Having got there by British Rail from Victoria - it would have taken 10 minutes but the first train was taken out of service because the automatic doors wouldn't close and the second was late leaving - I walked out of Wandsworth Common station imagining I was somewhere a very long way away from home. It was dark, the station forecourt seemed a bit bleak, and being already late I was prepared for a long tramp through alarming streets to find the restaurant, Chez Bruce.
It was immediately round the corner in a row of rather expensive-looking shops, facing the Common, and was crammed with unashamedly prosperous people. There was none of the threadbare gentility you might see at Launceston Place or Simpson's in the Strand: everyone was roaring away, well-oiled, well-fed and well-dressed; you could have been in an expensive restaurant in Leeds. When I rang to book a table on a Monday evening, the best they could do was early or late, and they managed to fit us in at 9.30. This in itself was surprising as the restaurant only opened in March of this year.
Part of its popularity is no doubt due to its inherited reputation. It was once called Har-vey's and figured in the early rise of my old hero, MP "Big Chalkie" White, the controversial cook. Since then it has had a spell under another management, closed at Christmas, and has now opened again, run by Bruce Poole, formerly of Bibendum and Chez Max.
The last time I had dinner with her for this paper, my companion had been contentedly pregnant: now the baby was dazzling her with its intelligence and lively sense of humour. It was, she claimed, perfect company, and spent all its time laughing. She herself had been forced to borrow a newspaper when I arrived to conceal her amusement at the conversation going on at the next table. Having got into trouble recently for eavesdropping, I asked her to wait till they'd gone before she passed on the jokes. The man, it turned out, had been describing his new restaurant: "You know, tapas-y, quiet music, middle of the road, all pastels and creamy pinks; you can imagine it", and his girlfriend had said that she couldn't.
Chez Bruce offers a set menu, slightly changed every evening. When we were there three weeks ago, two courses cost £15, three cost £18.50 or four cost £23, with 12.5 per cent automatically added for the tip. A week later prices went up to £18.50 for two courses, £22 for three courses and £25 for four courses.
My friend had marinated salmon with cucumber and sweet dill mustard, and as it was a cold night and I'd suffered on the railway I ordered a winter vegetable soup with bacon. We also ordered two glasses of Australian Red (no half bottles) at £2.50 each.
The salmon and cucumber certainly looked very nice: the pale pink of the salmon charmingly set off by the little pale green heap of cucumber in the middle, but my friend is by no means the pushover I am, being a very good cook herself. She said there was so much dill sauce you couldn't taste the smoked salmon, and when I ate a piece I had to agree.
She was also quite scathing about my soup, saying it tasted "packet-y", which I was about to contest when I choked on one of the tiny bits of bacon, and had to continue the conversation by sign-language with streaming eyes and a handkerchief covering my face. The people at neighbouring tables were very good about not laughing louder than they did.
We then moved on to the main course - the choice is quite limited, two meat, one pasta and two fish - she choosing the daube de boeuf and me, still in search of a hearty supper, opting for the magret de canard. This did really take a very long time to come, but the restaurant was busy and the waiters and waitresses are, in their defence, as nice as you'd find anywhere.
Here again there was a certain amount of informed carping from my companion: the daube, she said, had a good texture, nice and soft, but she didn't like the taste. It did not seem to have the flavour she would have expected after it had been cooked so long. Being perhaps more alert than usual under her influence, I also found the orange sauce on the duck - impeccable slices of pink meat - somehow artificial, too sweet and unrelated to the natural juices.
I think it was at that point that I became aware of the ambient money: people were drinking a good deal and shovelling down the grub, there was audible talk of new swimming pools and mobile phones, and it occurred to me that in such an atmosphere nobody complains much unless they actually find an old boot in the stew.
For pudding I had tarte tatin and she had lemon tart. Mine was very good, apples still recognisably apples on light, unsoggy pastry, and hers got an equally good review, being chomped up to the last crumb.
We then had two cups of camomile tea, and as the tables started to clear Bruce himself, in fashionable stubble and chef's costume, began to move through the restaurant, leaning over each table in turn to ask us whether we'd enjoyed it and whether we were glad we came.
My friend gave him her best smile and said everything was fine, growling at herself afterwards about why you could never complain when people asked you like that. I made a few faintly critical remarks, getting bogged down fairly early on in the duck sauce, which Bruce claimed contained port and pepper, neither of which had really registered on my untrained palate. I almost plucked up the courage to mention the packet-y soup, but like my friend was unable actually to clear the fence. How I admire Michael Winner.
Dinner, with a restorative Bloody Mary and a glass of champagne to begin with, came to £64.69 including the "optional gratuity".
2 Bellevue Road, London SW17 6QS. Tel: 0181-672 0114.
Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch, Monday to Saturday for dinner. Three- course set lunch for £15, three-course set dinner for £22. All credit cards acceptedReuse content