A jewel in the gastronomic wasteland of Wandsworth Common, Chez Bruce has a reputation that no amount of money or marketing skill could fix. Though it's been around for 16 years, since Bruce Poole and Nigel Platts-Martin took over what used to be Harvey's (legendary first home of Marco Pierre White in his days of rage), I don't think I've ever heard a diner utter a disobliging word about it. Gruff metropolitans who can't abide cheffy pretensions and gussied-up food find a tear in their eye when they mention Chez Bruce. In the Harden's London Restaurants guide, it's been voted the city's favourite eating house five years running.
I think I know why. The aubergine ironwork of its frontage and its mildly ridiculous name both hint that this is a place that doesn't take itself very seriously – but at heart it's deeply serious about both food and taking care of punters. From start to finish, you feel agreeably pampered and indulged here, without any trace of pretence or theatricality.
The dining room is simply designed in neutral tones and given extra depth by a cunning arrangement of mirrors. The lighting contrives to be both dimly intimate but bright enough to let you read the menu. We ate there on a dead Thursday in mid-August, when you'd imagine most of Wandsworth's well-heeled bourgeois would be away, sunning themselves in Hvar or Key West, but the place was packed – lots of couples, much glamour, a few evening clutch bags. It's evidently become a 'destination restaurant' for north and west Londoners venturing out on their intrepid, daredevil, once-a-year trip south of the river.
The £45-a-head set dinner menu seems at first sight a stolid array of classic French favourites – foie gras and chicken liver parfait, ceviche of scallop, bream with cod brandade, lobster and scallop mousseline, navarin of lamb, côte de boeuf – until you notice how many other foreign colours are represented: Italian (fontina and truffle arancini), Spanish (half-grilled sardines with gazpacho vinaigrette) – and, good heavens, Indonesian.
I had no idea what beef rendang was doing in such a comfortably Eurocentric menu – it was like finding a Gurkha standing in the bar of Boodle's club – but I decided to try it. It was delicious. The secret of rendang is that the beef should be cooked extr-eee-mely slowly in a spicy paste (ginger, galangal, chillis) and served with a light herbal accompaniment. The beef here had been braised, rather than cooked, to the point just before disintegration. It was unbelievably tender and subtly prickled with chilli, and came with a fine vegetable salad involving carrots, bean sprouts, peanuts and tamarind sauce – an unexpected treat. Angie's ceviche of salmon and scallop was also a big success, the salmon cut in chunks rather than wafer slices, the accessories (coriander, pine nuts, lime and chillis) fabulously zingy. "Absolutely delicious," said Angie. "Is this Wandsworth? I could be eating this in a beach bar in Mexico."
Her main-course navarin of lamb was another long-cooking classic. Instead of the usual lamb neck, the head chef Matt Christmas dished up tranches of rump and shoulder. The rump was a delicate, virginal, lambkin's-ear pink, sublimely textured, while the shoulder was a tougher, sterner, altogether more grown-up cut; it had clearly been braised for several years in white wine, chicken stock, and rosemary, then finished off with some kind of roux. The pair offered a brilliant contrast, as if you were eating both mother and daughter in the same dish.
My risotto nero with sea bass was an amazing sight – the beautiful red-orange fish pertly arrayed on a miniature island of blackened rice, it resembled a prize-winning fascinator at Ascot. And while I registered that the risotto was cooked to a perfect, toothsome degree, and the fish was triumphantly white and fluffy, I noticed a whole secondary gang of flavoursome sea creatures lurking below – sautéed squid, all wiggling tendrils with a white cowl like the mad monk's in The Da Vinci Code, plus prawns, tomato and chilli. By the end, my plate was disgustingly blackened with squid ink, but my taste buds were doing a vigorous tarantella.
The puddings were inspired – a hot chocolate fondant with almonds, and ice-cream that turned out to be not ice-cream but a praline parfait, made of meringue and toasted hazelnuts mixed together and frozen. A gratifyingly tart poached peach was served on a sweet financier cakelet, with a fabulous raspberry coulis, and a panna cotta included as a yummy afterthought. But you know there probably aren't any afterthoughts at Chez Bruce. Everything is meticulously well thought out, cooked a point, and dished up with care. It's hard to find fault with any of it, even if the main courses don't quite raise you to heights of ecstasy. It's good to report that, 16 years after its birth, this Bruce is in very rude, adolescent health.
Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, London SW17 7EG (020-8672 0114)
About £150 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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