Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Chez Bruce: Wandsworth Michelin Star French Cuisine

Chez Bruce is part of a trio of wonderful London restaurants, which includes La Trompette in Chiswick and The Glasshouse in Kew. All three pride themselves on providing exceptional food, immaculately prepared with a strong French influence. Just over a decade ago, Bruce Poole, who is widely acknowledged to be one of Britain's best chefs, was asked by London restaurateur Nigel Platts-Martin to step into the kitchen of Harvey's, the Wandsworth restaurant made famous by British celebrity chef Marco Pierre White. With the restaurant rechristened Chez Bruce, he took up the challenge, wisely not trying to compete in the same culinary milieu as the charismatic White, cooking instead, gutsy and unpretentious French food that soon won him and the restaurant a raft of accolades, including a Michelin star awarded in 1999. 

Chef Bruce Poole

More recently, Chez Bruce achieved the unthinkable by knocking the perennial celeb's haunt, the Ivy, off its perch as London's favourite restaurant. No mean achievement as the Ivy had ruled that particular roost for nine years! Part of that success is attributable to a no-nonsense style of food that includes popular menu items such as Chateaubriand with hand-cut chips and Béarnaise sauce, Grilled Calf's Liver with anchovy and rosemary butter and Roast Cod with olive oil mash. It’s not just deluxe contemporary French comfort food that’s close to perfection at this place, its also the service, the lighting and the fact that you pay one set price whatever you order. It’s posh dining without the pretence —classic cooking at its purest, from a chef who's spent his time in the kitchen, not the limelight.

This is classic cooking at its purest from a chef who has spent his time 
in the kitchen, not the limelight

Ask any chef or foodie what they love about Poole's food and the answer is always the same. The food is straightforward and cooked from the heart. Nothing pretentious, no gimmicks, just good food. The benchmark for any Bruce Poole dish is his own palate. If he likes a taste, he'll chisel at it until he's satisfied, then he'll leave it alone. He won't tinker with it. He cooks the kind of food chefs like eating on their day off: technically precise without ever being too showy. Gordon Ramsay even eats here.

Our corner table at Chez Bruce

Before the meal begins we're treated to Chef Poole's buttery flavour-packed parmesan biscuits

Wine is served in elegant Schott Zwiesel crystal decanters

Deep-fried Brains with warm salad paysanne and sauce gribiche

English asparagus with poached duck egg, creamed polenta and parmesan

Risotto Nero, a black, inky rice suspended in a glossy sauce 
flavoured with fennel, lemon, star anise and white wine with gremolata

Roast cod with olive oil mash, provençale tomato, grilled courgette and gremolata

Hot chocolate and almond pudding with praline parfait and Vanilla bean iced cream

The phenomenal Chez Bruce cheese board with a fabulous selection 
of cheeses and homemade quince jelly

Espresso with a sweet and sticky homemade palmier

Two years ago, Chef Poole came out with his first cookbook, aptly named Bruce's Cookbook. The book begins with charming anecdotes and stories of how he started out, and of course, wonderful recipes he wants you to cook at home, such as Slow Roasted Shoulder of Lamb with harissa, spiced pilaf rice and yoghurt, Boeuf Bourgignon with parsnip purée, Ceviche of Salmon with crème fraîche and coriander, Potato Gnocchi with butter, wilted sage and parmesan and Chocolate Soufflé, to name a few. The cookbook has beautiful photography, is well written with thoroughly delicious recipes. I picked up this book as a culinary momento of the evening we spent at Chez Bruce, and for just £25.00, it was an affordable way to enjoy Chef Poole's cuisine for years to come.

The Chez Bruce cookbook

Bruce's Roast Chicken
Serves 2–4 as a main course

1 free-range chicken
vegetable oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup duck fat 
1 bunch of fresh thyme or rosemary
2 whole heads of garlic, split in half so the cut cloves are exposed
1/2 cup water 
1 bunch Italian parsley, tarragon, sage or oregano, chopped
1 lemon

Set the oven to 425ºF. Remove the legs from the chicken: simply pull the leg forcefully from the crown and run a sharp knife between the two to release the skin. Once you've done this, you can easily pull the leg right down towards the board at right angles to the crown. Pick the whole chicken up and dislocate the thigh bone from its socket at the base of the bird. Once this is done, simply run the knife along the leg to release the whole from the crown. Repeat with the other leg. 

