I am particularly partial to long and languorous lunches, there is something special about eating a fine meal over several hours while the sun is shining, preferably on you, but at least outside. This lunch was made more special by the fact that it was my birthday and so I was being treated.
The lunch was on my Mum, her only prerequisite that she didn't want to go anywhere poncy. I had wanted to go to Chez Bruce for some time and it fit this criterion perfectly. Chez Bruce oozes sophistication and class, without feeling stuffy and formal – a difficult balance to strike. The dining room is stylish but understated. The service is smooth, efficient and knowledgeable with a little bit of charm for good measure.
The waiters could see we were going to be hours and gave us the space to chat, open presents and drink our champagne. This is a mark of good service – being able to tell when a table is ready; the chat tends to stop, menus close or are put down, someone tries to catch your eye. Some tables are more relaxed and need coaxing, but it is always clear if a table has been nattering so much that they haven’t had a chance to look at the menu and they will not welcome the interruption.
When it became clear that we were in need of a drink someone appeared at my side.
“Oh hello. Perfect! Yes, we would like to order a bottle of wine, but we’re not sure which.”
“Certainly, the sommelier will be right with you.”
I didn’t even have to ask.
I had a quick browse of the wine list, but making a decision wasn’t easy; the list is extensive. Fortunately, so was the sommelier’s knowledge and in a place like this it’s worth taking full advantage of that.
“My Mum likes something quite dry, not too fruity. I am happy with dry but prefer something with a bit of body to it, like albariño or gruner veltliner. What would you recommend?”
She took these tips, mixed them together and came up with the exact bottle I was imagining. Where had this wine been all my (adult) life?
It was the Coto de Gomariz, Colleita, 2010 – a blend of albariño, godello, treixadura and loureira. The nose was deceiving – crisp and clear with a hint of citrus, it suggested something light and dry. This, the sommelier told me, was because the treixadura has no nose but gives the wine a lot of depth. From the albariño there were peaches, from the godello green apples and ‘crunch’, while the loureira took a backseat adding aromatics rather than any significant flavour.
Things kept getting better, and it wasn’t just the effect of the wine. The food was sensational.
Mum and I agreed to share so that we could try more things, starting with the deep-fried brains with warm salad paysanne, sauce gribiche and red wine and the brandade-stuffed piquillo pepper with grilled squid, tomato, chilli and aioli.
I liked the brains best. I had never had them before and they were nothing like I expected; white and milky, almost like mozzarella, but with a firm and silky consistency, they had been fried in breadcrumbs, a great textural contrast. Sauce gribiche was rich and creamy with little studs of gherkin, great with the crisp brains. This was offset by the astringency of the slightly crunchy salad paysanne. Everything had its place in what was a perfectly rounded dish.
The brandade was lighter than any I have had before with a slight hint of saffron and worked well inside the piquillo pepper which brought sweetness to an otherwise salty dish. The Provencal sauce tasted of the Mediterranean – rich tomatoes, plenty of herbs and a hint of vinegar. It was served on a crispy toast which had been charred on the grill giving it a wonderfully smoky flavour. My only complaint would be that the squid was ever so slightly overdone.
It turns out the sommelier was not just a one trick pony. She also helped me choose my main. I was deliberating because I really liked the sound of the vegetarian option. I rarely order a vegetarian main and when I do I am often disappointed.
“Rather than think of it as the vege option, think of it as a pasta. It’s homemade tortellini, there is a lot of flavour from the wild garlic and mousserons, and the spring vegetables are cooked beautifully.”
It was the pea tortellini with asparagus, wild garlic and mousserons and it was divine. The sauce had that amazing depth of flavour that can only be achieved with a homemade stock stewed for hours and plenty of white wine. Soft, earthy mushrooms and the tortellini contrasted with the tender asparagus and crisp pea shoots. Despite a rich sauce and plenty of parmesan, the effect light and fresh.
Fortunately Mum liked her choice of main as much as I liked mine, so I got to eat most of the tortellini, but a few mouthfuls of her lamb breast tagine with rump, kofta, glazed aubergine, apricot and coriander indicated that this is a versatile and inventive kitchen which can handle a range of flavours not just competently, but with finesse.
It was not just your average tagine. All the Morrocan spices were there, as well as little touches such as light and airy candied chickpeas, which had been fried till crisp, and honey-glazed aubergine coated in pistachio and served with tzatziki.
I don’t usually do dessert but in a place like this I think you have to. Their apricot and almond tart was textbook – the pastry soft and light with a crisp exterior. The apricots were very tart and well complemented by a sweet and nutty amaretto ice cream.
This was all very well and good, but I had my eye on the cheeses. Unlike anywhere else I have been they do not restrict you to a certain number of choices.
“Great, well we’ll have one of each then” says Mum.
The waiter turns a rather unpleasant shade of pink.
“She means one of each style, not every single one!” I say.
Natural colour floods back into his cheeks.
“Of course, I see.”
My favourites were the Saint-Félicien (I had a love affair with it last summer in France, so it was fun to find I was still in love) and the Berkswell, a sheep’s cheese similar to manchego from Neal’s Yard. The sommelier picked us a fabulous glass of red to go with, the Hannah’s Swing Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, an adaptable wine more elegant and refined than your typical Aussie shiraz and so more suited to a cheeseboard encompassing a range of flavours.
I have a good memory for food, but I can rarely recall a meal in such vivid detail more than a month down the track. It has to be a very good meal indeed. This was in June, but I remember it was like it was yesterday.