RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR 2006
You could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the rate of restaurant openings in London actually slowed a bit in 2006, such is the continuing onslaught of a small army of chefs in personalised white coats invading renovated or converted pubs, storefronts, or, like hermit crabs, the shells of other restaurants. From Paris to Putney, Hartford or Hammersmith, they swarm in and create a buzz, and a lot of us lap it up, camp followers travelling on our stomachs, hardly ever looking back.
It’s good, fairly clean fun, but every now and then even the hardiest gourmand longs to put aside this neophilia and stop, relax, sit down and settle in to a first-rate, unpretentious, unfussy meal cheerfully served up with a very good bottle of wine. When that happens, one of the first places we turn to is the consistently first-rate, decidedly unpretentious, and thoroughly hospitable Chez Bruce – this is why it is the Decanter/Laurent-Perrier Restaurant of the Year 2006.
The ‘Bruce’ is Bruce Poole, and the restaurant’s name, he says with a characteristically wry laugh, ‘was a bit of a joke, but I’m not sure everybody got it’. That was back in 1995, and the name, changed from Harvey’s, was a signal that the era of Marco Pierre White had ended (before that, it had been a burger joint, and then, moving with the times, a wine bar; as Poole notes, ‘Back then, you could park but ran the risk of being mugged; now you’re safe, but you can’t park.’) His cooking was mostly solid, honest bourgeois French, with charcuterie, a wide array of vegetables imaginatively prepared, plenty of offal and game (especially pheasant and rabbit), with robust sauces. It’s a little more refined these days, but still vividly flavoured and precisely cooked.
‘I suppose you’d call it sophisticated brasserie food. Sometimes–’ he laughs, ‘not so sophisticated. I’m not averse to putting a piece of ham on a plate if it’s really good, because I like it, and there’s a place for that on any menu. That, to me, shows confidence on the part of a cook, especially if there are also some technically difficult dishes on the same menu. There should be a balance, to give customers the best choice.’
If he sounds a little unlike most ‘celebrity’ chefs of the moment, that’s because he is. No PR people, no embossed chef’s jacket, no sidelines. His university degree was in history, his first work experience as a restaurant manager, and he was a late starter. ‘I was tempted by the idea of cooking professionally, and applied when I was 21 to apprentice with Anton Mosimann, who turned me down as too old. I was a fairly keen amateur cook, used to have dinner parties and serve dreadful, overworked things, but I spent time thinking in a conformist way – I’m too old, it’s too late, all that. Then I thought, “Why not, I’ll make the jump,” so I wrote to 10 restaurants, all the best in London: Gavroche, to Marco, Alastair Little, Bibendum, and so forth, and Simon Hopkinson took me on at Bibendum.
‘This was in the late 1980s, and the brigade included Jeremy Lee, Henry and Matthew Harris, a whole lot of good cooks.’ It was a good place to start, he says, and a good time to be a late bloomer (he went on to The Square, then took over another French restaurant for a while).
‘And then the cult of the chef began. I think people liked the idea that there were these English blokes trying to run good restaurants (I say blokes, but let’s remember Sally Clarke, too). But people liked the idea that the owner was in the kitchen, that the beating heart of the place was at the stoves, rather than out front. It gave restaurants real personality.’
I mention that there’s been talk – grown into received wisdom – that French cooking is at a dead end, and he recoils. ‘It’s a very ignorant thing to say,’ he growls. ‘With any kind of food trend, there are good and bad things, but I think with classical French cooking, there are more good things, certainly. There’ll always be a market for French-based cooking, because it’s so bloody good. Trends will come and go, and it’ll always be there. I just wish there were more people working to get classical ideas well executed, instead of fads and fad dishes, which makes for a sameness too often.’
The wine list has about 500 bins, probably one of the widest-ranging and best-value collections in any Michelin-starred London restaurant, and he brightens markedly when talking about it.
‘I’m obsessed with wine, care very deeply about it, have been for years. I collect for myself, but I’d say my knowledge is just reasonable.
‘I read quite a bit, but can’t get out to many tastings, so I stay in touch by being very interested in what happens here. I don’t have to worry about a lot of it, because my sommelier [Canadian Terry Threlfall] is so good. He works very hard at buying good stuff, and we keep prices fair, always try for better value. It’s a big part of what we do here, and I’m very proud of it.’
Also notable is the fact that Chez Bruce is one of the few restaurants in London that allows you to bring your own wine, and for a very reasonable corkage fee of £15 – one more admirable aspect of a very admirable establishment.
Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17 7EG.
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8672 0114. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
Newcomer Of The Year
When I dropped by this bustling, very busy, cheerfully noisy bistro to tell co-owners Will Smith and chef Anthony Demetre that they were the Decanter/Laurent-Perrier Restaurant Newcomer of 2006, I mentioned that they would be paired with Chez Bruce, which brought a smile to Demetre’s face. ‘That’s great,’ the equally unpretentious chef said, ‘they’re the benchmark, aren’t they?’
Demetre cooked for years with legendary chef Bruno Loubet, actually beginning at this spot, which was once Bistrot Bruno, before winning a Michelin star on his own at Putney Bridge, which was later sold out from under him. Now he’s back to brasserie cooking, with an intriguing menu that he calls ‘traditional and modern European’ (mostly French, a bit of Italian, and some British dishes): chicken sot-l’y-faisse is half a dozen of the ‘oysters’ found on the birds’ backs and certainly the best meat on it, browned and topping a gratin of macaroni and broad beans with thyme-and-nut sauce; lightly smoked eel (almost never off the menu) comes with a chunk of pressed beetroot and horseradish cream; potée auvergnate is cabbage stuffed with ground pork, bacon, and prunes (‘my wife’s recipe’, he says with a smile, ‘old-fashioned but good’). Best of all is the boned-out saddle of rabbit stuffed with potato and its liver, alongside a hot pot of deeply savoury cottage pie made with its shoulder. It’s sophisticated brasserie cooking all over again, brilliantly executed, and quite wonderful. If French cooking is on the way out, can I hitch a ride?
The wine list is Smith’s baby, carefully tended, frequently refreshed; about 90 bins, weighted toward France, and the striking good news is that almost all are available in 250ml carafes, for one-third the bottle price. Thus you can get a carafe of Au Bon Climat Chardonnay for £12, Girardin’s Santenay for £14, Trinity Hill’s marvellous Gimblett Gravels Syrah for £15.50, and 1990 Château Canon St–Emilion for £50. There are also a dozen fine-wine choices, only by the bottle, including Ridge Monte Bello, Vega Sicilia Unico, and de Vogüé Bonnes Mares. (A happy note: After Arbutus opened and was commended for this sensible, humane, and hospitable carafe policy, several other restaurants have taken it up; perhaps a trend in the making?)
Arbutus, 63 Frith St, London W1D 3JW. Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 4545. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
Written by Brian St Pierre