Petersham Nurseries Cafe and other fine dining memories

I just read that Skye Gyngell’s new restaurant opens today at Somerset House in London. Whenever I think of that beautiful building, I think back to a moment in December 2005 when I stood in front of it, watching the ice skaters whizz by on the temporary outdoor skating rink installed for the winter. Skye Gyngell, by the way, used to run the kitchen at Petersham Nurseries Cafe so I can only imagine how great this new restaurant will be in this exquisite setting. But back to her later.

Lunch at Petersham Nursery Cafe
Lunch at Petersham Nursery Cafe

I know I sound like a total glutton because of the way I talk and write about eating (like in my last post), but I’ve been thinking that beyond the obvious pleasurable aspects of eating, it’s a great way to frame travel experiences because it gives you something tangible to remember about a particular day, a memory that involves all the senses. Otherwise travel, just like daily life, has a way of becoming blurry, where time is totally unaccountable — which is of course part of the joy of it all. There’s a wonderful line by an Italian writer named Cesare Pavese I often meditate on, and perhaps more often as I’ve gotten older: “We do not remember days, we remember moments”. Travel is full of such moments, and that’s why eating while on the road can be so great.

(All of this also connects a little to a compelling new podcast called Serial I’ve been listening to, which centres on a murder from the late 90s. The argument is that it essentially boils down to a window of 21 minutes on a particular day, which are difficult to account for — truly, it’s easy to forget whole chunks of one’s life. It’s not always possible to come up with an iron-clad alibi, if you can even remember what you were doing. Often we’re left with moments, fragments.)

There are of course many different kinds of food experiences to be had. I particularly love street food experiences and some of my best memories involves occasions like eating from The Halal Guys in New York, or munching on a fish kebab by the Bosphorus River in Istanbul. I tend to eat cheaply, because the most expensive meals are not necessarily the ones that hit the spot. But there are times when those fine dining occasions really shine.

The 'amuse bouche' at Quay
The ‘amuse bouche’ at Quay

Last year we went to Quay, one of the best restaurants in Australia. I can’t remember everything I ate, except for what I wrote down and photographed, like fragrant poached chicken served with white radish, sea scallops, smoked eggplant cream, pea blossoms; as well as smoked and confit pig cheek, shiitake, shaved scallops, Jerusalem artichoke leaves, bay and juniper. A decadent wedding present from work friends. A month later, on our honeymoon, we visited a chic restaurant in Tokyo called L’As, also a thoughtful wedding present. The meal was, hands down, one of the best degustations I’ve ever had. That night we stumbled home with full tummies, drunk on good wine.

Dinner at L'As
Dinner at L’As

In terms of Michelin-starred restaurants, I’ve been to two: a two-starred one in Paris called La Bigarrade (which I created a photo essay about), and Petersham Nurseries Cafe, which I mentioned earlier. At the time, the latter had one Michelin star, but recently lost its star after head chef Skye Gyngell left in 2012. Apparently those who specifically went out of their way to eat at the famed restaurant were disappointed by it, but I have nothing but high praise after my August 2011 visit. Before then I’d known about Skye Gyngell for some years through her writing in delicious magazine and her cookbooks, loving her philosophy of cooking.

In Richmond
In Richmond

We caught the train out to Richmond, a well-heeled town just outside of London on the banks of the Thames. It was overcast, raining on and off, which I remember well because we ended up walking down a muddy path in a field. I was annoyed that I had on my brand new brown leather shoes, which I was wearing for the first time…but the story has a happy ending. That lunch at Petersham Nurseries Cafe was one of the best meals I’ve ever had — foodgasm-inducing, even. The fare was well-presented, putting seasonal ingredients firmly at the centre. We drank the delicious house lemonade, shared an entree-sized plate of handmade tagliatelle tossed with saffron, raisins, and pine nuts, and ordered a different main each. One of the mains is pictured above, whereas mine, below, was a dish combining two of my all-time favourite ingredients: quail and corn. I picked those bones clean, savouring every mouthful.

There’s a special satisfaction from fulfilling a long-held desire. To look forward to something for years and years, and have it be everything you hoped for and more — well, those are the moments you really remember.

Roasted quail served with corn puree
Roasted quail served with corn puree

2 thoughts on “Petersham Nurseries Cafe and other fine dining memories

  1. Lovely post Sheila. I also feel at times all the pics I put on Facebook or my blog are about food so I desist at times so as to look less obsessive or less of a guts.
    However after reading this I think of places I visited often in terms of some of the meals I had, sometimes unexpectedly wonderful, sometimes very disappointing, often because of the people I have met while dining and sometimes because of the location.

    1. Thanks Pat. Food does become so much a part of travel since you end up eating out a lot – I agree that the disappointing meals can also become good memories. I’ve cut back on posting up too many photos of food, though I’ve been enjoying revisiting it all on the blog lately

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