I have to confess to not knowing anything about Chez Bruce before I went. I was under the impression that Bruce Poole, the owner and head chef, is Australian and I was looking forward to some sizzling kangaroo steak. I imagined a miniature Weber Grill in the centre of each table and was hoping for an opportunity to stick some shrimp on the barbie. I know the words "Australian" and "cuisine" don't really belong in the same sentence, but it would make a pleasant change from the stuffy French restaurants I've been spending too much time in lately.
Alas, the only barbies in Chez Bruce are the dolls belonging to the little girls who accompany the Yummy Mummies at lunchtime. It's situated on the edge of Wandsworth Common in that part of South London known as "Nappy Valley" and caters almost exclusively to the local bourgeoisie. Bruce Poole is as British as beef-on-the-bone and his restaurant has boasted a Michelin star for the past five years. Far from being the riotous, Australian pit stop I was imagining, Chez Bruce is one of the poshest restaurant in South London.
As you'd expect, my fellow diners were mainly ex-public schoolboys and their Sloane Ranger wives. Mercifully, they weren't accompanied by little Freddie and Francesca--"We don't do babies at nighttime," explained the floor manager--but frequent calls to the babysitter on the mobile left you in no doubt that they'd recently been introduced to the joys of parenthood. I'm about to join this club myself so I can hardly complain, but the atmosphere in Nappy Valley is a little too Upper Middle Class even for an Oxbridge graduate like me. It's like Shepherd's Bush without the crack cocaine or the gang warfare. It's true what they say: you never realize how much you'll miss something until it isn't there.
Given the clientele, you'd think Chez Bruce would be hit hard by the lay-offs in the City, but the owner has cleverly avoided this by keeping the prices quite low. A decent, three-course meal will set you back £23.50 at lunchtime and £30.00 in the evening, which is pretty reasonable for food of this quality. I had guinea fowl and foie gras to start with, followed by a nice bit of salmon and topped off with a crème brulee. I think the food is what's described as "modern British", but it could have been "modern French". (I find it hard to tell the difference.) Or perhaps it was "cuisine nouvelle". The portions were certainly quite small, but then I don't mind that. Since my wife got pregnant I've actually put on more weight than her. I've become that comic journalistic figure, a restaurant critic on a diet.
Chez Bruce is quite small so you'll have to book well in advance if you're after a table on a Friday or Saturday night. Its intimate atmosphere makes bad behaviour of any kind a no-no, I'm afraid. On the night I was there, the sommelier, Jason McAuliffe, told me about an embarrassing incident the previous weekend when a little boy had peed on the floor. "Every single person in the restaurant saw it happening and the mother got quite upset, poor thing," he said. "Bruce had to come out of the kitchen with a box of hankies." So not much shagging in the toilets then? "Not unless you count the staff," joked Jason.
Carping aside, Chez Bruce is exactly the kind of good, neighbourhood restaurant that any London area would be proud of. Who knows, once the baby arrives and the bullet-strewn wilderness of Shepherd's Bush Green starts to look less attractive, I might even move to Nappy Valley myself.