By Ron James ~ It’s rare in our journalistic family when we venture out together to cover a story focused on both of our areas of interest – wine and food in my case and gardening for Mary. Granted, gardening and food and wine are very much related; but how often do you visit a wonderful nursery that also happens to sport a Michelin star?
Our journey to Petersham Nurseries Café would be nearly as rewarding as the destination. And the number of calories burned to get there boded well for a good appetite and little worry about what or how much we’d consume.
We caught a train at London Waterloo for a scenic trip southwest 15 miles though the suburbs to Richmond upon Thames – a place the locals tag as London’s most attractive borough. It is indeed attractive, and in places downright bucolic. No wonder it’s been a magnate for royalty and the rich and famous for centuries. We weren’t either, but we did have a credit card – and as it turned out, that was a good thing.
Richmond sparkled under blue skies when we arrived. The River Thames runs through Richmond, linking it with Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace and central London 21 miles up river. The town center was bustling and prosperous looking as customers scurried in and out of shops and restaurants. The architecture was a mixed bag, but in aggregate seemed to work together.
Leaving the train station, it took us a bit to get our bearings. After wandering down several city blocks and making a few wrong turns, we spied what look like parkland that seemed to signal we were leaving the town center. When we finally reached the Thames, we set off along a walkway that paralleled the meandering banks of the river.
It was a warm, very pleasant day, perfect for enjoying the giant trees and grand hotels and mansions lining the path. We passed a couple of stylish restaurants set next to the river and a ferry dock which serviced passenger boats plying the river, including to London proper. The ferry would be a very pleasant option to the train trip if we were to head this way again.
After a mile or so, we passed through a gate to enter an immense field studded with trees and cows. A prominent sign warned pedestrians: “If a cow chases you and your dog, it is safer to let your dog off the lead – don’t risk getting hurt by trying to protect it.” Did the cows only chase people with dogs? Did they chase hungry journalists too?
As we cautiously proceeded, the path made me think of the yellow brick road with mad cows instead of wicked witches. I knew there would be no great Oz at the end of this road, but hopefully a culinary wizard would be there to perform some magic in the kitchen for us.
A half-mile later, we exited another gate and finally spied our destination. It certainly looked like a garden center – an upscale Martha Stewart rustic one at that, given the expensive luxury cars huddled together in the dusty parking area at the entrance.
We wandered through the nursery and the Petersham Teahouse, which serves a seasonally and Italian-inspired sweet lunch menu of cakes and other baked goods, before we spied our destination.
My first impression of the café was that a bunch of clever kids decided to play restaurant in their backyard. They set-up used tables and chairs on the bare dirt, made shade canopies from bamboo mats and metal poles, decorated with ferns and bougainvillea, and hung out the open sign. Rustic – indeed, but somehow it worked and in fact was very cool. But could they cook?
We were warmly greeted and seated at a table next to a large potted palm. The shabby chic chairs were actually quite comfortable, but it was still a bit of novelty to look down at a dirt floor.
We turned our attention to the short lunch menu created by head chef Cat Ashton and supervised by culinary director Lucy Boyd who is the head gardener and former chef. Boyd has a new cookbook “Kitchen Memories” and is the daughter of Rose Gray, who co-founded the phenomenally successful River Cafe in London.
It is amazing that the restaurant has maintained its quality and Michelin star while going through a number of executive chefs including noted Australian chefs Skye Gyngell and Greg Malouf in recent years.
The restaurant is known for its seasonally inspired dishes created using locally sourced ingredients from small farmers and artisan producers. Edible flowers, herbs and heritage vegetable varieties were harvested on site from the Petersham House Walled Kitchen Garden.
Thirsty after our morning exercise, we ordered a refreshing Corbieres rose from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, an area known for its roses and red wines. At $36 it was a good value.
To start, we shared a tomato and feta salad with fresh herbs and olive oil. It was a great choice; the bright red tomatoes tasted as if they had been plucked off the vine by the server on the way to the table, and the feta was first rate.
For our main course we ordered rabbit and a veal chop, both beautifully presented and perfectly prepared. Both were wonderfully flavorful with a perfectly caramelized golden sear on the outside and moist and tender inside – not an easy task with either dish.
The rabbit was served in a bowl with a pool of very tasty broth with wilted spinach leaves and zucchini spears. The chop was topped with white beans, spinach and cubes of orange squash. Both included a lovely piece of garlic toast drenched in olive oil. Every bite was amazing; we were sad to scrape the last morsels out of our dishes with the delicious bread.
But our sadness turned to delight as our server slipped a dessert plate between us. It was a plate full of sweet sunshine – a perfect slice of lemon tart crowned with sweet sliced strawberries and a generous dollop of crème fraîche. The plate was soon clean and crumb-less.
If you look at Trip Advisor, there’s a lot of grumbling about the restaurant’s prices, especially from locals. Our tab including the bottle of wine came to a hefty $189.00 with tip and tax. Not our everyday lunch tab, but not our everyday lunch.
Full and extremely satisfied, we backed our chairs away from the table, engraving trails in the dirt floor, and began our leisurely trip back, hoping not to run into an ornery cow along the way.
IF YOU GO
Petersham Nurseries Café
Church Lane, Off Petersham Lane, Richmond, Surrey
The restaurant is open for lunch:
Tuesday – Sunday 12.00pm – 3.00pm
Nursery closes at 5.00pm
T: 020 8940 5230