Place the roasting pan over a brisk heat and get it really hot, about 3 minutes or so. Very lightly oil only the crown with a little vegetable oil – a pastry brush is ideal for this. This simply gives the skin some stickiness for the seasoning to adhere to. Season the crown liberally with salt and pepper both on the skin and inside the cavity. Also season the legs on both sides. 

Put a heaped dessertspoon of duck fat into the pan followed immediately by the crown, breast down, and the legs, skin-side down. Using tongs, turn the crown on to the other breast when the first is beautifully golden. Turn the legs over at the same stage. This browning process will take 10 minutes or so. 

Turn the heat down a little if it is too fierce and beginning to scorch the side of the pan. When the chicken crown and legs are evenly coloured on both sides, turn off the heat and remove the pan from the stovetop. Carefully place the thyme or rosemary evenly under the chicken and add some to the cavity. Place the garlic around and make sure both legs are in direct contact with the pan and are skin-side down. Place the whole lot in the oven for 30 minutes, basting twice. 

When basting, make sure that the garlic gets a generous helping of fat or the cloves may burn. After half an hour, take the pan from the oven and flip the legs over so that the skin side faces upwards. Cover loosely with foil and rest in a warm place for at least half an hour. 

Just before serving, transfer the chicken and legs to the chopping board. Remove the garlic from the pan and keep warm. Discard the roasting herbs, which will be scorched. Tip up the pan at one end so that the juices collect at the other end and skim off some of the fat, but not necessarily all of it. 

Put the pan back on a gentle heat, add the water and whisk well as the liquid boils. Ensure that all the residue is scraped up from the pan into the sauce. Pass the whole lot through a sieve into a small pan. Check the seasoning, add the chopped herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice. Keep warm. 

Carve the breasts from the crown, cutting down towards the board between the neck end and the wing bone. This will ensure a complete breast with the wing bone attractively attached. Repeat with the other breast. Cut each breast in two, one half slightly bigger than the other. 

Locate the joint between drumstick and thigh and cut between the two, thereby leaving four leg pieces. Serve the smaller drumstick with the slightly bigger breast piece and the smaller breast piece with the larger thigh joint. Spoon the herb gravy over and serve immediately with the roasted garlic.

Risotto Nero
Serves 6 as a generous starter

6 1/2 cups fish stock, chicken stock or water
4 oz unsalted butter
Olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 head of fennel, cored, sliced and finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 cups risotto rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 oz passata, a good tomato purée
1 small dried chilli, crumbled
2 star anise
3 sachets of squid ink
18 baby squid, cleaned with tentacles intact
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon

1 lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

For the gremolata, remove the peel in long strips from the lemon, using a vegetable peeler. Mince the lemon peel then transfer to a small bowl. Mix in the parsley and garlic. This can be made 6 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Bring the stock or water to a simmer. In your risotto pan, melt half of the butter with the same quantity of olive oil and, over a medium heat, sweat together the onion, fennel, celery and garlic. When these have softened, after 10 minutes or so, add the rice and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan as you go.

Next up, add the wine and cook until all but evaporated, then the passata, dried chilli, star anise and the contents of the squid-ink sachets. Continue to cook until the rice has begun to absorb the passata.

Now start adding the hot stock or water, one ladleful at a time in the usual way. Towards the end of the cooking process, heat a large, non-stick frying pan until it's very hot. Season the baby squid well with plenty of sea salt and pepper, then sauté in batches in the frying pan in a thin film of smoking-hot olive oil. Transfer the cooked squid to a plate, together with any residual juices, squeeze a generous fistful of lemon juice over them and keep warm.

Finish the risotto with the remaining butter and check the seasoning. Divide between six warmed plates and top with the squid, the tentacles, any juices, an extra drizzle of olive oil and the gremolata.

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