When Michelin announced the stellar winners early this year, it did not come as much of a surprise, considering the talents of the chefs or their association with the grand scheme of London gastronomy, that Viajante, Galvin La Chapelle, Gauthier Soho, Petrus and Kitchen W8 were bestowed the honour. A “cafe” outside of London, in Richmond, however, seemed an odd choice for such an accolade. Australian chef Skye Gyngell is no stranger to the culinary world. Prior to her first Michelin star, Skye, trained in Paris, has published three successful books and worked for decades as a private chef. Petersham Nurseries Cafe was, at first, an experiment of a communal table dining but it has grown into a size of (half) a greenhouse. The place, situated between my home and my university’s main campus, surely attracted my attention. And, there I went, with not much expectation.
But, I did not expect THIS!
Petersham Nurseries Cafe is an odd place. On arrival, I could not tell apart the greenhouse, the storage, the cafe, and the restaurant. The rusty sign seemed jarring with those pomps Michelin is usually associated with. Adding to this, there were chairs with their paint scuffed off the by rain, very aged tables on soiled ground. “Is this really a Michelin-starred restaurant?,” I thought.
It was not.
The Nurseries Cafe, in fact, was housed in the greenhouse on the left. Garden statues, pots and pans became the decorative features of the place. The table-on-natural-ground theme was kept throughout but fortunately there was a roof above my head and the heating that was adequate. The lighting? They relied mostly on the whims of British weather – some light bulbs hung from the glass ceiling. This explains why this restaurant is only opened during lunch hours. The whole scene, thanks to the live plants in pots that were also for sale at Michelin-starred prices, was scented. I had a pot of sleepy bluebell on my table. I was completely sold to the ambiance.
The staff – do note that I arrived half an hour early – was not ready but they decided to seat a small group of tourists at the dining room but not me. Note I was a solo diner on this occasion. I was left in the queue. Once the 12.30 o’clock struck, they let a couple cut the queue. Enough said, the service remained acutely lukewarm and inattentive throughout. I was seated in a corner – not unpleasant – the fact emphasised by the girl who led me to my table. “Your table is here in the cor – quiet corner,” that was roughly what she said, politely. During service, I hardly got the same waiters coming over twice. All ran amok in the greenhouse space – a true spirit of a cafe service? When it came to a conversation, they made a brief effort, which did not make me feel at ease.
The meal – here they ran only a three-course set lunch menu priced £29.50 – was decent. I asked for a four-course instead of a three. My demand was met though with a slightly “unsure” look from the waiter. There they were: Burrata with Puntarelle & Daedelion to start, Squid with White Polenta, Rocket and Chilli Oil, Quail with Spinach, Yoghurt & Tumeric Dressing, and to finish with a cheese course of Tipico Lodigiano with Mustard Fruits.
My Burrata dish was minimalist at heart, utilising very few ingredients to enhance the uber flavour of the cheese. At times there were varying degrees of herbalness and bitterness from the salad garnish. The flavour fired up a little in my Squid dish. The dish boast smooth, cooling polenta to ward off the naughty kick from the chilli dressing. There were lemon zest, which could have been so citrusy but the mild scent was overwhelmed by many flowers in the pots surrounding my corner table. In fact, I could hardly smell my £10 glass of Chablis.
The Quail dish had all the flavour dimensions – I am talking well infused tumeric yoghurt that I mopped the plate up with – and was perfectly cooked but the portion was a joke. There was not enough meat in to fill two spoonfuls. My cheese similar to Pecorino but slightly nutty and grainier to the tongue was subtly elegant.
Having finished my meal, I felt I could do with two more courses. The dishes were well cooked and well thought out, but small. The cooking at Petersham Nurseries Cafe reminded me of another Cafe. Clean, minimalist Italian dishes. Sure you know which one I am talking about. And all that is my criticism of Petersham Nurseries Cafe as a restaurant.
However, taking into account the restaurant’s Michelin star accolade, this is beyond bewilderment. Though the elegant flair of the chef is detectable and the presentation is so refined, many of the dishes, apart from the Quail, lack the innovativeness implicit in M-starred dishes. Has Michelin gone gaga or is Michelin taking a different stance when it comes to their star rating now?
BUT WHO AM I TO QUESTION MICHELIN???
It is only that on this occasion that Petersham Nurseries Cafe is awarded a star it does not seem fair that such places as St John Bread and Wine, Barrafina and Zucca, where food are delivered at the same high standard, are still without one.
Looking around the now filled up dining space, the yummy mummies of Petersham seemed in high spirit and enjoying their meal. Maybe Michelin stars – for the diners here and as they should be to diners elsewhere – did not matter after all. We all are looking for decent food and a lovely restaurant to bask ourselves in relaxation. I have found one of those places in Richmond.
And there I was, standing up, walking across the dining room and out – ungreeted and un-Good-Byed by the staff.
My head rating (taking into account the ambiance) says, “8 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “7 out of 10″.
PETERSHAM NURSERIES CAFE
off Petersham Road
Tel. 020 8605 3627