There was a time when my daughter’s birthday treat involved nothing more adventurous than a trip to the local Burger King (though that was a very long time ago). Gradually we’ve moved upmarket and for her birthday this year, she told me, she’d love to go to her favourite restaurant – Petersham Nurseries. Now, our visit there yesterday I should confess wasn’t entirely altruistic on my part for I’d never been to this popular and acclaimed local restaurant myself and, with my Single Gourmet Traveller hat on, that was an omission that needed to be put right. I’ve often been to the nurseries to buy the odd plant; have eaten gorgeous cakes and hearty bowls of home-made soup in the tearooms … but I’d not eaten in the piece de resistance of the nurseries – the restaurant itself.
The restaurant really is in the nurseries and you have to walk through rows of plants to get into it. It’s housed in a huge plant-filled Victorian greenhouse. Having looked through a few times, I was slightly worried that I’d be cold on a winter’s day despite the heating (I’m not in my best mood if there’s a cold draught) and that the old-looking chairs and tables might be uncomfortable. But this is now a one Michelin-starred restaurant, I told myself, and some comfort is part of the Michelin star deal. I need not have worried. It was wonderfully cosy and warm inside; the old wooden tables didn’t wobble and the carver chair I sat in, with cushion, was very comfortable indeed. And our friendly waiter was soon bringing us a glass of champagne – a delicious English one, from a Kent vineyard: Gusbourne Blanc de Blanc 2007 and setting in front of us some lovely flatbread and olive oil. Then we had to choose … what should we eat?
The head chef at Petersham Nurseries is Skye Gyngell who has written three award-winning cookery books, has become well-known and much respected in the media and brought considerable acclaim to the restaurant, which won its first Michelin star earlier this year. The emphasis of Skye’s cooking is using fresh, seasonal foods and for this reason the menu is kept short and simple – just a choice of six starters, six main courses and three desserts. Vegetables, salad leaves and fruit are picked from the walled kitchen garden of Petersham House and her cooking is just the kind I like: simple food that aims only to enhance natural flavours and bring them together in a way that both excites the taste buds and is visually pleasing.
But to say ‘simple food’ is a bit of a misnomer. For while it is simple in the sense that you can identify exactly what’s on your plate and the essence of the cooking is simplicity and total respect for the base-note taste of the ingredients, they are brought together in a symphony of flavours – each part of the dish has its part to play and has a reason for being on the plate but the whole is so much more than each individual piece.
Skye Gyngell says in her book, A Year in my Kitchen (also one of my own Top Ten Cookery Books), ‘I don’t see food as a work of art.’ However, there is no doubting the creativity, not only in taste and texture, but also visually, of the food that was put before us. It looked gorgeous and beautiful and – perhaps most importantly – it tasted fabulous.
We chose different starters. I had Buffalo Ricotta with Spinachi, Fennel, Datterini on Bruschetta. Ricotta can be tasteless but this buffalo ricotta was full of flavour and delicious. The baby datterini tomatoes were lightly roasted for extra flavour; the spinach leaves so fresh, I said to Nicola that it was if they’d taken my plate into the vegetable garden and placed each one on there to order. She had Dorset Crab with Tardivo & Puntarelle. The crab was sublime (yes, we of course tasted each other’s!); the pretty tardivo, part of the radicchio family, with marbled leaves had just the right, slightly bitter note to cut through the creamy, rich dressed crab. Then, after a suitable wait (they were very good at giving us a nice break between courses without leaving us feeling we were being kept waiting), we had our main courses. We’d both chosen Wild Seabass, Sweet Potato Mash, Lentils and Marjoram Salmoriglio.
Each flavour was perfectly matched. The fish was a large, thick fillet with a beautiful delicate flavour; the sweet potato adding just the right sweetness to the dish, cut through with the lovely salmoriglio – a southern Italy sauce, a bit like pesto.
We hardly needed a dessert, yet how could we resist? I chose the Panettone Bread & Butter Pudding and Nicola the Rhubarb Ice Cream.
My pudding was luxurious, just as it should be; just the right amount of custard and sweetness with the lovely panettone flavour coming through with its fruits. The ice cream was heavenly: very light, almost like a mousse, with the slight sharpness of the rhubarb, making it a great end to a wonderful meal.
I’d heard so many good things about Petersham Nurseries, had been a fan of Skye Gyngell’s cookbooks for a while, so was anticipating something very special and it totally lived up to my expectations. It’s easy to be disappointed when a lot of hype precedes a visit to a restaurant, but the meal was faultless, indeed superb; the service was friendly and attentive without being obtrusive; the waiter able to answer our few questions about exactly what certain ingredients – like tardivo – were. And – despite my fears about comfort – it was a fabulously cosy, relaxing and comfortable place to spend a couple of hours or more on a wintry December day and enjoy the food of one of the best chef’s around. This is not just a ‘must go back’ place, but worth a special journey for those of you not lucky enough – like me – to live within walking distance of Petersham Nurseries.
Update March 2016: Skye Gyngell left Petersham Nurseries some time ago and the one time I went back after her departure it wasn’t so wonderful – good but not the same exceptional experience. I now haven’t been for a time so can’t give a up-to-date opinion.