Sunday, 27 May 2012

Petersham Nurseries Cafe is worth the wait

Standing rib eye of veal, farro, artichokes, hazelnut agresto
I should probably do more exercise. That thought struck me as I ambled along the Thames from Richmond station towards Petersham Nurseries on the weekend. Mr B and I strode past cyclists, power walkers, runners and a mess of rowers (well, there was a regatta on) most of whom were keeping the tills at Hollister and Jack Wills ringing. Not that I'm sedentary, but my exercise is usually more confined to the inside of a gym or a yoga studio. Anyway, despite the lack of sunshine, and some pangs of inadequacy, it was a pleasant walk by the water and long enough to work up an appetite for our lunch. If we'd had more time, we would have lingered to look at the Royal barge Gloriana, looking all shiny and resplendent but, sadly, sans monarch.

I was looking forward to PN, feeling it my duty to eat there as a patriotic Australian since the kitchen has been commanded by a compatriot since 2004.  As you may know, Skye Gyngell abruptly exited the earthen floors recently and Melbourne chef Greg Malouf has taken over. I hadn't eaten at PN under Skye, so I can't comment on any changes in the menu, but I'd been a fan a Greg's via his cookbooks, particularly Arabesque.
Scallops, samphire, datterini, rocket and Turkish chilli
The menu is relatively brief and to the point, with five starters and five mains focusing on fresh and lively interpretations of modern Mediterranean food. But, scanning the menu my heart sank. Where was the B'stilla?! Sadly for me, it was off the menu that week. Instead we started with the grilled scallops and samphire salad (£13.50) and the spiced rabbit with chorizo (£13.00).
Spiced rabbit with chorizo, trevisano and parsnip skordalia

The scallops were beautifully seared and served with their corals, which, sadly, you rarely see these days. This dish was a mix of hot and cold, salty and sweet flavours. The cold salad of peppery rocket and salty samphire contrasted with the succulent sweet datterini tomatoes. The dish was lifted by some relatively mild but zingy minced chilli. The rabbit starter was again a mix of bitter and sweet flavourings. Tart trevisano leaves, sweet and creamy parsnip skordalia, smokey grilled chorizo and juicy rabbit. Both were delicious.
Honey cardamom barbury duck breast, young vegetables and organic chickpeas
Thankfully we enjoyed the starters and their lingering flavours because we waited over an hour for our main courses to arrive. We didn't really mind at first because the wine was lovely (a lightly chilled Valpolicella at £35) and the glasshouse itself is a pleasant setting to while away some time and watch the people.  After 45 minutes we flagged down our young waiter, who wasn't that well versed with the menu when we ordered (blank looks when asked honest questions about menu items like datterini and shriraz) to find out what was up as we also saw another table sharing our fate. Basically, the orders had been lost and they would be coming up. A complaint to the officious front of house about the delays resulted in comped desserts, but while mistakes happen, they shouldn't at these prices.
Organic rose petal pannacotta with comice pears
When our main courses did arrive, it was worth the wait. The veal (£28) was cooked on the bone and was magnificently tender. It arrived sitting atop a mix of chopped carrots and farro moistened with a lightly seasoned stock. The agrosto topping of crushed hazelnuts, parsley and more of that Turkish chilli added texture and depth to each mouthful. Simple flavours, sure, but what a cheerful combination.

The duck dish (£27) is actually a spin on one of the recipes in Arabesque where the duck is cooked whole. The breast we had was roasted with a gentle basting of cardamom and honey which was restrained, like the cardamom was whispering rather than shouting at you. The organic chickpeas were served with roasted beetroot and what looked like goji berries. Again, a great dish.

We didn't wait long for dessert (probably as the restauarant was now mostly empty). The wobbly, just-set rose pannacotta was delicately flavoured, steering well clear of grandma’s hand soap territory. Lurking inside were surprise rose petal parcels. The dish was paired with  sweet pear slices and more flowers. The chocolate parfait was, well, a chocolately parfait and fine for what it was, but it was a bit shy on flavour as if it didn’t really want to be noticed too much. The small camel-shaped wafer, a nod to the chef’s branding, was a cute touch though.  Since the £8 desserts were on the house, we had a sweet monbazillac to wash it down (£11 a glass).
Rich chocolate and cardamom parfait with walnut praline and honey wafers
Much has been mentioned about the incongruity of having Michelin-starred food in such a setting, but I’m not particularly fussed by where I eat as to what I eat. The setting is relatively unique for London however, with the tables scattered throughout the greenhouse surrounded by various flora. Being spring, the perfume from the flowers matched the earthy scents coming from the kitchen. From what I could see though, the Nursery itself seems to have given up on most of its plant rearing with much of the space used for feeding the hoards. If not in the Cafe itself you can sit outside under the vines or in one of the other greenhouses and eat what looked like healthy salads or indulge in a bit of afternoon tea. And what a lovely space to eat cake in. It was quite easy to put aside city life for a few hours and enjoy being surrounded by all the greenery.

The food at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe is exactly the kind of food I would be happy to eat every week, but the experience we had was slightly blemished by the sloppy service. I would expect this was a one off though. It hasn't put me off returning or from recommending it as a place to seek out and that is down to the skill of the new man at the helm.

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