As many of you know, I contribute semi-regular articles to various other publications, most regularly National Geographic and German publishing house GU's online portal. My recent participation in the H2Ope for Haiti campaign launched by Cook Sister! has prompted me to translate an article on one of London's best restaurants, Petersham Nurseries, which I wrote for kuechengoetter.de a while ago...
Petersham in the London suburb of Richmond Upon Thames is not necessarily on the beaten path and rarely features on your typical tourist's itinerary... the surrounding attractions (Kew Gardens, Hampton Court Palace and Richmond Park, Europe's largest and widely-known for its wildlife, quite obviously not bothered by the locals frolicking around it) is more or less part of the advanced curriculum for visitors of the UK's capital. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Richmond is popular with young families who appreciate the idyllic location on board of the River Thames, complete with grazing cows, and the quick over- and underground links into central London. Petersham itself is a whole different world still, the few square miles between the river and the park are an exclusive playing field for the super-rich... seemingly unfazed by what's going on in the rest of the world, some stately homes here still exchange owners for 20 million pounds plus - but I guess you also buy into the neighbourhood: Kylie Minogue, the Jagger family and other major and minor celebrities will be living just around the corner, though I doubt they'll help you out with an egg should you need one in a midnight baking frenzy.
This type of company is, of course, no novelty for Petersham Nurseries' head chef Skye Gyngell, born and bred Australian who passed her years of apprenticeship in France and England working under the tutelage of renowned chefs such as Peter Gordon, Anton Mosimann and Fergus Henderson and finally made herself a name as private chef to the stars. Amongst the celebrities she spoilt with her wonderful talent were fashion photographer Mario Testino, Madonna & ex-husband Guy Ritchie, Charles Saatchi and wife, a certain Ms Lawson, who according to rumours gets other people to write her recipes... yes, supposedly also Skye Gyngell who one fine day happened to stumble across a few Victorian glasshouses at the end of a rugged and unassuming path in Petersham. The rest, as they say, is history.
Supposedly it was love at first sight... and as is generally acknowledged, love is blind. There's no other way to explain how someone could have the ludicrous idea to erect a simple wooden shack in the middle of a plant nursery and set about serving up to 50 covers each lunchtime out of what is hardly a high-tech kitchen? And who would have thought that those few pieces of ramshackly garden furniture in a glass house would soon develop into a top gourmet haunt where weekend reservations are notoriously as hard to come by as at the Fat Duck?
Despite the restaurant's popularity, the atmosphere at Petersham Nurseries is reassuringly relaxed - stroll past the most luxurious garden accessories imaginable (if Prada made wellington boots, they would fly off the shelves here!) to the back of the conservatory and find yourself in a dining area filled with massive and partly antique garden furniture set on bare ground - let the exotic tapestries, wood-carved paravents and citrus trees transport your into a another dimension.
Skye Gyngell is reportedly an absolute perfectionist, depite her relaxed Australian style. The set-up of the surrounding nurseries allows her to even control many of the ingredients used in her kitchen, which is strongly centred around what the seasons have to offer: what ends up on the diner's plate is home-grown as much as possible, especially vegetables, salads and herbs. It goes without saying that all of it is organically grown and freshly harvested, and used in a way that allows each ingredient to bask in its own light.
The menu is short - a selection of four or five dishes each of starters, mains and desserts - and the individual creations are simple, without frills or pomp. The food shines through its confident simplicity is bursting with flavour: a mezze plate extraordinaire with beetroot hummus, red pepper and tomato cream, chickpeas and char-grilled vegetables, crab salad asian style with nam jim and fresh cress, home-grown dandelion leaves with pickled walnuts, red wine pears and roquefort. Follow this by a melt-in-your-mouth slow-cooked lamb shoulder on creamy butter beans and wild garlic, monkfish and clams in a summery one-pot seasoned with saffron, tomatoes, rosemary and ground almonds, served with a thick chunk of sourdough and wonderfully yellow home-made aioli... or opt for the seabass carpaccio drizzled with the grassiest of olive oils, lime juice and red chilli - oh yes, that's what summer's supposed to taste like!
The list of desserts is nonchalantly chalked onto a weathered blackboard brought around by the waiting staff and rested casually on one of the many oversized terracotta planters: how about a chunk of Tuscan pecorino adorned with broad beans from the garden, or home-made rhubarb sorbet with verjus? But I bet you won't be able to resist the massive spoonful of chocolate mousse with burnt sea salt caramel and clotted cream - that is veritably heaven on a plate! The only thing I am missing is a proper espresso, so instead of a cafetiere-style roast, I always opt for fresh mint tea... which is better for your digestion anyway, right?
As unusual locations for eateries go, they can be a bit hit and miss... but this one surely falls into the first category. I am lucky enough to live in the vicinity, but this is a restaurant I would go out of my way to visit regularly. If you come in the summer, you might want to think of rounding off your visit by watching a game at the London Polo Club which is just round the corner or taking a stroll through adjacent Richmond Park, you'll see that your efforts to get here are duly rewarded!
Parking is limited, on weekends, you can head to the Russell school further down the road for designated parking.
Public transport: Richmond (District Line), then Bus 65 or 371 to Dysart Avenue.
Only open for lunch. Closed Mondays.
Opening times can vary depending on the season, so call ahead to be sure!