Vegetarian London: The Dysart Petersham Restaurant Review
In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
While booking a table at the Dysart Petersham, we were repeatedly asked if we were celebrating anything. Yes, we are. We’re celebrating a young Irish chef at the top of his game. We’re celebrating the exquisite dishes from his vegetarian menu. We’re celebrating a beautiful restaurant in a fairy-tale location.
And the location is certainly idyllic. The Dysart is situated on Petersham Road, overlooking Richmond Park. Despite a phone box, letter box and traffic crossing rudely plonked directly outside, there’s no denying the beauty of the surroundings which encompass Petersham Woods, with water meadows and the Thames running at the back. It feels very much like a country house pub in a pretty English village such as Marlow, rather than a part of Greater London. There’s a garden filled with wild meadow flowers, with al fresco seating in fine weather. On our visit on a cool, misty evening, a tree with twinkling fairy lights outside heightened the magical feel.
Formerly the Dysart Arms pub, the venue is an arts and crafts building from the early 20th century that’s been sympathetically restored over a period of three years to retain many of the original features. Owned by Nicholas and Jackie Taylor and managed by their son Barny, it changed its name and officially launched as a restaurant earlier in the spring. It’s a large three-room space with a bar in the centre and two rooms on either side. One boasts a roaring fire, paintings by local artists, and an antique grand piano that a pianist was tinkling away on while we were sipping lovely bellinis in the bar. Elsewhere, there are sturdy flagstone floors, enormous picture windows, waxed wooden tables with plenty of space in between and church candles. Splashes of fresh flowers liven up the shades-of-cream colour scheme. The venue feels very much like a ‘restaurant with rooms’ — into which we could happily move for a few days — but upstairs is a private dining room and no bed; more’s the pity.
Head chef Kenneth Culhane is classically trained in Michelin star restaurants in Dublin, France, Sydney and New York. He’s a Roux Scholar chef, and one of the few members of the Slow Food UK Chef Alliance, with whom he champions ‘forgotten foods’, including old varieties of vegetables. ‘Root to stalk cooking’ — the veggie equivalent to ‘nose to tail eating’ — where the daily-changing dishes are in harmony with the passing of the seasons and nothing is wasted, is central to the vegetarian menus here. The kitchen grows its own fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers; and the restaurant also has its own forager. Other ingredients are sourced from small artisanal producers or bought from the Rungis market in France. Organic breads are baked fresh every day using traditional methods. Did we say idyllic?
Thankfully the Modern British food (with some Asian influences) is not overwhelmed by the setting. There are several menus, including a multi-course vegetarian tasting menu for £60 with optional wine or beer matching flights, but we chose from the vegetarian a la carte. Dishes are gorgeously presented on distinctive pottery commissioned from local potters (of course). To start, mellow, tender roasted salsify is paired with slightly smoky-tasting violet artichokes — an elegant symphony of flavours given a kick by the pepperiness of Dorset-grown wasabi and the warming notes of candied ginger. Next, douglas fir-baked jerusalem artichoke with roscoff onion and comice pear turns out, unexpectedly, to be a pasta dish. The silky cushions of pasta are so light and ethereal it’s like eating clouds; and little cubes of sweet pear work surprisingly well. The kitchen uses salt and sugar judiciously, so the balance of flavours is achieved through fruit, herbs and other natural ingredients.
We also love fluffy pillows of semolina gnocchi contrasted with the flamboyant colours and delicate earthiness of green courgettes and orange-yellow chanterelles. Salt-baked beetroot is more robust, perfectly offset by the crunch and bite of toasted hazelnuts. To finish, pineapple and brown butter financier, a soft, moist freshly baked cake with a tropical tang, is served with ‘cardamom sorbet’ (delicious though it is, we’re pretty sure it’s coconut). What makes it sing is the accompanying damson-coloured ‘cardamom jam’, laced with the intriguing floral intensity of the spice. Aromatic passion fruit and whisky sour sorbet is another tropical, tangy delight, and a light, refreshing end to the meal.
The cooking here is both ingredient-led and technique-driven — a rare combination in the capital’s vegetarian menus. Skilfully rendered, finely-tuned recipes are the starting point, not random items assembled together as is the case in many hipster restaurants. There’s no gimmicky or show-offy razzmatazz here, just technically precise cooking. The drinks list is serious too, with a few organic, biodynamic and English wines (it would be a bonus if restaurants started marking them as suitable for vegetarians); plus beers and spirits. Foraged herbs and fruit grown in their garden find their way into some of the cocktails.
We were assured that great care is taken to keep the veggie dishes free from meat stock and cheeses made from traditional rennet, and we found this to be generally the case as they even distinguish between vegetarian desserts and ones containing gelatine. However, we spotted comté on their Christmas menu afterwards — it’s an AOC-protected cheese made to a strict recipe that uses non-vegetarian rennet: surely an oversight. We paid around £55 each for a three-course meal with wines by the glass, cocktails, a bottle of water and service — but it’s possible to eat here for much less.
Service from smartly-uniformed staff — an all-female team on our visit — is well-choreographed and on the ball. However, a sense of a hushed reverence permeates the restaurant: the awe-inspiring setting, the out-of-the-way location and the question ‘are you celebrating anything?’ at the time of booking gives it the feel of a ‘special occasions-only’ venue. Perhaps the bar area and the room with the piano could be opened up to encourage more casual and spontaneous drinking and dining from the well-heeled locals, which would help create more of a buzz. But the Dysart Petersham is certainly worth crossing the town for. So, yes, get your glad rags on, wear your sparkly heels and raise a glass by all means — but don’t just leave it for a celebration.
The Dysart Petersham, 135 Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AA. Tel: 020 8940 8005.
Images kindly supplied by the restaurant. We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drinks and service.
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Previously in this series
Last Updated 07 December 2014