05 December, 2008

Petersham Nurseries

It turns out the credit crunch isn't all bad: it's convinced the great Richmond restaurant Petersham Nurseries to offer a shockingly reasonable prix fixe lunch. I would never have thought of going, so famously pricey is this brainchild of Australian import Skye Gyngell, but my journalist friend Louise emailed, "They're having a Christmas bazaar in the nurseries and even if we can't afford lunch, we can get a cup of soup in the cafe and wander around." Our dear friend Sam was in from Bath to spend the day with us, so a short tube ride it was, and Louise picked us up from the station and took us on a quick tour of Richmond's hidden treasures, among them a trip through the enormous Park. Rather unnerving was a sign announcing a deer cull, which although undoubtedly necessary, made me hope there wouldn't be venison on the Petersham menu, given my recent squeamish-making encounter with that too-red meat.

Upon arrival at the restaurant we decided we'd take a look at the sample menus just to make ourselves miserable, and lo and behold, prix fixe. Three courses, 27 pounds. Done. Minutes later we were sampling paper-thin square ravioli filled with velvety pumpkin and flecks of fried sage, in a sauce that was described as "sage and butter," but my goodness, that butter had undergone the most religious of clarification because it was all but transparent, with just the essential flavor of butter. Magic. Sam went for grilled squid with chorizo (a word our dear tutor Orlando apparently hates to say, as I feel about "moist"), padron peppers and a paprika aioli. I am no fan of squid, but we all shared and shared alike and I will say that if I were to like squid, it would be in that dish. Not a hint of rubber, very chewy and dense and charred to perfection.

Then it was onto baked ricotta for me, a too-generous wedge of it with fresh thyme and marjoram, and topped with an olive and tomato crush (this seems to be a new and to me annoying foodie term: everything lately that isn't a foam is a crush when to me it is a sauce, pure and simple, or since mine was room-temperature, perhaps a salsa?) and what was described as a "winter salad." Sam diagnosed lemon mint, and I could identify beet leaves, but beyond that it was purely fresh and simple and not drenched in dressing, just enough of a garlicky vinaigrette. Sam and Louise both had a monkfish curry with coconut milk (very little, which made the curry pleasingly light and subtle) and kaffir lime leaves and bhatura. What, you ask, is bhatura? So did I. It's a fried Indian bread, in this case thin and slightly crisp, topped delightfully with fennel seed.

As you know, I do not gravitate to sweet things, but it was a three-course lunch, so sweet things came. We ordered one of everything and shared. Hazelnut ice cream served cleverly in one of those gilded and painted short glasses that Indians drink tea from, and chocolate mousse with a very gingery caramel sauce, and a disappointingly ordinary apple gallet with creme fraiche. To my essentially tidy mind, apples need to be peeled or not peeled, but not both in one dish. It's disconcerting and looks like someone wasn't paying attention. As well, the creme fraiche was just that: a rather messy blob of pure creme fraiche. A sprinkling of vanilla bean or cinnamon would have added a note of thoughtfulness. Small complaints.

It's a treat to find oneself in a restaurant offering only eight dishes, and among them no fewer than five ingredients I had to look up in a food encyclopedia to know what they were. I still don't know exactly what sort of cheese is "caprini freschi," so please enlighten me if you do. Farro? It turns out to be the sort of mother of all grains, and I wish I knew what it was doing with a beef fillet, but none of us ordered it, dash it all. Farinata? A sort of pizza-like Italian pancake.

A funny aside about ingredients, pretentious and otherwise: Sam has been helping out a rather famous chef and food writer, testing recipes and such, and he had lots of juicy stories to tell, in his inimitable Sam manner: wickedly teasing, very much in the English taking-the-piss tradition. But he's harder on himself than anyone else. "She asked me, 'could you fetch harissa for me, Sam?" and I wondered if that was her child, needing to be collected from school. It's tomato paste."

All in all a gorgeous, luxurious meal. We talked over and over each other, reminiscing about our insane writing course, comparing notes on the feedback we've got from our erstwhile tutors and from each other. I've hit a wall, however, when it comes to my writing (of course I except my dear blog from this; this isn't writing, really, it's conversation). The wall is due, I fear, to too much reading of other people's work. This overexposure hits with a double whammy: it makes me want to write like these other people, and convinces me that I can't write anything near as good as their work. This is a bad situation. There is something almost mystical about the published word anyway: work takes on an aura, deserved or not, of quality when it's between the covers of a book, while mine languishes on a computer screen, or even worse, trapped within my shadowy brain. So I'm taking a bit of a break from my chapters right now, to try to see with some perspective the gap between what I want to accomplish and what I've actually done.

The same conundrum occurs with cooking, actually. I read too many recipes, have too fine a lunch out, and come home feeling that I cannot myself produce any food of great interest. It's a hell of a lot easier to cook than to write, however, so I can dispel my fears on that level pretty easily.

Sea Bass with a Polenta Crust
(serves four)

4 sea bass fillets
1/2 cup polenta (yellow cornmeal)
2 tsps Penzeys Fox Point Seasoning
dash garlic powder
dash olive oil

Trim and rinse and de-bone the fillets if your child is extremely finicky about fish issues, as mine is. One bone will put her off the entire dish and I can't say I blame her. Mix the polenta and seasonings in a small bag and shake the fillets in it till thoroughly coated with the mixture. In a heavy, nonstick skillet, heat the oil till very hot and place the fillets in, skin side down. Fry till skin is crisp, about two or three minutes. Turn over gently and fry for another minute and serve immediately with:

Couscous with Savoy Cabbage and Garlic
(serves four)

1 cup couscous
1 1/4 cup hot chicken stock
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small head, or about 2 cups finely chopped Savoy cabbage
4 cloves garlic, minced

Couscous makes me laugh because it prepares itself right before your eyes. Place the dry couscous in a bowl that can accommodate twice its bulk. Add the hot stock and watch. Just a few minutes and you can fluff it with a fork and stir in the butter.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet or saucepan and saute the Savoy cabbage and garlic till soft. I know it may look like too much oil, but this is essentially the only dressing the couscous will have. Mix the cabbage and all the oil with the couscous and fluff well. Lovely and so light.


Avery didn't rave about the couscous and cabbage but she ate it. Her verdict was "I'll eat it if you give it to me, but I probably won't ask for it." Fair enough.

Listen, we're dashing off to see Ralph Fiennes (one of my original crushes, but I don't think he ever knew) in Oedipus. Avery keeps screaming at me to pronounce it with a long "E." "My acting teacher AND my drama coach can't be wrong!" she says, but I'm sticking to my American roots. Ralph won't mind, and I DO know that's with a long "A" and no "L." Goodness, theatre is complicated these days.


Foxi Rosie said...

Oh my darling, your writing is exceptional, take heart. I shall miss you from the blog and Oh how I wish I could have joined you all. I can just hear Sam recounting the Harissa story...

Kristen In London said...

bless you, Foxi, no, I'm not stopping blogging, I'm only thinking of stopping my food chapters for that eventual book. But I am having ideas anyway, so may not succeed in taking a break! We missed your breathtaking humor at lunch, I can tell you, but we had such fun. Next time you'll come.