Chez Bruce. Safety first.
There is, I am told an unspoken rivalry between locals as to which is best, Trinity, Clapham or Chez Bruce, Wandsworth. My companion J, is very definitely Team Trinity and I sense that he is not entirely comfortable on enemy ground.
J has form in this building though, as Chez Bruce is on the site of the legendary Harvey’s, where Marco Pierre White forged his unrivalled reputation as the original bad-boy chef. J worked with Marco on his autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen. He shares with me a particularly marvellous story involving stairs, sex, roof-climbing and a husband who had to wait rather too long for his wife to return from the “Ladies Room,” which served as the nickname for Marco’s then office. Rather apt, in the circumstances.
Back to the future and I cannot imagine such shenanigans in this grown-up and sedate environment, all pale walls, bold-but-tasteful art and mirrored structural columns. I notice lots of people doing special occasion things and celebratory candled-up cakes coming out of the kitchen.
I telephone to say that we might be early by half an hour and am told that it will not be possible to turn up early and that I might be able to order a drink. I am slightly nonplussed at the schoolmistressy manner of my interlocutor. In the event, I only just make it on time. J arrives shortly thereafter and within minutes we are asked by three separate people if we want anything, whether we have looked at the menu and whether we would like some more bread. If I had to guess, I would estimate that the number of table visits during our dinner exceeded twenty.
There is a thin line between engaged service and annoying over-attentiveness. They cross it. It is not relaxing and they are not reading my body-language which, given that it is generally fairly expressive, I find unusual. In between the various visits to the table to enquire as to our wellbeing, we are delivered of some excellent warm savoury crackers and three types of bread, all of which are good. I have only the two portions, each consisting of two slices.
The menu is at a set price of £47.50 before service, for three courses. It is not dissimilar in style and feel to its sister restaurant, La Trompette, not a million miles away, although I am pleased to note that there are fewer supplements on the menu here. We both go for the crisp fishcake with fennel purée, dressed baby squid and sauce vièrge.
The fishcake is presented in a high-sided narrow round dish, the design of which is not conducive to dextrous fork action. I am forced by good manners to desist from using the bread to mop up the remains of the sauce. The fishcake is good, not too much potato and there are pea shoots decorating the outside. I’d have preferred a larger fishcake and less squid but this is a Michelin gaff and thus we need to have some uneccesary luxury ingredient on the side.
My wild sea trout, with beurre noisette, herb crust, cauliflower and almonds wasn’t what I was expecting. I was harking back to a dish I’d made recently, when I fried a whole large sea trout and drowned it in a sea of beurre noisette, with a rather generous covering of toasted almonds. Delicious, if I say so myself. Not elegant, of course, but worth the schlepp to Rex Goldsmith in Chelsea, to get the fish.
So I was a little disappointed to get a small square of trout, covered with a soft herb mixture (the advertised crust, but sadly not crusty) not much butter and only a few almonds. The trout was fine and I loved the burnt-edged onions, doubling up as gravy boats (I give that trend another six months) and the chargrilled cauliflower was fine but I am afraid that it didn’t excite. I wanted punch, I wanted boldness, I wanted butter and I wanted toasted almonds, lots of them.
The restraint of the trout forced me to make up the fat deficit, so I followed with the cheese plate. An excellent selection, all in peak condition. It would have been rude not to have accompanied them with a glass of their excellent Pedro Ximenez. The dessert wine list was outstandingly good.
I am not sure that they really need to be charging an extra £6 for the privilege of the cheese though. It would be perfectly acceptable if one chose cheese as an extra course, but if one is ordering it in place of dessert it seems a little petty. Not that one feels hard done by in any other respect and Chez Bruce does provide all those little Michelin-extras with the meal, which make it feel like value for money.
Summing up : Chez Bruce is a grown-up neighbourhood restaurant, suitable for slightly more formal entertaining than your average local. It’s certainly popular for your cross-generational celebrational and the cooking is solid, albeit slightly lacking in sparkle. I’d love it to channel a little of that old MPW risk-taking and let the kitchen fly a bit oh and please, sort out the service.
IN HIS OWN WORDS The Stairs at Harveys (00000002) Courtesy of James Steen