Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Restaurant Review: The Petersham Nurseries Cafe in London (aka what dreams are made of)

It's been a while from my trip to London and a fantastic lunch at the Petersham Nurseries Café. Last week I wrote about it in a major Estonian newspaper, so it's about time to share some of the photos and thoughts with you, dear readers of my blog. Here we go...

Of course I had read about the hottest (or should it be coolest?) new chef in Londontown, Skye Gyngell, in the British media when still living in Edinburgh. But with London being so far away, and me having way too many cookbooks already to read, I didn't really register the information, nor did I order her book, A Year in My Kitchen. But when Keiko blogged about this unusual restaurant in July 2006, I got curious - the place looked so romantic and out-of-this-word. And when Keiko wrote about it again this March, I was sold. K. and I had already bought our tickets to London, and we were trying to decide where to go for a lunch with Johanna. Some other fancy and exciting options had been discussed in the process earlier, but after seeing Keiko's breathtaking photography, we knew where we wanted to lunch - The Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, near London. Johanna kindly booked the table and on a fine spring day - on April 15th, exactly a month ago - we went for a lunch there.

The place was truly like no other place I've been before. I've been to nice restaurants, and I've been to gardening centres, but this tiny restaurant in a plant nursery greenhouse was different. The entrance to the restaurant is through a shop selling antique garden furniture, expensive horticulture books and extensive range of seeds and plants. The tables are located between lush exotic plants, evocative of far-away warm and dreamy places. You notice that the waitresses (yes, they were all women) wear flipflops or dusty wellies, and that surprises you a little, but then you realise that there is no floor to speak of and that explains the choice of footwear.. Aaahh - how romantic! Instantly relaxed, you sit on one of the tables. The dining area - 15 tables at most, maybe - is full, and the air is buzzing with joyous chit-chat. You simply know that you're about to have a relaxing, and pleasing time here..

On the busy, warm Sunday afternoon we were at the Petersham Nurseries Café, its chef, Australian-born Skye Gyngell, was running back and forth in the dining area, greeting familiar customers, so even humble diners like us got a glimpse of her. Furthermore, she was chatting to Rose Gray for a few minutes, standing just beside our table. Rose Gray, by the way, was also wearing wellies :) (Rose Gray is one of the women behind the two-woman River Café team; her daughter Lucy Boyd, by the way, is in charge of Petersham Nurseries herb & vegetable garden that provides a lot of the ingredients for the restaurant on a daily basis). Talk about culinary star-spotting!

The menu was short, fresh and definitely seasonal - Skye Gyngell changes the menu every Tuesday, although there are some signature dishes that appear more permanently. As Johanna wrote in her review, we pretty much ate through all the dishes available. We started with their signature aperitif, Petersham Rose Prosecco, which was a good and festive start to the meal to follow.

For starters (£11.50-£13), Johanna chose the Salad of Fennel & Crab with Lemon Mayonnaise, her husband had the Carpaccio of Sea bass with Preserved Lemon, Chilli & Purslane, I opted for the Salad of Sheep's Milk Ricotta, Speck, Camone tomatoes & Basil Oil, and K. chose the Little Plate of Mezze. All good choices, and enjoyed by everyone. The basil oil on my salad is one of Skye's toolbox items, i.e. one of the nuts & bolts of her cooking, as she states in the book. K's mezze plate, consisting of generous dollops of roasted tomato and red pepper purée, beetroot purée, chick pea purée, wild greens & herbs (dandelion, rocket, ruby chard or bull's rocket, mint, basil, chevril), slow roasted tomatoes, and goat cheese, all drizzled with some basil oil again - was a huge hit. Luckily to us, the instructions for making this plate are also included in the book (p 66-69), and we've already replicated the chick pea purée at home.

For the mains (£16-£24), Johanna ordered the Monkfish & Clams with Saffron & Rosemary Aioli, I went for the Chickpea Curry with Bhatura, and the guys both ordered the Slow Cooked Lamb with Wild Garlic & White Beans. (The fourth item on the menu was Rabbit with Red Wine Lentils, Trevisse & Horseradish Cream, which sounded good, but unfortunately didn't make it to our table this time). Johanna's monkfish & clams dish is another long-time favourite of the Chef (and diners, obviously), having been on the menu since 2004, and although I didn't try that (remember my strong mental allergy to seafood other than fish), Johanna was ecstatic. I was immensely satisfied with my chickpea curry, which even on a really hot spring day managed to be heartwarming, but not overly so, and the bhatura must have been the best bread I've ever had in an Indian restaurant. Bhatura, for those of you who are not familiar with Indian cuisine, is a fried flatbread, which in Petersham Nurseries came studded with fragrant fennel seeds. Beats your average naan bread any time! The simplicity of the slow roasted lamb was a clear winner as well - just meat, beans and wild garlic, and although I intended to nibble only a little bit from K's plate, I ended up eating many more forkfuls - that's how tender and delicious it was.

