Chez Bruce – still strong

the exterior of Chez Bruce

A beacon of fine food and wine in south London.

Eleven years ago, shortly before our son Will became a restaurateur, we took him to dinner at Le Gavroche because I wanted him to experience the best cooking and service London had to offer. With Le Gavroche’s closure in January 2024 imminent, I had begun to wonder which restaurant would take its place as London’s epitome of the sort of French restaurant that hardly exists any longer in France: one that offers great cooking; a wonderful selection of well-priced and sensitively selected wines; and, above all, friendly service.

Then, miraculously, as we approached our 42nd wedding anniversary, Jancis mentioned that it had been far too long since we had been to Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, for reasons probably related to what many Londoners falsely believe is the massive distance from north London (where we live) to south London (where Chez Bruce is). It is really not that far. Last Saturday lunchtime we took a fast tube to Victoria, a 10-minute train to Wandsworth Common, and then walked less than five minutes to the restaurant.

Little seemed to have changed from our last visit in 2016. The green, open Common still comes as something of a surprise as one turns the corner from the railway station. The row of shops attracts the young couples walking outside, and the pub on the corner is still attractive. The only addition seemed to be a bike repair station by the pub.

Chez Bruce has been here since 1995 and stands as proud as ever, with abundant flowers in the window boxes outside. Twenty-eight years is an impressive stretch for any restaurant but perhaps more so for one managed by four Englishmen doing business under a name that is half French and half Scottish, which none of them in fact are.

Chez Bruce’s cast list is: its founder, Nigel Platts-Martin, who is forever looking at ways in which his small group of restaurants (La Trompette, The Glasshouse and The Ledbury) can be improved; Bruce Poole, chef from the beginning but now with one eye on the wine list; Victor Barré, who for the last three years has been responsible for the wine list; and current head chef Matt Christmas, who has developed a formidable partnership with Poole over the past decade.

The interior has changed as little as the outside. The ground floor still seats 70 comfortably with a private room for 14 upstairs where there was a birthday celebration in progress when we visited. Perhaps, in fact, the biggest shock on walking in was just to see how little has changed. The waiting staff still wear black trousers and shoes and a white shirt. There is still a tray of recently-baked shortbread biscuits waiting patiently on the table just by the front door. Behind it loomed a giant bottle of Dow’s 10 Year Old tawny port.

Chez bruce interior

We were seated at a corner table in the window, my view of the dining room obscured by the backing of the reception area. Instead, I had to concentrate on my wife and the menu.

This piece of paper, I have to say, made for delightful reading for two very different reasons. The first is that it is very easy to understand, without any need to wonder how a dish has been cooked. It all looks relatively, and deceptively, easy. But then as you read the right-hand side of every dish, you begin to wonder how they have managed to conceive of all these ingredients together: the black pudding, potato, cavolo nero, apple and mustard that accompanies the pork belly and the fillet of pork, or the wild mushrooms, garlic butter, parsley and leeks that come with the roast cod and olive-oil mash.

Part of the explanation for this culinary approach can be found on their website. ‘We aim to produce top-notch modern food which is based loosely on classical and regional French/Mediterranean cuisine. We are not particularly into gadgets and tricks in the kitchen and there are doubtless some who view our food as slightly old fashioned in this regard’, they proudly proclaim.

This philosophy is applied rigorously, but only to ingredients and dishes which they themselves enjoy cooking. When I interviewed Poole for my book On The Menu (Unbound, 2016) he explained, ‘Knowing what to leave out, a style of cooking that you have not been able to master, can be an advantage. I have never enjoyed eating soufflés so I have never taken the time to learn how to cook them properly. Why spend time perfecting something you don’t like eating? But I do enjoy iced soufflés (nougats glacés), and the ones we make I think are pretty good.’

These sentiments are strengthened by a concerted approach from the kitchen. This is, as Poole explained over the phone after our meal, is to take the best produce available and make it taste even better. This necessitates an awful lot of work on the part of the kitchen but is a practice that makes not only for a fascinating menu but also ultimately for a satisfied dining room. The menu lists six options at each course so takes quite a lot of time to appreciate, which we did over a glass of 2018 Sandgrube Grüner Veltliner from Rainer Wess in Austria’s Kremstal and one of Lourens Family’s 2021 Lindi Carien from the Western Cape of South Africa. It is glib, I know, to say that I could have ordered any dish on this menu and left as happy as we did. But it is also true.

Chez Bruce terrine

Our first courses definitely exercised the kitchen. I ordered the terrine of rabbit and ham hock with celeriac remoulade and prunes soaked in armagnac (shown above). The meat was succulent, the fruit notably boozy. But this paled compared with the highly successful intricacy of Jancis’s tandoori mackerel with coconut dahl, apple relish, onion crisps and coriander (shown below). The lentils were perfectly cooked, the spicing just right and the very finely chopped apple relish sitting on top of the charred fillet of mackerel added touches of sweetness and freshness. The meal was off to an excellent start.

Chez Bruce tandoori mackerel

There was a pause while we discussed our red wine. There is a very wide choice but we spotted no obvious bargains. Greece, Italy and South Africa – to which Barré led a trip while the restaurant was closed for a fortnight in August – are all well represented as well as California, with two old vintages of Harlan Estate and an excellent selection from Bordeaux and Burgundy. From Australia were older vintages from Bindi, Curly Flat and Cullen. We turned our attention to the half-bottles – this was lunchtime, after all – and, after wondering about a suspiciously inexpensive half of red Côtes de Nuits-Villages 2014 (£46), chose a half of Château Musar 2014 from Lebanon (£68) with Barré’s approval.

Half of Ch Musar

The wine was ready, and delicious, to drink – made even lovelier by being served in JR glassware – and went remarkably well with our two main courses which could not have been more different. There was crispness, softness and innovation in Jancis’s pork belly and black pudding potato (more onions and sweet fruit, see below) and richness and the taste of the sea in my dish of Cornish hake, topped with a prawn croustillant with mussels on a bourride sauce and samphire.

Chez Bruce pork dish

There is no let-up for the kitchen when it comes to the desserts and although Jancis could manage only a bowl of delicious mango and lime sorbet, I chose the crème brûlée having seen it served to another table. It arrived, as it should, in a shallow dish that had just come from under the salamander. A macchiato, a chocolate truffle and a bill of £240.13 for two completed the show.

Chez Bruce ceme brulee

‘It’s not easy being in the restaurant business now’, Poole told me when we spoke after our lunch. ‘The right staff are difficult to find. Prices for every kind of produce, and not just the protein, are rising and there is a definite slowdown in demand, one reason we introduced a no-corkage policy on Sunday evening that has proved extremely popular.’ (Our lunch menu was £67.50; on 24 January 2016 the same menu was £35!) ‘But there has never been a sea change in the food we create and cook and Matt is cooking better than at any other time I have known him. I do believe that today we are very comfortable with what we do.’

Poole at 59 and Christmas, 46, have many years ahead of them. On behalf of all of us who enjoy excellent food and wine, I would like to wish them a further 28 years cooking together. Perhaps we could take an aspiring restaurateur grandchild to Chez Bruce one day?

Chez Bruce 2 Bellevue Road, London SW17 7EG; tel: +44 (0)20 8672 0114

Photo at top and of dining room courtesy Chez Bruce; all others are the author's own.