Saturday, 4 July 2009

Petersham Nurseries Café

Beat this. A sunny summer afternoon of lazy lunching at Skye Gygnell's residency in leafy Richmond, a barefoot walk through the park, and a few glasses of fizz watching the sun go down. Not the way I'm used to spending Friday afternoons, regretfully, but all the more special for it.

Petersham Nurseries is quite a treck from central London, but the setting more than makes up for the journey. It's one of those blissful corners of the world where time stands still, and the sun always shines. But enough of the yawnsome eulogy, and back to the food.

I love Skye Gyngell's recipes in the Independent, and my friend adores her book, A Year in My Kitchen, so Petersham had been at the top of our 'must eat at...' list for some time. Skye, the Australian head chef, runs her café in an enormous airy dirt-earth-floor conservatory. You first enter the garden shop, full of fashionable tableware, fancy pots, and garden tools. Walk through to the back, and the rickety tables and chairs welcome you to Skye's lair (she was there holding the fort on our visit).

The menu, which changes every week, is simple and strictly seasonal. With just three options for each course, procrastinating over what to eat was not going to be an issue. We plumped for the £22.50 for 2 courses, intending to head to the courtyard next door for cake afterwards (the desserts didn't inspire: we were hoping for something more inventive than panna cotta, chocolate tart, cheese, or sorbet). With an aperitif glass of rose prosecco safely in hand, we started with Smoked haddock carpaccio with crème fraiche, pea shoots, and nasturtiums, and Figs with anchoïade, burrata, and parma ham. The flowers and pea shoots set off the pale smoky fish perfectly, and mustered enthusiastic murmurs of approval. Parma ham, figs, and soft cheese are a familiar sight on restaurant menus these days, but Skye had pushed it up a level with a delightful earthy piquant walnut anchoïade. Salty ham, milky wet, yielding cheese, and soft plump fig make for a seductive little plateful.

The main courses offered a little less inspiration.
The meat option was a chicken salad, hardly earth-shattering. Mackerel with spinach and rocket didn't tempt us either, so we both went for the Roast fennel with beetroot, sweet potato, bruschetta, crème fraiche, and basil oil. It was tepid but sublime. I'm not easily impressed by vegetarian restaurant offerings, but this was carefully thought out, beautifully presented, and meaty enough to satisfy our appetites. Granted, you could put this together at home, but you'd be hard-pressed to replicate the delicate flavours. Perfectly chilled glasses of Provençal rosé (Bandol) and muscadet were gentle and unobtrusive, with enough character to linger on the tongue, but not overwhelm the food. Although we hadn't been keen on the four desserts, we did succumb and share a sharp and intensely fruity raspberry sorbet, served in a cute little Moroccan tumbler, to cleanse our palates.

We just managed to fit in a slice of fig cake (ok, but not figgy enough) and a sticky Chelsea bun in the courtyard next door, and a sprint around the nursery, before they called 'time'. What a shame they close at 4:30pm, especially when we're blessed with long, light summer evenings.

If you find Chelsea 'boho' nauseating, and £50 trowels offensive, this might not rock your boat, but let go of your city cynicism for a moment, soak in the convivial atmosphere, and you'll be hooked. There's no getting away from the fact that £86 for a weekday lunch for two is pricey, but the standard of produce, and the level of care and attention it's given, justified it. If I'm perfectly honest, I was expecting the menu to be a little more gutsy and adventurous, but it won't stop me returning.

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