Type: Modern Italian
From its start 12 years ago, the café at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond was a refuge: a few unmatched tables and chairs dotted among garden decorations, tools and potted plants in and outside the greenhouses of a garden centre on a large manorial estate. The food was genuinely rustic, casual but thoughtfully prepared, often imaginative, sometimes surprising – serious fun. The wine list was brief and uncomplicated, so for me it was an informal refuge from work as well.
Soon popularity bloomed, and it was advisable to reserve a table, then not long after that, it was necessary, and not so much fun. Once Michelin discovered the place and bestowed a star, it was nearly impossible. It wasn’t much fun for the chef either, so she quit. (The café survives and reservations are still advised.)
Now, that chef – Australian-born, French-trained Skye Gyngell – is back, in the rather more urbane and refined surroundings of Somerset House. The contrasts could not be more sharply defined: an elegantly austere dining room with a polished, echoing wood floor, high ceilings, enormous windows and an air of chilly detachment. There’s a small army of restless staff oddly attired in comic-opera uniforms; and prices that would make your bank manager frown. It will be impossible for Michelin to ignore, but this time around a star will surely not be a problem.
The style of the cooking is similar to before – Italianate, with colourfully arrayed vegetables and meats on full plates (no side dishes here). It’s real food, not just pretty displays. The menu abounds with unfamiliar names of vegetables that are rare or trendy, or both, and may begin to explain the prices: agretti, cime di rapa, cima nera, arrocina beans, rainbow kale, Marinda tomatoes. Suppliers are biodynamic or organic farms, and presumably the same high standards apply to the fish, fowl and meat, which result in a starter of pan-fried squid for £16, sea bass with clams for £34 or monkfish for £32. A dish of veal shin for £29 or guinea fowl for £26 may be pushing it, however. Overall, the food is very good, but not quite sublime.
Sommelier savvy: The wine list is eclectic, a little bit of a lot of carefully chosen things from
several regions. France dominates, but there’s a variety of choices including oddities like Pigato from Liguria (aka Vermentino) and Timorasso, an ancient Piedmontese grape. It is unmentioned anywhere, but many of the wines are from organic or biodynamic vineyards; some critics may be surprised that they’re clean and balanced, not demanding too much tolerance or stoicism.
There is not much under £50, with a standard London mark-up holding firm, but names like Henri Jouan, Michel Niellon, Eben Sadie, Woodward Canyon, Walter Massa and several others are worth a splurge. The sommeliers are thoughtful, precise and helpful – more than willing to engage and explain. There are two inexpensive house wines, a Cataratto and a Dolcetto, bought in bulk, served in glass or carafe. Both thoroughly forgettable.
Somerset House, Lancaster Place, London WC2R 1LA.
Tel: +44 (0)20 3011 0115; Spring restaurant
Open Monday to Saturday lunch and dinner, lunch Sunday.