15 JULY 1995, Page 42

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Chez Bruce NNN

fkb.1C1rWal■-•.— CHEZ BRUCE is something of a restaura- teur's restaurant: nearly every chef I've come across over the past month or so has been raving about it. It's nothing fancy — chefs never like anything fancy — but the coolcing's good, it's not Italian and the menu comes in at around £20 a head. Any- way, as soon as I heard the name of the place I was smitten, and I remain enchant- ed by it.

The Bruce in question, who operates on the site of what was once the illustrious Harvey's, is not Australian but English, and although his menu is Frenchish — there is jambon persille, and references to bran- dade and sauce gribiche — the new notes are sounded as well. You can eat Imam bayildi (as at Marks & Spencer's, a transla- tion, though not the lyrical, literal one, is thought necessary), Merguez or tabbouleh, Italian walnut bread and salsa verde.

It isn't, however, gimmicky: that is to say, the menu has a character of its own and isn't that more usual thing of being just an assembly of cool contemporary features. The French influence is definitely upper- most, but in a relaxed, integrated way; one doesn't get the impression that Bruce Poole is doing the culinary equivalent of putting on a Maurice Chevalier accent.

Chilled cucumber and tomato soup is very New British, and tasted much better than it read. A pale, pale Biba pink, the colour of a hamster I had when I was a child, it had that grassy, summery tomato smell and taste, without killing off the cucumber and its familiar acidic intensity. This cool, creamy mixture was gentle and bravely low-key. It was a masterpiece of rest : it is in the holding back that real tal- es. Deep-fried calf's brains with s: - glibiche was similarly gratifying and all went together as it should: the searing heat of the breadcrumbs, a crisp and burn- ing carapace; the pale, yielding, almost souffle(' creaminess of the brain within; and the cold, thick sauce, hinting of astrin- gency. The brandade de morue, a lozenge- shaped dollop of it on top of a fennel and olive salad dressed with 'crab oil', was a bit too tricksy, though I think it might have worked had the whole thing not been so icy. Whatever EC regs say, cold food should not go straight from refrigerator to table.

Salade nicoise turned out to be as near as dammit to a proper salade nicoise. I'd rather expected a newfangled version with fresh tuna, char-grilled. But, no. I am not going to enter into the potatoes or no pota- toes debate; this one hAd potatoes (and beans and tomatoes and olives, as one would expect) and was splendid. I had cod, roasted and covered with a pea-green herb crust, sitting on a filigree lattice-work of rosti-ish potatoes and sweet, slender leeks. This cod was perfection, its bouncy white flesh suffused with the leeks' juices and the grassy aroma of the herbs, but keeping still its own silky firmness.

Sable of raspberries was deeply pleasur- able: two discs of celestially light, buttery biscuit sandwiching some fruit-punctured cream. Praline parfait sat deliquescing — like the perfect semifreddo — on a chunk of hot and smokily toned chocolate and almond pudding, the whole scattered with burnt almonds and blanketed with a grown- up version of chocolate spread.

There's a good wine list — short, fash- ionable, punchy. The first time I went I had a bottle of the Meerlust Merlot, and I meant to try something else, but couldn't resist this thick, soupy South African red on my second visit either. I had a glass of the Shaw & Smith Sauvignon blanc as well, which was fruity and grassy, in that sunny Strine way, but without the deep, heady pull of South African wine.

Bruce Poole's cooking would be praise- worthy even if his menu weren't £18.50 for two courses or £22 for three; that makes it decidedly good value and I only hope he won't be hoiking his prices up too soon (they're marginally higher than when he opened). Service is friendly and the place full of buzz and the happy chatter of le tout Wandsworth. Three courses for two of you, with drinks before, wine with and a tisane or some coffee after will come, with tip, to just above £70.

Put like that it doesn't sound so cheap, but terrible though it sounds, for these days it is. I can easily think of a dozen places with less gratifying kitchens that are charg- ing nearly double. True, they're not in Wandsworth, but the cooking here rewards the labour of the expedition.

Chez Bruce: 2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17; tel: 0181-672 0114.

Nigella Lawson