If you haven't got a green finger - and, let's face it, the balance of growing vs killing plants is very much in the negative in my case - chances are that you don't spend much time in garden shops, let alone (plant) nurseries. Luckily, I have one specimen just round the corner from where I live that gives me another reason to go: food that is absolutely to die for.
Petersham Nurseries have become a bit of a secret hide-away for the rich and famous of the South-East, who like to flock here for a romantic tête-à-tête or a leisurely Sunday lunch and be enchanted by the spectacular setting of what I believe to be one of London's best restaurants. During the week, you'll mainly see elegantly-clad women in their Fifties (if you can spot that beyond the botox and the tummy-tucks, that is) who come in to forget about the stressful life they lead as the charity ladies of this world, or people who come in wearing wellies and stock up on plants, tools and decorative items for the home and the patio.
Because this place, tucked away between Petersham Meadows (yes, that's the famous cows grazing on a meadow along the Thames eternalised on so many British paintings and therefore protected through a parliamentary act in 1902, see here) and Kylie Minogue's humble London abode, this establishment does what it says on the tin: you walk in through glass houses and potted plants and sneak through a beautiful shop selling dainty garden furniture, garden accessories as well as books to reach a little area with rough wooden tables and slightly wobbly matching chairs, surrounded by hanging baskets and massive potted plants. If you've ever eaten on a beach, your bare feet playing with the sand under the table, this is very much the same feeling here: a few tables scattered into the surroundings of an exclusive garden shop, your shoes getting incredibly dusty from the bare soil under your feet. Add to that Morrocan tapestry, carved wood screens,the glass roof with patchy grass blinds and the waiting staff wearing either flipflops or wellies, this is as far removed from the hectic life of a metropolis as you can possibly be. (To get a better impression of the atmosphere of this bewitching place, view Keiko's account of an event she recently attended here.)
A glass of bubbly in hand, you peruse the menu and wish you'd discovered this gem earlier: with four choices per course, the decision is quickly made and you find yourself wandering around the shop to admire the decorative items on offer... this is not your average garden shop, of course, it's at the high end of the spectrum and if Prada designed wellies and wicker baskets, this is where they'd sell them. The food is very much on the same level: modern international cuisine with a focus on seasonal and self-grown produce, executed to perfection. On our recent visit with my dear friend Pille and our respective better halves (plus little baby Henrik in tow, of course), we pretty much ate our way to the menu of that day.
Hardly a dish remained unordered as I seized the opportunity to grab the last of the Cornish crab & fennel salad with a generous dollop of home-made mayonnaise, a deep yellow indicating a very good source for their eggs. The other starters were a gorgeous mezze plate, far from usual with various dips including a herbed hummous and something involving beetroot (you will understand that I didn't investigate this any further), a salad of spinach and a variety of roast vegetables with a generous portion of goat's ricotta, and a carpaccio of seabass with lemon, red chilli slices and watercress. All pretty simple fare, but it couldn't have been executed any better - every single ingredient, from the fish to the eggs to the olive oil and the salt was of outstanding quality which made the simplest of dishes shine brighter than anything Guy Savoy or Gordon Ramsay could serve me.
The mains were very much along the same lines. My monkfish and clams came in a generous bowlful of bold, hearty soup made from tasty tomatoes and ground almonds, again with a spoonful of aioli... call it a basic bouillabaisse. Such a perfect dish on a hot spring day, you could forget that you're miles from the Mediterranean. Another favourite of mine was a slow-cooked lamb shoulder - and I do not love lamb unreservedly - with wild garlic and cannellini beans in a creamy sauce with a hint of parmesan. Using a knife would have been an affront, the meat was so incredibly tender that you could eat the whole dish with a spoon, shaving down the fibres as they huddle up against each other to delve into the thick and onctuous sauce.
The dessert menu, chalked onto a small blackboard which was travelling through the restaurant during the course of the service, leaning against the nearest flower container or orange tree for diners to see, offered a slab of pecorino with fresh garden peas in their shells, a lemon sorbet, a syllabub with roasted rhubarb in verjus, and a dark chocolate mousse with burnt caramel and fleur de sel. The latter came spooned onto a plate, sloppily topped with a drizzle of thick, yellow double cream and a wonderfully sticky caramel, which had only the slightest hint of burn - and I didn't come face-to-face with the fleur de sel... but that didn't matter. I was in heaven.
I do admit that I am often moved by really good food, but there haven't been many people who have reduced me to tears. Alain Ducasse did a decade ago when his Louis XV was still worth its while and he was in it for the food, rather than the money, spreading himself too thinly between his many ventures... and Skye Gyngell reduced me to tears once again that fine Sunday afternoon. Formerly a chef to the stars, then involved in Peter Gordon's Green Street, she was the only person who could possibly have benefitted from "Nigellagate" - when rumours emerged that Nigella Lawson had slipped her envelopes with money in return for recipes. Or did she really just test them? Well, in any case, I am glad she didn't pass on her best ones, so we're able to enjoy them in her book "A Year in My Kitchen".
Petersham Nurseries may never compete with the Blumenthals and Ferrás of this world, being far too low-key and casual for that (forget the absence of an extensive wine list, elaborate food styling, minute portions and stuffy waiters - there isn't even a floor to speak of!) but finer dining is certainly hard to come by. It's just amazing what comes out of that garden shed converted into a minuscule kitchen... I can very well do without candy pop in my délice au chocolat or my food being towered up into dangerous structures with a reduction of this and a mousseline of that smeared into question-marks around it when I can have this woman's understanding of how to best make individual ingredients of superlative quality shine brighter than the sun. And it is under this light that I look at the prices which are, admittedly, on the higher end of the spectrum even for London standards. With £12.50 for your average starter and £22 for an average main, you find yourself with very high expectations indeed. In this capital of ours, it happens all too often that the quality of what ends up on your plate does in no way justify the price... but this, for once, is the exception to the rule. I am not saying it's cheap and I (sadly) won't be able to afford to come here for my every lunch from now on, but I did not feel cheated at the end of our meal. Very much to the contrary, it left me longing for more. If these prices make you gasp, you can also sit in the café part which offers cakes, artisanal teas and light snacks from the same kitchen.
In a city where most families choose their homes based on proximity to good schools, it is only fair that thepassionatecook makes her selection based on how close she lives to a gourmet temple. And believe me, out here, in an area where restaurants are known for being reliable, rather than exciting, Petersham Nurseries is to people with a spoilt palate what double-glazing is to someone living in the flight path to Heathrow...
(off Petersham Road by the little church between the Dysart Pub and Water Lane)
Tel: 020 8605 3627
Closest public transport: Richmond (District Line), then buses 65 or 371
Not open for dinner. Opening times are seasonal, so it's best to check with the team before arriving!