Finally, the desserts (£7-£7.50). There was a 'walking dessert menu' (see here) with four choices. Again, although Pecorino with Raw Peas and Lemon Sorbet (probably made from the very Amalfi lemons above) sounded interesting, we ended up ordering two portions of Chocolate Mousse with Burnt Caramel and Fleur de Sel (Johanna & K), and a portion of Syllabub with Rhubarb Poached in Verjuice (me). The chocolate mousse was served as a large dollop of chocolatey goo on a plate, covered with cream and caramel, yet tasted so much better than any delicately and artfully layered patisserie cake I've had. It was rich and intensely chocolatey, had a perfect balance of sweet and salty, and yet it was also light and delicate. And my syllabub with verjuice poached rhubarb - well, let me just tell you that we've recreated that at home as soon as we had unpacked our stuff. So good - sharp, yet subtle, sour, yet sweet!

Not a cheap place to eat, but neither did we feel reluctant to part with our money at the end. Skye even signed a copy of her book for us at the end, and we left the place with happy smiles and content stomachs. And a bag of broccoli rabe seeds for my garden, of course. It's a gardening centre, after all..

You can buy Skye Gyngell's first cookbook buy clicking on the cover image on the left, and I definitely recommend the book. As you can gather from the title of the book, it is arranged by seasons, as many cookbooks these days are (Nigel Slater's captivating The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchencomes to mind). It starts with a thorough introduction to Skye's cooking philosophy, including a detailed overview of her 'kitchen toolbox'. The toolbox, alias the 'nuts and bolts of her cooking', contains ingredients and techniques like tea smoking, base note herbs and top note herbs, roasted spice mix, stock, braised lentils, toasted nuts, roasted red onions and slow-roasted tomatoes, flavoured yogurts, mayonnaise bases (incl the saffron mayonnaise mentioned above), flavoured oils and vinaigrettes, etc - all aimed to enhance the cooking and 'bring out the full natural flavours of seasonal ingredients.'

PS I had other lovely meals in London, including a dinner with Johanna & Jeanne at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, an afternoon tea with Johanna at Brown's English Tea Room and another lovely meal at yet another French restaurant, Magdalen, with a London foodblogger with an Estonian connection, Howard of Food and Drink in London. And then there was a fabulous Lebanese feast at Levantine in Paddington with my friends Annika & Ben. Who said that there are no good places to eat in London?!?


Gracianne said...

Excellent review, it looks like a lovely place as well. I will send that tink to my friends in London.

catalyst0527 said...

Your comments about restaurant makes me happy.

Especially this part :)

"The entrance to the restaurant is through a shop selling antique garden furniture, expensive horticulture books and extensive range of seeds and plants."

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

how absolutely fantastic...must try and get to it, next time I am in London..found your site through this one http://lucullian.blogspot.com/...

I look at her blog for all the lovely Italian recipes. Will have a read of your blog, now that I have found it..will add it too my blog roll.

jenjen said...

sounds like an amazing place, one where you could spend hours upon hours in. Great review.

Freya and Paul said...

A great review and sounds like a place I really would love to eat, amongst plants and almost nature!
The food itself sounds fantastic! Thanks for this!

Jeanne said...

Oh Pille, you make me want to pack up my desk and head over there NOW! Having read your, Keiko's and Johanna's reviews I am now positively aching to go. The food sounds so simple and the setting so wonderful. Great review & lovely photos!

Homesick Texan said...

What a gorgeous meal! Saffron & rosemary aioli sounds heavenly!

Susan said...

What an enchanting atmosphere and divine menu. Thanks for sharing, Pille!

christine said...

Wow! What a lovely setting for such a scrumptious meal! I wish I had known about this place while I still lived in London.

sciencemel said...

Absolutely fantastic! It looks like a fairy tale dream. Definately on the list of must tries on my next trip to London. Thanks for the recommendation.

Pille said...

Gracianne - please do, I'm sure they'll enjoy the restaurant!

Catalyst - glad to hear you liked the review!

Anne in Oxfordshire - welcome to Nami-nami! I hope you'll enjoy browsing through the archives:)

JenJen - thank you!

Freya & Paul - it was a very special experience, heartily recommended.

Jeanne - you've got no excuse whatsoever for not going, being a foodie Londoner!!

Homesick Texan - there's a recipe in the book, remember:)

Susan - you're welcome!

Christine - it was a wonderful setting for a scrumptious meal, for sure. Maybe you can pay a visit next time you're in London?

Melinda - just remember to book ahead!

Catherine Todd said...

Wonderful blog... I'm getting ready to open a plant nursery / cafe here at lovely Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, Central America and imagine my surprise to come upon so many, and your wonderful write up about this exciting place!

Will definitely have to look them up whenever I can get back to London. So inspiring! Gracias to everyone involved... Any other tips or ideas would be most welcome.

Yours, CatherineTodd2 at gmail.