Petersham Nurseries Café. A garden at the centre.
Petersham Nurseries. Remember that? Of course you do. You’ll probably be recalling its heyday, under Skye Gyngell, when it had a Michelin star and everyone went on about how expensive it was. I never really fancied it then, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the airy-fairiness of it, or the worry that I was going to have to trek across London to feel short-changed. It just didn’t speak to me.
I knew that the great Skye had gone but I didn’t know who had taken her place. Turns out that it’s Lucy Boyd, who has been there for ten years and is now working alongside new head chef Damian Clisby, previously at HIX Soho and Cotswold House. I had never heard of Lucy Boyd and I am not at all surprised, mid-meal, to find out that she is the daughter of the legendary Rose Gray, of River Café fame and thus a scion of restaurant royalty. Lucy is also head gardener at Petersham and much of the produce grown under her supervision is used in the kitchen.
Joined on a damp Thursday lunchtime by S, declutterer and home-stager, we are ladies of leisure for the afternoon. We drive. More a group of sinkholes surrounded by pockets of gravel, the car park is kind neither to heel nor car, but car is by far the easiest way to get here, certainly from anywhere north of the river.
The garden centre at Petersham is tiny and gorgeous in a tasteful, ramshackle sort of way. There are beautiful things to buy in the shop and you can almost convince yourself that you really need that white ceramic jug for £220. The pricing is schizophrenic, though and there are a few bargains amongst the they saw you coming items.
We walk through the shop to get to the Café and I wonder whether we are in the wrong place. Like an ageing hippy’s rather rickety conservatory, there are prints of Maharajas and other Indian arcana on the wall and a recurring elephant theme. Antique doors hanging on a rail separate the café from the shop and the floor is pebbled earth. So far, so rustic. There is an almost-outdoor part, with metal tables and vines strewn overhead. There are, naturally, mismatched tables and chairs. You would not want to be in the quasi-outdoor section in a downpour; not even shabby chic, it is greenhouse boho.
Despite its artfulness, I am, I confess, charmed by the higgledy-piggledy, faux down-at-heel feel of it. As we are in the Richmond catchment, we spot a number of whippet-thin ladies d’un certain âge, many with that pulled-back, blonde-grey hair, in a thick ponytail, sporting horn-rimmed glasses and tight jeans. They are, invariably, American and accompanied by perfectly-groomed dogs.
Our waitress takes us to a huge table and I love her immediately, as she understands the need to have some zucchini fritti, even before we see the menu. I practically inhale the crisp and delicate flowers. As they are stuck together, I manage to eat six, in short order. It’s not my most elegant moment.
Had I been able to see into the future, I would not have said yes to the offer of extra bread from the diffident waiter who was clearly expecting a no to that question, but I am not a lady with pulled-back hair. Or a lady. Tip: pace yourself.
The menu is elegantly handwritten, and I want all of it. I end up with a beautiful Petersham Garden salad, with Haye Farm beetroot, candy-striped, purple and golden, sliced raw and also baked, with shaved pecorino and deep-fried crisp squares of melting cheesy polenta, like crunchy pillows. Pretty blue borage flowers and marigolds adorn the plate. It is almost too lovely to eat, but I manage.
We are brought an extra course for no good reason, a combination of two dishes over which we had previously been deliberating, this mashup containing both cuttlefish and a hefty wedge of firm monkfish, with fat borlotti beans and juicy datterini tomatoes. Rich and meaty, there are almost joke-sized oregano leaves scattered over it. Served in a deep olive-oil based sauce, it is intense.
I am now worrying that there will not be enough room for a dessert, not normally a cause for concern as I have been known to do without, but I have seen some fine specimens coming out of the kitchen and I know that I will be having one.
I break the habit of a lifetime and leave a third of my monkfish, so that I can do some justice to the next course, the whole poussin, with turmeric, garlic, Amalfi lemon, chickpeas and spinach. No small bird, this, it comes with crisp, spicy skin, and flesh moist from the lemon and garlic marinade. It is superb. A simple salad of parsley and red onion is a perfect garnish. It owes more than a nod to the River Café.
An entirely unnecessary side dish of carrots, roasted to a chewy intensity of honey-sweetness is mostly left uneaten, as I do not wish to waste what little stomach-space there is left on vegetables. It is with actual pain in the heart I leave half of the bird and ask them if I can take it home. I cannot bear to leave it, but I have seen the future and it is in the shape of a pot, filled with chocolate.
I ignore the signals from my waistband and manage to find room for the whole of that smooth, rich, honeycomb-topped mousse and silky-smooth ice-cream.
Verdict? Ingredient-led British food with an Italian bent, a totally Italian wine list and a decidedly non-English, informal feel suggests a natural home-from-home for your Tuscany crowd. The welcoming service and quality of the ingredients make this a must-visit for anyone in the vicinity and those of you with a car. Anyone with a passion for well-cooked food using herbs and flowers to superb effect will be happy here. The food is visually enthralling as well as delicious. A feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. The great Skye may have gone, but there’s still a little piece of heaven at Petersham.