In a somewhat off-piste post for The-At-Long-Last-I’ve-Got-a-Job Blog, I’m writing a straight restaurant review. I doubt this will become a standard feature since I can’t afford it, but the evening I spent at Chez Bruce, on Wandsworth’s common (Bellevue Road, SW17) deserves to be recorded for posterity.
I used to work in Wandsworth, and witnessed first hand its rise from grotty anonymity to estate-agent-chic anonymity at this end of the common, whilst the lurking hulk of the prison remained unchanged at the other end. But Bellevue Road has been home for many years now to several famous restaurateurs, including Marco Pierre White, and Chez Bruce now inhabits his old restaurant. This bit of Wandsworth has never had the caché of, say, Islington with its chattering classes inviting each other to dinner to sample their latest Tuscan single estate extra virgin olive oil at £25 for half a litre. No, Wandsworth’s claim to fame has always been right-wing politics and pretentiousness, and I suspect I can sense the latter at least in its restaurants. And judging by some of my fellow diners’ conversations on Saturday, the former makes an appearance as well. Not that I was ear-wigging. I’d have much preferred not to have been party to the loud but inane conversation of my fat comrade at the next table, holding court, interrupting his wife every time she spoke, and ingratiating himself with the sommelier.
In fact, Mr I-know-much-more-than-anyone-else-at-my-table-and-indeed-the-entire-restaurant Piggy Guts was something of a poster child for Chez Bruce, being long on pretension and short on perception. This is a pity, for much of the experience was very pleasant, and the food (making, you might feel, a somewhat belated appearance given this is a restaurant review – hold on, I will return to it in a moment) was, if not exactly top-notch or revelatory, then certainly competent and enjoyable.
The service was neither. Rather, it was a comedy of errors that moved from the mildly irritating to the surreally hysterical. Given that Chez Bruce is infested with more waiting staff than you could shake a stick at, their incompetence was the more remarkable. Our order was taken by the maître d’hôtel – I spell it out in full because it seems more consistent with the restaurant’s self image – and I chose deep fried calf’s brain and pig trotters whilst my wife went less adventurously for crab stuffed leek. Unfortunately, what arrived was a suitably crabby leek for her, but what was evidently a rabbit terrine with an Armagnac-soaked prune for me. I enquired of the waitress whether this was crisply fried brains as a polite way of pointing out the error, rather than saying bluntly that it obviously wasn’t. She said she would ask the chef. A waitress that can’t tell a prune from a deep-fried brain has some elementary food knowledge to catch up on. She took both of our dishes away, although my wife’s was clearly correct, “just in case that was wrong, too.” I mentioned to the m-d (I can’t keep on playing up to the place’s pomposity) that waiting staff should perhaps be a little more knowledgeable, but he dismissed me by saying that he had misheard “brain” for “terrine”. That didn’t really deal with the matter, which was made more confused when he returned with his pad and showed me how easily his writing of “brain” could have been mistaken in the kitchens for “terrine”. Two excuses for the price of one, and neither especially satisfactory. But once the correct dishes had been delivered, my wife was very pleased with her crab, and my brain and pig trotter crispy mélange was serviceable if slightly reminiscent of those shop-bought canapés that decorate business drinks events.
Main course was rib of beef for my wife, and roast grouse on a bed of too-many-things-to-enumerate for me. The béarnaise sauce for my wife’s perfectly cooked beef had her waxing eloquent, whilst my grouse was in fact very pleasant with well-rounded flavours which worked, perhaps in spite of rather than because of the pot-pourri with which it arrived.
So on to dessert. I ordered tarte tatin and my wife crème brûlée, and those safe choices perhaps tell you all you need to know about the selection on offer. What arrived was blueberry almond tart and some sort of layered sponge affair: which extraordinarily were the desserts ordered by a delightful couple at the next table, with whom we’d exchanged despairing glances as the decibel level from Mr Piggy Guts had risen to its occasional crescendi. The waitress took both desserts away, and presently returned with them again for our neighbours, with the dollop of ice cream carefully in a slightly different position on the plate to prevent any thought that the desserts were the same as those that had been on our table but moments before. When our intended desserts did finally arrive, it has to be said they had been worth waiting for. A restaurant with any presumption to quality should be able to make a good tarte tatin and crème brûlée standing on its head, but bitter experience has proved this not to be so. Thus merit marks are due to Chez Bruce for getting them both spot on.
The m-d arrived shortly with an embarrassed apology, assuring us that mistakes like these are never usually made, and that we’d had the double misfortune to have been struck by their incompetent lightning twice in the same evening. My words, not his, but the sense is faithfully conveyed.
I wonder about this. Chez Bruce clearly sees itself as one of London’s top restaurants, and many reviews (A A Gill’s notably notwithstanding) support it in its claim. Its cooking is good – though not spectacular. Its service is over-manned and under-rehearsed. In many restaurants in France in which we’ve eaten, with superior food and seemingly many fewer staff, the service is almost always better: more knowledgeable and less intrusive. Chez Bruce could do with being less up its own arse, and instead concentrating on its core business, that of creating exciting food and delivering it with accuracy and minimal palaver. The restaurant is very popular, but it would do better to be less acquisitive and reduce the number of tables, the number of staff, and generally give itself room to breathe. That might also insulate diners from the likes of Mr Piggy Guts and his hapless entourage. And one more bit of advice. The loudness and arrogance of diners like that are only fuelled if the chef, as happened on Saturday, leaves the kitchen to converse with them. Bruce Poole, who deserves credit for actually having been in his kitchen, should have resisted Mr Piggy Guts’ insufferable demand that he put in a personal appearance.
But I must end on a note of fairness. The m-d took off a very generous £25 from our bill for the mix ups over the delivery of our dishes, entirely without prompting. We thus left the restaurant with a sense of having been treated well, when we could easily have left feeling the opposite. That’s not to be sniffed at.