Spring. Subtlety at Somerset House.
In an attempt to inject some culture into the massive slobfest that was the Christmas and New Year break, I contact S, house-doctor in training and mistress of the dark art of de-cluttering. On the penultimate day before the shock of the desk, I need some ideas.
Let’s go to the Egon Schiele, she suggests, at the Courtauld. I immediately think of Spring, also at Somerset House, for we are going at 11.15 and I am worrying about where we will eat lunch.
I’m not sure I’d recommend all that emaciation and in-your-face genitalia as a precursor to lunch and I’m pleased that we work our way through the stunningly good permanent collection, so that I can soak in some less brutal imagery, before the softness of Spring.
I’m not sure why it’s called Spring and I confess that the name was rather off-putting in the depths of January, as I imagined delicate pretty-but-prissy food and not the winter comfort-plates that I crave at this time of year. And I’d not got on with Skye Gingell’s cookbook either, having ordered the same in sheep-like fashion, influenced by the unmitigated adulation for her previous restaurant at Petersham Nurseries.
I’ve looked for an explanation of the Spring thing on their website but nothing doing. Just the usual stuff about seasonal ingredients, produce-led dishes, and the passionate about what they do spiel and also the word heartfelt, which gave me pause.
Getting there is not straightforward. Tip : Main entrance, through arch, turn right and go straight on.
I am slightly irritated by the lack of signage, but I walk into the bar/reception and all is forgiven. Warm, dare I say Spring-like colours greet you as you enter. All high ceilings, pale apricots and softest duck-egg blue grass wallpaper, I can see why people have described this restaurant as feminine. There’s a separate conservatory, which is going to be a walk-in restaurant, according to the woman quietly folding napkins on her own. We quiz her about the use of the knife in her napkin folding as we look at the plaster casts of tree roots on the walls.
The main room is lovely, bright and airy with blond wooden floors, funky-yet-elegant lighting and a marble bar anchoring the room at the end. Despite its proximity to the Thames, there are no views. Tip #2: Ask for a window seat on a banquette. It will seat 2 or 3.
The set lunch has very little choice so I discard it immediately. There is little point in offering a no-choice, single course option of something slightly unusual, such as partridge, for the set-lunch and I feel the irritation re-surfacing but it subsides with the coming of the bread. My carb-free January buckles in the face of superb sourdough, though I limit myself to just the one piece, which counts as restraint.
We are offered both still and sparkling water from elegant decanters. No charge is made for the water and neither is there a cover charge, which I applaud.
We are not drinking alcohol, but there are unusual fruit juices and I choose apple and pistachio. It is a revelation and I recommend that you try it.
My appetite has truly been curtailed by the shock of the Schiele and I forego a starter, although I panic and order a side dish or what I thought was a side dish but may have been a vegetarian main. T
The food is that difficult-to-pigeonhole cuisine, modern, I think I’d call it, leaning to the Italian, mercifully free of sharing plates. I go for the Sea Bass with Jerusalem Artichokes, rocket, tomato and black olive dressing. It’s a big crisp fillet and the skin has been salted well. It crunches, which I like. The dressing is rich and the tomatoes and olives give some deep flavour to the fish. These are not ground-breaking combinations and this is not complicated cooking.
The artichokes are roasted until they are almost chewy and the flavour of them is intense. I pray that they will not have their usual effect on me and that I will be able to mix in polite society later in the day.
S has Rabbit with Red Wine Lentils and Gorgonzola. Her rabbit is a tad overcooked, she feels but, she says, the lentils stewed with red onions and glistening in their rich stock are the best she’s had in ages, The gorgonzola sauce is not as flavoursome as she had hoped, having been watered down into a sort of béarnaise consistency, lacking blue-cheesy bite.
I very much like my salad of Fennel, Blood Oranges, Hazelnuts and Pink Radicchio. Not the most complicated of dishes, granted, but the ingredients are first rate and taste sharp and fresh and I like the pink and red, zuzzing up the fennel salad and making it look inviting.
The Onion Squash with Chilli Butter and Cime de Rapa (turnip tops to you) is a rich affair, almost enough for a main course and too big for a side, I want more of this but it isn’t mine and I think S is going to eat the rest of it but she doesn’t and they take it away before I can fork it. Regrets. I’ve had a few.
We toy with the idea of dessert but the mains and the sides-not-sides are enough on top of the bread and the Schiele. Exquisiteness comes in the form of the white chocolate nougat pieces delivered to the table with the very refined tea which we ordered because we are grown-up ladies lunching in a room for ladies who lunch. Candied orange and pistachio nuggets embedded in the nougat make me want to look online for the recipe. They accidentally bring another plate of them with the bill. I don’t mention it.
The Summing Up: I like Spring, not so much for the food, which was what I’d call adventurous home cook, but for the whole unashamedly gentle and delicate ambience. I love the décor and especially the herringbone salmon pink tiles in the loos, the austere conservatory and the huge drop lights. In a world where a lobster roll sandwich bar thinks it’s acceptable to refer to naked women in its signage (yes, Smack Lobster, I’m referring to you) it’s a joy to find such an unashamedly woman-friendly, elegant restaurant. Expensive, yes, but not greedy. Mannered but not too silly, original (those waiting staff outfits) and yes, heartfelt.
PS. It was me, walking away quickly from the scene of the crime in M&S later that day. Artichokes.