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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 27th January 2006

Petersham Nurseries


It's hard not to laugh at Petersham Nurseries. This year's winner of Tatler's Most Original Restaurant Award is so achingly trendy it's in danger of disappearing up its own fundament. For instance, it employs a woman who calls herself a "forager" and whose job, apparently, is to "forage" for locally manufactured, seasonal produce. She can't be doing a very good job because both the salt and the pepper are imported from Bali. Surely you can buy such condiments closer to home? I may be very much mistaken, but I think there's a branch of Sainsbury's in Richmond.

Of course, for those who subscribe to the local/seasonal dogma, supermarkets are the fount of all evil. Petersham Nurseries is a "produce-led" restaurant, which means that it only buys ingredients from small, specialist suppliers. The walnuts, for instance, are provided by a woman who brings them in on the Eurostar from France, while the blood oranges are from a farmer in Sicily. Needless to say, such produce doesn't come cheap. One of the ironies of local/seasonal restaurants like this is that their "small is beautiful" philosophy doesn't apply to their own prices. My starter of cod's roe was £14. The "forager" explained that it came from a smokerie in Orford and, while I'm glad that this small business is being kept alive by the patronage of Petersham Nurseries, it would be nice if such compassion was extended to the restaurant's customers.

Then again, perhaps they can afford to take the hit. Petersham Nurseries is a garden centre as well as a restaurant and if the price of the second-hand furniture is anything to go by the local customers are pretty well-heeled. A rotting park bench, for instance, was on sale for £1,000, while a set of rusty garden chairs were retailing for £450 each. After those figures, who's going to complain about a plate of mezze for £17? It's a steal, particularly when you consider that the dandelion leaves adorning it were grown by no less a personage than Lucy Gray, daughter of the River Café's Rose Gray.

The reputation of Petersham Nurseries owes at least as much to these sorts of connections as it does to the food. The head chef is Skye Gyngell, who, in addition to being the daughter of the late Bruce Gyngell, is the food editor of Vogue. That's not to say she isn't a talent in her own right. My cod's roe was excellent and my main course of meatballs accompanied by wild cherries was pretty good, too. I'm just not convinced any other restaurant this far off the beaten track--you have to wade through an acre of mud to get there--could charge £109.12 for a meal for two that didn't include pudding or a bottle of wine.

On the afternoon I went there my fellow customers were, almost exclusively, yummy mummies. They looked like the pampered wives of investment bankers who were stopping off for a plate of Puy Lentils in between a trip to Planet Organic and a visit to the local spa. "Another long, exhausting day, another thousand dollars," as Stephen Sondheim put it in 'The Ladies Who Lunch'.

The most striking thing about Petersham Nurseries is the setting. After trudging down a muddy path near Richmond Park, you enter a labyrinth of greenhouses, eventually ending up in a particularly large one where the "café" is situated (the owners don't call it a "restaurant"). The floor is covered in earth, but lest you think this is common-or-garden dirt, I should point out that it comes from Norfolk. Once again, I couldn't help feeling the "forager" had let the side down. Did she really have to journey over 100 miles to find some local/seasonal dirt? This is particularly baffling when you consider that Petersham Nurseries is surrounded on all sides by mud.

As a monument to all the most absurd culinary trends of the moment, Petersham Nurseries is second-to-none. But as a restaurant--sorry, café--I suspect the emperor may not be wearing any clothes.

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