THE WINE-LIST INSPECTOR VISITS CHEZ BRUCE

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Chez Bruce doesn’t just do wonderful food: it has an outstanding female sommelier, too ...

FROM INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

Though not the gastronomic wasteland that north Londoners would have you believe, the area south of the Thames isn’t blessed with an abundance of great restaurants. But it does have Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, consistently voted one of the capital’s outstanding eateries. SW17 may be the boondocks to some people, but it’s worth a special journey just to eat Bruce Poole’s wonderful food.

Chez Bruce’s wine selection isn’t as famous as its eclectic, modern-European menu, but it deserves to be. Since it opened in 1995, the restaurant has employed three masterly (if very different) sommeliers. The latest is Katie Exton: one of the leading female sommeliers in Britain, with a winning combination of knowledge and easy-going charm.

The wine list is comparatively concise for a restaurant of this quality—no wrist-challenging phone books here—and manages to cram a lot of diversity into its 40 pages. Chez Bruce’s strengths have always been in France, Italy and Australia (a coincidence this, as the eponymous Bruce is a Brit, not an Aussie as some diners assume), but in total it lists wines from 18 different countries, including Greece, Slovenia, Uruguay, Switzerland, England and Canada.

The prices are generally reasonable, too. They start at £17 for both the house red, a strapping, slightly rustic southern French Carignan, and the house white, a minerally, green olive-scented, southern French Vermentino. And though prices ascend to £980 for a single bottle of 1990 Château Lafite, the majority of wines are between £40 and £70.

Fine-wine lovers will certainly feel at home here, thanks to a well-chosen selection of red and white Burgundies, leading Italians, clarets and New World stars. But if that makes Chez Bruce sound a little elitist, it shouldn’t. It attracts wine enthusiasts all right, but it caters for non-experts, too: at weekends it’s more family-oriented, so people tend to stick to styles they know, such as Chablis, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. “I don’t have to work as hard then,” Exton says. But in the week, diners are more adventurous, mostly relying on her recommendations.

That’s what we decided to do. With our starters, my wife and I had two different glasses of white. Exton picked a complex, aromatic, unoaked blend of Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Sauvignon (2009 Terlaner Classico, Alto Adige) to partner a tortellini of crab, spinach and shellfish, and a light, appley, off-dry Mosel Riesling (2008 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Kabinett) to go with an oriental duck salad. Both matches were spot-on. Our main courses inspired Exton to be even more adventurous. Given that we both chose fish—roast cod with grilled squid, and roast sea bass with gremolata—a red, let alone one made in the northern Rhône from the Syrah grape, was not the most obvious choice. But, like the two whites, the 2005 Ogier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, La Rosine was a flag-waving success, a perfumed, spicy, lightly oaked red with just the right amount of weight.

The list’s strength is also a slight weakness, however. It’s deliberately sommelier-led, which is fine if Exton, or her deputy, is available to chat about the matches. But given that the dining room can accommodate more than 100 diners, this isn’t always possible. For all its quality, the list isn’t particularly informative, either. There are no tasting notes or stylistic divisions, both of which would help diners to make up their own minds.

But that’s a minor point. There are hundreds of interesting wines here, including a welcome selection of magnums, carafes and half bottles, and a diverse line-up by the glass. The Sherry list could be more extensive, but there’s no criticising the depth of the sweet-wine selection: one of the most exciting in the country, including bottles from Italy, France, Greece, South Africa and Austria. The diversity applies to the rest of the list, too. Whisper it in north London, but, as the Michelin guide would put it, Chez Bruce is worth the detour.

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

 

IN THE BIN
Number of wines 750
By the glass 26
Under £30 63
Over £100 129
Best value 2009 Bodegas Dos Victorias Verdejo, José Pariente, Rueda (£26)
Worst value 2004 Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta, Colchagua Valley (£110)
Gluggability •••••
Expense account adjuster* •••••
Sancerre index** 2.6

* Probability that the next-door table are paying with the company’s money
** The 2009 Domaine Vacheron costs £12.76 from everywine.co.uk and £40 at Chez Bruce.

 

Tim Atkin is a Master of Wine. His last Wine-list Inspector column for Intelligent Life was about visiting Neil Perry's restaurant in Melbourne.