The Petersham is a fading hotel on Richmond Hill. I went to a bar mitzvah there in 1986, which gives you a good idea of how fashionable it is. I grew up near Petersham. I always thought it smelled nice, but it was the late 1970s. The Petersham is also a new restaurant in Covent Garden, a sequel to Petersham Nurseries, Skye Gyngell’s break-out garden centre café by the Thames that won a Michelin star in 2011. So the name is either a deranged lack of imagination or a monument to Petersham. I hope it is a monument. It deserves it.
Even so, I did not like the first Skye Gyngell restaurant I visited. I hated it. It was the successor to the café, it was called Spring and it was an angry potage of whimsy, salad and weird decoration in Somerset House. Had Gyngell reached too far? Was it fear — because it was not a garden centre? Waitresses wore oatmeal-coloured space-hopper dresses. They didn’t serve chips, or carbohydrates of any kind. Why? Were the constituents of Spring so lovely, and fearful, that they couldn’t eat near people who were eating chips? Did they think fat was a contagious disease? A restaurant for women who hate women but lack the words to give that hatred the definition it deserves, I thought, I filed 1,000 cruel words and forgot.
Now there is another Gyngell restaurant, in Covent Garden, in a square off Floral Street which used to be interesting but now looks like a Lego city of the future built on the ashes of Charles Dickens. This square is half-pretty Georgian and half-generic brickwork — that is, Lego.
This square is a Gyngell plaza: to the right is La Goccia (Italian, small plates), to the left, the Petersham. Tables and chairs are scattered outside, among bushes. Blonde women sit at the tables investigating iPhones and salad. Inside, I find a large bright space with chandeliers, exploding artworks and enormous banks of flowers. It is beautiful, but my companion begins to sneeze. There is always a price.
Gyngell has relaxed her creed of high fashion, oatmeal space-hopper dresses and weird, overwrought food. I am pleased about this, as I never enjoy re-fighting the feminine battles of primary school in adulthood, with menus, and without words.
Perhaps Gyngell’s backers suggested that diners should not be denied carbohydrates, having other people, better known to them, to punish them for their feminine crimes? Because there is a bread basket! This feels like a scoop to me, in these wild days — then a delicate asparagus and parmesan risotto with more scent and feeling than almost any I have had. It is utterly gorgeous, if you don’t mind eating food that is prettier than you are.
My friend eats a garden salad that may be the most authentic thing in London at this particular moment in time. Then we have chicken with Mayan Golds — it’s pretentious to name the potato, but I let it go; it’s a homage to carbohydrates, maybe even an unconscious apology — mushrooms and garlic, and hake with asparagus, peas and broad beans. It is spa food, yes, for women dependent on mirrors, but it is very good spa food.
Is this what happens when an angry fairy relaxes? Petersham may be expensive (the chicken was £28, the hake £26). It may be a restaurant specifically for hot middle-aged women. It looks like an interior design catalogue covered in flowers, or Laura Ashley’s personal mausoleum. It may be in a now-ruined part of Covent Garden. But it would be churlish not to say that Skye Gyngell has opened a great London restaurant, at last.
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