Soon after my friend made our reservations at Petersham Nurseries Cafe (you have to call about a month in advance), I saw that New Yorker in London had popped over and enjoyed it, which was encouraging, but I still had a few weeks to wait patiently.
Last weekend, our day finally arrived, and – what a perk – the day was crisp and sunny. I was in a good mood just walking through Richmond High Street, along the Thames and through the meadows. I thought “it just couldn’t be prettier than this,” but actually, I was wrong. The Petersham Nurseries is, in fact, even prettier than the walk it takes to get there. Eggbeater said it best when she called the place “a food stylist’s dream and a museum curator’s fantasy.” This is no Home Depot Garden Center. Petersham Nurseries is so achingly charming that the high prices in the cafe are easier to swallow if you figure you’re paying partly for the ambiance.
The menu changes almost daily, and there’s not a lot to choose from. Three sections: starters, mains and desserts. Only four options in each section, but what fab options they were!
I loved my starter – a salad with farinata, speck and pecorino. Farinata, I learned, is just another name for my beloved Riviera friend, socca – a crispy chickpea-flour pancake. Shards of farinata served hot with the salad added nice texture and warmth to the luscious fatty-salty speck, and creamy, dry pecorino. The only downside to my salad was its hefty pricetag: £11, but my salad was a steal compared to the *yawn* pumpkin ravioli my three dining companions ordered.
Mains were a highlight. Our server highly recommended the guinea fowl, which she said she’d just had for lunch, and she was spot on. The skin was beautifully crisped, the meat was firm, juicy and rich. The creamy, sweet balsamic mayo blended and balanced perfectly with the radicchio’s smoky bitterness. So simple, but fresh and well-executed. Worth the £21.
Jon’s monkfish curry had sounded out of place on the otherwise English-classics menu (so I was skeptical the kitchen would pull it off) but what came to the table was light and tasty. More Mediterranean than Thai. There was only the slightest hint of coconut in the sauce, and we learned the chef was on a chickpea kick, because the bhatura turned out to be more crispy chickpea flour.
My friend’s baked ricott was so simple and genius that I can’t wait to buy some good stuff from the cheese guy at next Sunday’s farmer’s market and try it myself. If you’d written off ricotta as bland, then I’d recommend trying the Petersham Nurseries version. It was so intense that it needed the greens and tapenade to tone down the salty-herby-creaminess.
And although we were stuffed after our starters and mains, we couldn’t help eyeing the desserts going to tables around us. My gorgonzola dolce was beautiful to look at it, and beautiful to taste. The sweet figs and the creamy, sharp gorgonzola should be married for life.
I didn’t eat the bread pudding or the mousse pictured below, but only because my friends gobbled them down faster than I could reach their plates to steal some. I will say, though, that I could smell the vanilla and cinnamon on the bread pudding, and no wonder – there were specks of vanilla pod in there. Quality goods.
Our meal, even without wine, was not cheap. Starters were £10-11; mains were £20-27; and desserts £7-8. We enjoyed a refreshing pitcher of mint-elderflower lemonade, and our tab came to £45 a person before service.
While I definitely see Andy Hayler’s point about the Cafe’s prices being high for a “garden centre cafe,” I think Petersham Nurseries is a unique place. Special enough that it’s not just a garden cafe. The high-quality ingredients in our lunch were carefully prepared and presented; the surroundings are cheerful and charming, and the service – while, as usual in London, understaffed – was helpful and friendly. I had a wonderful time and would love to bring back friends, especially those from out of town. Petersham Nurseries was, for me, quintessentially country English, so I’ll think of a trip there as something like going to the Tower of London – except a much better deal.
Petersham Nurseries Cafe, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey; 0208 605 3627; closest tube station: Richmond (and then it’s still a 20-minute walk to Petersham Nurseries, so bring your walking shoes. Apparently you can also take a bus from Richmond station.)