The head chef at the Petersham Nurseries is Greg Malouf, from Melbourne but with Lebanese parents. He ran MoMo in Melbourne from 2001 before moving across the world to The Petersham Nurseries when Skye Gyngell moved on in February 2012.
The Petersham Nurseries currently opens for lunches and just one evening (Saturday night). It is safe to say that it is Britain’s best known garden centre café. You eat in a greenhouse with an earth floor, so bear this in mind when contemplating what to wear, as you need to walk across unpaved ground from the entrance, which can get muddy when it has been raining, and the room itself (being a greenhouse) can get pretty hot in the summer and nippy in the winter. It is informal, so there are no tablecloths and the tables are quite small, with up to 120 diners being seated at any one time.
There is a short wine list, with around twenty wines, mostly from Italy, ranging in price from £20 to £115. Examples were Negro Amaro Lamadoro 2011 from Puglia at £27 for a wine that you can find in a shop for about a tenner, Jermann Pinot Nero 2009 at £44 for a wine that retails at £16, and Isole e Olena Marchi 2006 at £99 for a wine that will set you back £31. Bread is bought in from a local bakery in Teddington, and was very ordinary indeed (2/10).
Lobster salad (£19.50) had roast onions, orzo (macaroni) pasta and white taramasalata (i.e. a version without food colouring) as well as salad leaves. The lobster was fairly tender, the salad pleasant (3/10). Quail salad (£12.50) had nicely seasoned quail served on the bone, reasonably soft chickpeas, chorizo and a little chilli. This was fine, though the quail itself was of ordinary rather than remarkable quality (4/10). Duck bistayeea (£26.50) is a version of a sweet Moroccan pie often made with chicken rather than duck, and which has filo pastry covering the duck and diced vegetables and spices, the top of the pie dusted with cinnamon sugar. This was enjoyable, the duck cooked carefully, the sweetness present but not too cloying (4/10). Halibut (£28) was served with borlotti beans, peas and grains, and was cooked capably, though you could easily encounter a dish like this at a good pub.
White peach and orange blossom sorbet with almond water (£7) suffered from poor texture, melting on the outside but with hard ice crystals in the centre; the peach flavour was nice, but I find it strange that such a basic technical error would occur with the texture, especially in these days of ice cream making machines (2/10). Service was friendly enough but very basic, with no attempt to remember who ordered what dish; this is hardly a difficult task given that it is achieved in plenty of basic high street chains. The waiters showed little interest in looking out for customers that were trying to get their attention e.g. ordering the bill was a lengthy process. The epitaph on a waiter’s tombstone “God finally caught his eye” would be fitting here.
Overall the food was perfectly pleasant, and seemed to me a fraction better than under the previous regime, but just as before I could not get past the price tag. It is fine to sit in the semi-open amongst the plants and have informal service, but the food is priced at the level of a much more ambitious restaurant: £28 for a plate of halibut and beans sets an expectation of something far greater in terms of ingredient quality or culinary skill than was apparent here. The bill came to £63 a head, with no alcohol and a shared dessert between us. This seems to me to be absurdly expensive for the quality of what appeared on the plates. Perhaps the cooking is better when Mr Malouf is actually in the kitchen (he wasn’t today) but then I didn’t notice any concessions in the price for his absence. The same money (or less) would buy you lunch at some very serious restaurants in London, and this is my main issue with the Petersham Nurseries. Still, given that there seemed to be plenty of customers, one can hardly blame the owners for setting the price this high.
Below are notes from a previous meal in July 2008.
Actually getting to the Petersham Nurseries is something of an adventure, lying as it does down the end of a long gravel path off a narrow road. You access the restaurant itself through the rows of nursery plants, and hope that it is a dry day since I would imagine it would be a muddy experience if it was raining. The dining room on the sunny day of our visit was outside (there is an adjoining room which functions as the dining room when it is wet). The menu is short in length but fairly appealing, with a broadly British menu, appealing that is until that is you get to the prices. Starters are £12 - £14.50, main courses £17 - £27, desserts around £7.
The wine list is fairly short, with 11 whites, 11 reds, 3 rosé wines and two sweet wines, starting at £16. Markups are not excessive: Marcel Deiss Saint Hippolyte Gewürztraminer 2004 as listed at £41 for a wine that retails at around £16. Albert Mann Riesling 2006 is priced at £28 for a wine that costs around £11 in a shop. Bread is just one choice: slices of a really heavy, soggy textured brown bread (0/10). Tables are simple wooden affairs with no tablecloths (though white linen napkins are provided) and the chairs are quite small. We were in a group of three packed on to a table of remarkably tiny proportions that would have felt cramped for two. However the tables for four around us looked to be of more normal dimensions.
I began with a simple dish of girolles with young spinach (£14.50). The mushrooms were of good quality, from Scotland and were nicely seasoned, and the spinach itself was lightly cooked and retained its flavour (4/10). This was a little better than my companion’s dishes, a salt cod brandade and a salad, that were about 3/10 level. My next course was quail with black rice and a green bean salad. The quail itself was cooked nicely and had decent flavour, but the quail itself was not of an especially high standard. The rice was fine but the dressing with the green bean salad was badly unbalanced, too much vinegar in proportion to the oil (2/10).
Summer pudding was pleasant, the bread reasonable but not quite enough fruit relative to the bread, and no blackcurrants appeared to be used, which I think is the key to really excellent summer pudding, both for the colour they impart as well as flavour; this was odd as there appeared to be blackcurrants in another dish. Still, this was a decent enough dish (3/10). Coffee is just filter coffee (no espresso or the like), of acceptable quality.
Service was friendly but very basic: the waitresses had no idea who ordered what when delivering the dishes, which is a pretty simple thing to master and probably acceptable in a garden centre café charging about one fifth of the prices here. Price is the big problem for me. Admittedly we did have a pre-lunch drink, a bottle of moderate wine and two glasses of wine between three of us, but the bill was £89 a head. Now bear in mind that Le Gavroche does a set lunch for £46 including wine. A main course sea bass here is £27, whereas an entire lunch at Petrus is £35. The place was packed out and reservations are hard to get, so the denizens of Richmond obviously see no problem in the pricing here, but for me the bill was seriously out of proportion to the quality of ingredients and the culinary capability level demonstrated. The food was decent and the setting pretty on a sunny day, but I’m afraid the bill would put me off returning.