Perched on the edge of Wandsworth Common, the renowned Chez Bruce has long been a destination restaurant for well-heeled Balham-and-Clapham-ites, so back in February Forks-Up decided it was high time we saw what all the fuss was about, and phoned to book a table. Informed by a heavily French accented receptionist that “ze restaurant eez very beezy”, we asked for the next available Saturday dinner date which could accommodate a table for 2 at 7pm. Roll around to early April and the day had finally come, our reservation confirmed 2 days’ beforehand by another Gallic staff member, who was at pains to emphasise that we would need to give our table back by 9.15pm at the latest. I have no problem with table turnaround times, and indeed I’d rather a restaurant was upfront about them, but the onus really should be on the restaurant to ensure that come the allotted time, the diners feel ready, not rushed, and don’t really think they’re “giving back” their table by leaving.
On arrival, the impression was positive. Greeted politely by the maître d’, we were then shown to our cosy table, tucked behind a half wall at the back corner of Chez Bruce’s deceptively large dining room. The soft lighting, crisp white table linens, and serious looking modern art combine to give the restaurant a sophisticated air. The lack of background music results in a somewhat hushed, formal atmosphere as diners keep their conversations to a murmur. As we perused the brief but tempting menu, and the rather lengthier (but equally tempting) wine list, we nibbled contentedly on the proffered parmesan crisps (pleasantly tangy) and bread rolls (pumpkin and olive – an unusual but exceedingly tasty flavour combination). We continued to nibble once we had placed our food and drink order, and when our wine came, slowly eking out the bread until (some 25 minutes after we ordered) our starters finally arrived.
To be fair to the chef, the quality of the food made them well worth the wait. My dining partner chose the roast rump of beef salad with shaved cauliflower, truffle dressing and coolea. A brilliantly eclectic mix of strong, clashing flavours, the chef had somehow brought everything together marvellously and the dish was a pure delight – “one of the best starters I’ve had in years” said my dining partner. My own starter, an asparagus and pea parcel with herb vinaigrette and mascarpone was almost as impressive. The parcel was a delicate crepe, surrounding a generous quenelle of the smoothest, creamiest mascarpone shot through with brilliantly fresh garden peas and tiny flecks of asparagus. This was accompanied by three beautiful steamed asparagus tips, whose delicate flavour simply danced across the tongue. A small mound of baby watercress added a peppery twist, while the advertised vinaigrette turned out to be exceptionally subtle.
Moving on to main course we had another long wait, and although still extremely tasty, we felt these dishes didn’t entirely live up to our expectations. My dining partner’s pig’s trotter glazed and stuffed with ham hock, served with morels, crushed parsley root, and madeira, was a delight to behold – the gleaming brown glazed trotter taking centre stage on an otherwise minimalist plate. The meat was immensely tasty and fabulously tender, but the predominant flavour was anise, which was just a touch overwhelming for our palette, and the trotter could perhaps have benefited from cooking at a higher heat to allow more of the fat to dissolve and render. My own main course of roast cod with braised savoy cabbage, truffle mash, and meat juices was a riot of flavour, and overall I enjoyed it, but it did seem to be a lesson in how to make cod taste of something else entirely. The dainty fillet of fish was perfectly cooked, but its delicate flavour was utterly swallowed up by the other competing elements of the dish – the decadently creamy truffle mashed potato, braised savoy cabbage shot through with intensely salty bacon lardons, and the punchy meat jus that ran over everything on the plate making this the most carnivorous fish dish I have ever encountered.
By the time we had finished our main courses and been offered the dessert menu, it was approaching 8.45pm. Although slightly concerned that we’d have to rush them, we simply had to have a third course (not least because we were eating from a £45 fixed price 3 course menu). My dining partner decided on the cheese plate, which turned out to be an excellent choice: Cerney, a sumptuously creamy, mild goat’s cheese; Barkham Blue, subtle for a blue cheese; and Comte, well-matured with a great tangy, nutty flavour. These were served with a plentiful bowl of water biscuits, wheat thins and sultana loaf, and a sliver of quince jelly. I had had high hopes for my poached Yorkshire rhubarb with orange and almond cake and yoghurt sorbet, but was sadly disappointed. Eating a piece of the rhubarb on its own was a pleasure – poached until fondant but still holding some structure, the texture was perfect and the distinctive, sharp rhubarb flavour was still in evidence. But combined with the spongy orange and almond cake, caramelised orange peel, orange brittle and overbearing orange syrup, the rhubarb was utterly lost and I felt as if I was eating spoonfuls of sickly sweet marmalade. Even the yoghurt sorbet failed to take the edge off, being so over-sweetened as to have lost the sour overtones so central to yoghurt’s identity.
I already mentioned the extensive nature of Chez Bruce’s wine list. It covers the big wine producing countries and a couple of more unusual ones as well, and ranges from around £22 for an entry level bottle to way into the hundreds at the top end. My dining partner and I went for a Cote du Rhone Villages, Plan de Dieu, Domaine de L’Espigouette (£32) – initially sharp, almost to the point of being vinegary, on breathing it opened out to be a pleasantly full bodied wine full of ripe black fruit flavours and subtle tannins. Since our first two courses had taken so long, we had just about polished off the bottle by the time we ordered dessert, so we decided to treat ourselves to a sticky tipple with our third course. My dining partner enjoyed an excellent Quinta de Romaneira 10 year old tawny port, which complemented his cheese plate perfectly, while I chose a glass of Aszú 5 Puttonyos, Château Dereszla, Tokaji – a fantastically sweet, smooth dessert wine from Hungary.
Our desserts emerged from the kitchen at about 9pm, so we had half an eye on the time as we ate them, expecting to be asked to settle up and move on at any moment. That request never came, however, and we were even able to enjoy a post-dinner hot drink. A fresh peppermint tea for me and an Americano for my dining partner – served with a little pot of decidedly decadent dark chocolate truffles, which was a very nice touch.
Service throughout the meal, whilst polite and perfectly fluent, had seemed somewhat impersonal. We were attended to by so many different people, and saw so many others rushing back and forth from the kitchen, that we quickly lost track of who – if anyone – was “our” waiter or waitress. That made it slightly tricky to attract someone’s attention when, come 9.45pm, we were ready to ask for our bill. But it came swiftly once requested and at just under £86 per head including service was less bruising than we were expecting given that we had just about gone all out. We were also touched by the fact that the waitress who did bring our bill was happy to pop our leftover chocolate truffles into a packet for us to take home. Scoring Chez Bruce is tricky – the food was for the most part impressive, but there were hiccups that, at a Michelin starred establishment, there should arguably not have been. For a very pleasant evening that just didn’t quite live up to our (admittedly high) expectations, Chez Bruce gets a still very respectable three and a half Forks-Up.Chez Bruce 2 Bellevue Rd Wandsworth Common London SW17 7EG