’Evangile with commendable persistence on the finish. Bottles with fine provenance should continue to give pleasure, more so than vintages from the seventies that tend to be drying out.

After all those legendary wines and vintages, far and away the best wine of the entire lunch is relatively recent and comes from South Africa. The Olerasay from Mullineux & Leeu is a showstopper that flirts with perfection. It comes from two solera barrels that winemakers Chris and Andrea Mullineux topped up between 2008 and 2014. It delivers a punchy 268gm/L of residual sugar, though you will not feel a gram of that thanks to the absolute killer bead of acidity. It boasts an electrifying bouquet of dried honey, barley sugar, quince and orange pith aromas that have maintained brilliant precision. The palate is harmonious to a tee, pure and viscous, yet the defining feature of the Olerasay is its unerring freshness. It is so effervescent and brimming with tension that it is far easier to imbibe than wines with similar degrees of residual sugar. Mandarin and peach linger on the aftertaste, completing a fabulous elixir that is understandably now becoming difficult to track down.

You know the great thing about this lunch? It comes back to value for money. A three-course lunch at Chez Bruce costs £39.50 and dinner is not much more. That’s an absolute bargain given the quality and service, and certainly worth crossing the river for. I started dining here in the late 1990s, and I cannot remember a single instance of walking out disappointed. Quite the opposite: I leave feeling elated and looking forward to my next visit.

Chez Bruce never lets you down.

Chez Bruce, by whatever definition you care to use, is a great restaurant.

(Thanks to my friends for inviting me to this lunch and apologies for my own bottle arriving too late.)